The atmosphere at home was not what she had expected. Udita Duhan had been working hard to excel at her hockey education in the junior national camp, hoping to find a breakthrough into the senior team. She made the trip back home to Hisar, Haryana, once the camp ended, but the then 16-year-old was welcomed by the echoes of a sad lament and the air of mourning.

That’s when she was informed that her father had passed away two weeks earlier. The news had been kept away from her to allow her the mental space to concentrate on the sport. Yet in that moment of sorrow was birthed a fierce determination.

“I did have dreams of playing for the Indian team, but I really made inroads and followed the passion in 2016, when my father died,” she told Scroll.

“That was when it became my aim, for myself and for my family.”

A year later she made her senior team debut, and never relinquish her spot in the squad. Now 25, Duhan is among the first names on the teamsheet for the senior India women’s hockey team. She was a part of the squad that finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, won bronze at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, won the 2022 FIH Nations Cup and is part of the 20-member group that will tour Australia later this month for a five-match series.

“I feel proud. The situation through what I’ve come out of and where I’ve reached, it feels good that the hard work has been rewarded,” she said, looking back at her journey.

A defensive dynamo, she’s as pacy as she is reliable in getting in crucial interceptions and important tackles. But the stalwart, with 78 international caps and five goals to her name had to make a great deal of adjustments to her game to fit into the squad. So much so that she had to transform from forward to defender after a major injury in 2019.

“I had a meniscus issue and then a posterior cruciate ligament tear, which took me six months to recover from,” she explained.

“Once I came back though, the coaches thought it’ll be better if I move into defence. The positioning was a bit of a problem because I’m an aggressive player. But it also helped me because, when I’m facing an opposition striker, I think, ‘what would I have done.’ That helps me anticipate their moves.

“Of course, I used to forget that I was a defender at times and run up the pitch to attack. I used to get into trouble a lot during training.”

Duhan has popped in with goals for India from time to time, none more important than the one she scored in the Nations Cup semi-final against Ireland to haul India back in the match. India won the subsequent shoot-out and then beat Spain in the final to book their place in the 2023-24 FIH Pro League.

Duhan has played 78 times for the national team so far, scoring five goals (Image courtesy: Hockey India)

That, however, wasn’t the only adjustment she had to make in her sports career.

Duhan, who hails from Nangal village in Bhiwani, a district in Haryana, started off by playing handball – a sport her father, an assistant sub-inspector in the police, played. But after the handball coach stopped coming in for training, Duhan, then 10, decided to take up the sport that was being played in a ground adjoining the handball pitch.

“The handball coach didn’t show up for three days, and we’d just be there doing our own practice and that’s it. We’d watch the hockey players running around and then I finally told my mother I wanted to switch,” she recalled.

“My mother spoke to the coach, and he said that he’s seen me running and was already impressed. That’s how it all started.”

Hockey turned out to be rather demanding in terms of discipline. Practice was scheduled for early morning every day, and it wasn’t a smooth transition for the pre-teen.

“My father said that I can do what I wanted to do, but make sure I do it well. No kaamchori (shirking work),” she added.

“But it was a struggle to get me to wake up. Both my parents used to help me. Pehle pyaar se karte the, phir daant padti thi (first they’d do it nicely, then I’d get scolded).”

The skill and talent developed, as she got selected to train at the Sports Authority of India campus in Hisar, from where she was selected for the junior national camp. And then, once she made it to the senior squad, there was no looking back.

Her time in the squad has coincided with the team’s overall rise to the upper echelons of the sport. She recalled the time when people would be surprised that there even was an Indian women’s team. And it coupled with the undeserved backlash most women athletes in the country face.

“There was that whole mentality that girls should not be playing, and that the girls are wearing skirts and playing. Those noises used to come from outside but my father didn’t let it get to me,” she said.

“Now of course when I do go back home, the neighbours and all keep saying they’re proud that they’re our neighbours. Itna bada player humare beech main reh rahi hai (such a big player is staying in our neighbourhood).”

Internationally too, the Indian team has earned respect, and become a feared opponent.

“Now we find that the big European teams who earlier didn’t want to play against us, now they want to. Now they don’t underestimate us,” she added.

Her journey has been long, courageous, and even glamourous. Shortly after the Olympic success, she was invited to walk the ramp at a fashion show.

“I was a bit curious to know what it feels like and wanted to do it once. It felt nice, but it was tough. You’re there the whole day, if something is not right you keep doing it. Usko dekh ke laga hockey easy hai,” she added, lightly.

She’s looking ahead now, as the Asian Games – and the berth at the 2024 Olympics that comes with the gold – approach. But she revealed that she sometimes does look back and think of that one feeling of unfulfillment.

“My father didn’t get to see where I am now,” she said.

“When I had gone home (in 2016) and got the news, I didn’t know what hit me. I went numb. But my mother said not to think that there is no father. Main pappa aur mummy, dono ka role se support karoongi (I will support you as a mother and father) And she has.”

It remains a silent shard of regret in what has been an otherwise stellar career. With more accolades yet to come.