Navjot Kaur casually fiddled with the Olympic rings pendant on her necklace during the virtual interview. It’s a small token she carries with her, a proud reminder of where she has been and what she has achieved. The 27-year-old was a part of the Indian women’s team that finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics last year – defying all odds and expectations.
In August this year she was robbed of a chance to be a part of the team that won silver at the Commonwealth Games after an untimely Covid-19 infection. But now the midfielder is back in the team that will compete at the FIH Nations Cup in Spain.
There is one specific memory from her childhood that she carries with her at all times. One that continues to push her, reminding her of her goals. It’s a memory she’s carried with her since she was 10.
“My father works at a garage in Kurukshetra, and he takes a train everyday from our home in Shahabad Markanda to get there,” she told Scroll.in during an interaction earlier this year.
“I’ve been to that garage only once, and I remember seeing him in his black jumpsuit, trying to hide stains from working under cars. He never wanted us to see him like that. And it struck me as well to see him like that. It gave me a target to help him. And through hockey I’ve managed to do that.”
Today, Navjot is a midfield mainstay in the Indian senior team. She’s a versatile midfielder who can jump back to defend and push up to attack when her team requires her to. She’s been a part of the women’s team that won bronze at the Junior Women’s World Cup in 2013, won a bronze and silver at the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games respectively, and was a part of the Rio Olympics team before the historic run in Tokyo. She’s done that over the 200-plus international caps she’s earned for her team – scoring 18 goals along the way.
All this from a player who, by her own admission, was once a “cry baby.”
“I was a very lazy child and I used to cry all the time. Pakka roondu,” she said, laughing as she recalled her early days. “Someone would just touch me, and I’d start crying. It would annoy my mother. I’d cry at the drop of a hat, and the funny thing is I ended up becoming a hockey player.”
It was her parents who pushed her into the sport, mainly because her father had the intention of making sure one of the children pursued a career in sport. As the eldest child, Navjot was the first to be sent to an academy near home.
The tough disciplinarian that was her coach Baldev Singh laid the foundation for Navjot being transformed from a ready-to-cry child to a hardy work-horse in the national team.
“The coach there is very strict. Mujhe bahut maar padti thi, punishment milta tha (I used to get beaten and punished quite a lot) whenever I’d make careless mistakes or not follow instructions properly,” she said.
“My younger brother also came to the academy, but he could last only two days. Usse bhi daant padti thi (he’d also get scolded). And then when my younger sister joined, she got bitten by a few mosquitoes and she left,” Navjot added, laughing at the thought.
Navjot though, stayed firm.
She explained how on the few occasions that she does manage to go home, her mother never fails to mention the irony.
“She keeps reminding me of how I was such a cry baby, and that she never thought I’d get this far in hockey, and then she’d get emotional. Baat shuru hota hai mujhe chedne se, par khatam isme hota hai ke maine unhe proud feel karvaya tha (talk starts with them teasing me, but ends with them saying how proud I make them feel),” she added.
Proud, but often nervous. She remembered hearing stories of how her parents refused to watch the matches at the Olympics because it was too nerve-wracking for them.
“They just turned off the television and started to pray and told someone to let them know what the final score was,” Navjot added.
There’s a chance they may voluntarily choose not to watch her play at the Nations Cup, when India plays their first match on December 11 against Chile. Their daughter will once again wear her favourite No 1 jersey – the same number worn by her idol, former Australian captain Jamie Dwyer.
That’s perhaps the only superstition she has.
“I was a big fan of Dwyer. I’m not sure how, I didn’t ask for it, but I was handed the No 1 jersey. It was a coincidence, but I took it happily,” Navjot added.
And she’ll wear it once again, with the customary matching nail paints – “I paint my nails based on the kit we’re wearing for a match, blue or white” – ready to charge up and down the field. With not a tear in sight.