Preeti remembers the emotions from April 12, 2022 well.

It was a day of near misses and heartbreak. It was the day India came within two minutes of winning the bronze medal at the 2022 FIH Junior Women’s World Cup in South Africa, only to lose to England in the penalty shootout.

Preeti, one of the youngest players in that Indian squad spent most of her time watching from the sidelines. She watched as her teammates punched above their weight to beat eventual runners-up Germany in the group stage, only for the team to lose a spot on the podium in the cruellest of manners only sport can bring.

Now, 19 months on, Preeti is the captain of the Indian junior team that has travelled to Chile to compete in the 2023 edition of the tournament, aiming to win a first-ever gold medal for the country at the event.

Yet those wounds from that fateful day in Potcheftsroom are still fresh in the 20-year-old’s mind.

“We were disappointed to lose a match that we had all but won,” Preeti lamented during a conversation with Scroll, ahead of the team’s departure to Santiago.

“I was the junior-most player then and did not play a lot of matches. But I got to learn a lot from the sidelines. We lost our concentration for five-six seconds and conceded late in that bronze medal match. I have been telling the team that we cannot afford to take it easy even for a second until the last whistle goes.”

And it was the lessons from Potchefstroom that helped Preeti lead India to their first Women’s Junior Asia Cup title earlier this year, in Japan.

In the final against a strong South Korean side, India went into the fourth quarter with a slender 2-1 lead. South Korea, two-time junior World Cup winners and record four-time junior Asian Cup winners, threw the kitchen sink but the Indian defence, marshaled by Preeti, barely gave anything away.

When the full-time whistle blew in Kakamigahara, Preeti had captained a team that had also booked their place in the Junior World Cup.

Her achievements become pronounced if you take into consideration that just six years ago, Preeti feared if she would even be able to walk again without help, let alone play hockey.

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Hailing from Sonipat in Haryana, Preeti began playing hockey as a means to spend some time with her friends. Her grandmother would often admonish Preeti’s mother for letting her daughter stay out of the house for too long.

“My friends from school would go to play hockey at Pritam Siwach’s academy,” Preeti said. “I didn’t have much knowledge of the sport. I didn’t know there were national and international tournaments. My mom would not allow me to go out that much but I knew that through hockey I could go out and be with my friends and play with them.”

What started as a game she would play with friends became an object of her desire the more she played at the former India captain’s academy.

Siwach, a Commonwealth Games gold medal winner, started her academy in Sonipat with the ambition to make the journey of several aspiring hockey players smoother compared to what she had faced. Since then, many of her wards have gone on to play for India at junior and senior levels.

Preeti nearly did not make that list after suffering an ankle injury in 2016, one which nearly threatened to end her budding career.

“It was a common injury that you see on the hockey field,” said Siwach. “While playing, she took a blow to her ankle from another’s player’s stick during practice. We did not have the right medical resources then to properly assess the damage. If we knew how serious the injury was, we could have done things better.”

What was a common injury soon spiralled into something more sinister.

“I had a plaster on, but because of the heat, my foot began to go bad and my injury did not heal properly,” Preeti explained. “I had to then get surgery and the doctor said that I wouldn’t be able to play hockey again because even my bone had begun to go bad. There was also a risk of amputation.”

Eventually, her foot was rescued by the metal rod that had to be surgically inserted into the effected area. But for months, Preeti said, she would wonder if she would be able to play again.

Siwach helped her student not lose hope. Apart from helping out with expenses for the operation, the former India captain spoke with Preeti’s family and asked them not to let Preeti’s dreams end prematurely.

Perhaps Preeti’s biggest challenge during her rehabilitation was facing her grandparents’ regular taunts. They never really understood why their granddaughter would play a sport instead of focusing on her studies like her brother. Getting seriously hurt only reinforced their belief that sport was not meant for her.

But instead of throwing cold water on her dreams, her grandparents’ constant chiding fuelled her anger and sparked something inside her.

“I am of the belief that had they not been harsh back then, then I would not have been here now,” she said.

“When some people don’t speak well of you, it fires you up like nothing [else would]. I always thank them because they made me angry and fired me up. Now they are proud of their granddaughter who goes to other countries to play for India. They have remorse for what they said back then but I have no ill feelings towards them. If not for them, maybe I wouldn’t be here now.”

Here, for Preeti, is leading India to potentially their first Women’s Junior Hockey World Cup title.

From Sonipat to Santiago. And beyond.