The prodigal returns: Preeti makes Indian team after seven years | Hockey - Hindustan Times
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The prodigal returns: Preeti makes Indian team after seven years

May 02, 2024 07:54 PM IST

Preeti represented India at the Rio Olympics but a loss of form saw her lose her spot in the team in 2017 and it took her a long time to find herself again

In 2016, Preeti Dubey's name was spoken with a fair bit of hope. She was quick, had good stick skills, was adept at creating scoring opportunities and would thump in the odd goal too. Most important perhaps was her age. She was just 17. One for the future, they said.

India's Preeti Dubey in action PREMIUM
India's Preeti Dubey in action

Having debuted for the Indian women’s hockey team in November 2015, she made it to the Rio Olympics nine months later – the youngest and most inexperienced member of the outfit.

Former India chief coach Neil Hawgood, who helped India qualify for their first Olympics in 36 years, still remembers her vividly.

“She was an athlete who had a big aerobic engine and had the speed to become a good player," said Hawgood. "We saw a bright future for her. Rio 2016 was to expose her to Olympics so that hopefully she’d play in a couple (more)."

It all made sense, until it didn't. The teen prodigy suffered from a sudden loss of form, her performances deteriorated which led to her first being dropped from the team and then the national camp in 2017. As new players started emerging, it seemed like Preeti had been lost to Indian hockey forever.

“I'm not sure what happened to her, but I rated her as a great team player,” said Hawgood.

She wouldn't have been the first talent to fade away just when it seemed like she would rise up and take over. And it wouldn't have surprised anyone. But this isn't a story of failure; rather it is one of persevering and finding redemption.

The tough stretch

Being dropped from the team took a toll on Preeti.

"I was young and didn't understand what or how everything happened,” said Preeti. “I got selected for the junior national team quickly, I captained it and within a year I got selected for the senior team. I played in the Olympics too, achieving all this at such a young age. I got what I wanted but losing my spot was unexpected.”

Out of the camp, Preeti headed home to Gorakhpur where her family found that the 'naughtiest' child of the house had retreated into a shell. It took a while but Preeti realised that only her family, especially father Awadhesh, would understand what she was going through.

“I didn’t seek the help of any therapist. Back then, I didn’t understand how to work on myself. I realised only my family could help me," said Preeti.

Preeti Dubey
Preeti Dubey

Preeti, now 25, spent hours having daily conversations with her father during her nearly year-long stay at home, who motivated her, giving examples of several sportspersons who returned to the top after a low phase. “To improve my mental strength I started reading, learning and watching videos of inspirational figures, especially MS Dhoni. His story, his struggles really inspired me," said Preeti.

After counselling her daughter for months, Awadhesh told Preeti to either leave hockey altogether or not lose hope and restart her fight to make the Indian team again. "My family helped me come out of depression. They knew I wouldn’t be at peace without hockey, so they made me return to the sport,” adds Preeti, who earned 44 India caps from 2015 to 2017.

The path back started when she got employment with Railways in 2018 and returned to senior national hockey 2019. To begin with, she shifted to Mumbai, out of her comfort zone with the primary aim of regaining her fitness.

But shortly after when the Covid-19 lockdown set in and offices were shut, she returned home to Gorakhpur. Devoid of options, Preeti started playing with local kids but also focussed on fitness.

The MP years

Being a national level player has its perks, chief among them is the 330 days of leave from the employer to play hockey at the national level or be part of an academy. Since Preeti wasn’t playing at the national level, she decided to make another sacrifice of going on leave without pay to fulfill her dream.

The 25-year-old headed to Gwalior’s MP Women’s Hockey Academy to train under childhood coach Paramjit Singh Brar. It took a while but she regained her speed, agility and strategic insight while playing state level tournaments that, in turn, got her selected for Madhya Pradesh. And 2023 turned out to be the year when she finally found her best form.

Preeti guided MP to the national title in Kakinada where she was also the highest scorer with 18 goals. In Goa, Preeti was in sensational form again as MP beat a Rani Rampal-led Haryana in the final to clinch the National Games gold for the first time. In the Inter-Departmental Nationals here, Preeti helped Railways secure a runners-up spot.

She continued her run of form in 2024, guiding MP to the semis of the Nationals as she regularly ended tournaments as one of the highest scorers, thus emerging as a top contender for the national camp.

“After I decided not to quit, I meticulously planned my comeback. It was a step-by-step process. I gave myself a target of playing till 2028 with my first focus on fitness. Then I went on leave without pay to play, went back to Gwalior to focus on my game. Like old times, I started watching videos, analysing matches and my moves. All my coaches supported me a lot during this period,” said Preeti.

Witnessing Preeti’s brilliant run of form and goal-scoring ability, the national selectors first selected her for a 60-member assessment squad for the women’s national coaching camp which was further spruced to the final 33 core probables. Preeti’s sacrifices finally bore fruit as she was named in the squad of 24 on Thursday that will head to Europe this month for the Pro League.

"The seven years were a struggle but I never gave up. I realised to get noticed doing that extra bit wouldn’t help. I needed to do something different. Paramjit sir told me as a striker I needed to score big time and more than others to get selected which I did," added Preeti.

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