Will he be able to make a comeback? Will he able to regain the fitness he had before? Will he be able to ever walk again? There were a ton of questions surrounding the return of Sandeep Singh in 2006 after a tragedy that turned his world upside down and nearly ended his hockey career.
It happened on the morning of August 22, 2006 when he was on his way to join the Indian national team in Delhi ahead of their departure to Monchengladbach, Germany for the FIH Hockey World Cup in a matter of few days.
The then 20-year-old Sandeep was travelling on the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express with another India teammate, Rajpal Singh when a bullet pierced through his lower back.
Not only were his dreams of making an appearance at the World Cup shattered but the incident also cast doubts on his future. It meant a long-term absence from the hockey field as he was paralysed and bed-ridden for months.
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Doctors had even suggested Sandeep that he would never be able to walk again, let alone play hockey. As a youngster who was tipped to scale greater heights, Sandeep was heartbroken. All he would constantly think about was getting back on the field with a hockey stick in his hand but he was confined to his bed.
The struggle was not only from a physical point of view as Sandeep had to also battle periods of loneliness and negative thoughts that crept into his mind.
But his unrelenting passion for the game, determination and never-say-die attitude helped Sandeep make a stunning return to the hockey field where he would go on to achieve success again. Defying the odds, his comeback was a true testament of the triumph of the human spirit.
Sandeep’s journey to the hockey field
Sandeep was not attracted to hockey at first, but the kits and shoes owned by his brother Bikramjeet Singh made him envious. He soon took up the sport after his parents assured him that they would offer to pay for his hockey gear.
“Sandeep was so fascinated by Bikram’s sports gear that he too wanted to play hockey,” his mother Daljit Kaur Singh said. “Once he told me, ‘Ma, even I want them.’ I said you get them only if you play the game.”
After playing for domestic teams at the youth level, Singh made his first appearance for the Indian team in 2003 after he was selected for the Junior World Cup to be held in Karachi. The drag-flicker stole the limelight, scoring 12 goals, the highest in the tournament as he led India to the trophy for the first time in history.
The Shahadabad-born player’s performances soon caught the eye of national team selectors as Sandeep made his senior debut at the 2004 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, becoming the youngest Indian player to play for the senior side. Later that year, he was part of the Indian squad for the 2004 Athens Olympics, becoming the youngest field hockey player represent his country in the history of the quadrennial event.
A bullet that changed his life
Named ‘Flicker Singh’ for his clinical ability to score through drag-flicks, Sandeep established himself a crucial cog of the Indian team at the age of 20. The youngster was looking to make a name for himself at the 2006 Hockey World Cup before the tragic incident occurred at the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express.
That Tuesday morning, Sandeep had boarded the train from Chandigarh at 8.30 am which was scheduled to reach Delhi at 10 am. Armed guards are usually present on the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express as a number of VIPs, politicians, governors and many others frequently travel by train.
Sandeep was seated in the C-10 coach of the Express train, and a Railway Protection Force officer, sitting right behind him was cleaning his rifle before he accidentally pulled off the trigger and shot the hockey player. The RPF officer was later arrested and even suspended from his post but as Sandeep was accidentally shot, the train was forced to halt at Kurukshetra. Officials soon rushed him to a nearby civil hospital.
When Sandeep gained consciousness after being in a coma for days, he found himself at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh where he was transferred to from the Kurukshetra civil hospital.
Such was the impact of the bullet that it had not only fractured the hockey player’s spine but also caused damage to other organs including the kidney, liver and stomach – which had seen him lose 40% of his body weight.
Recalling the tragic incident, Sandeep said: “I suddenly heard a noise. It was like a bomb blast and it felt as if a hot iron rod was put inside my body and the next thing I remember is blood split everywhere around me and I was paralysed on the spot.”
When doctors told him that he might have to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Sandeep refused to believe it. In his mind, all he wanted to do was play hockey again.
“I asked the doctor to leave my room as I didn’t want to be negative and immediately called my elder brother to bring my hockey stick. I just wanted to sleep with my hockey stick and was keen on making a comeback,” he said.
But what kept Sandeep going was the support from his brother Bikramjeet, who gave him a hockey stick while he was in the hospital and reminded him to stay determined and return back on the hockey field. The Indian Hockey Federation later sanctioned funds for his treatment so that he could travel to the Netherlands to complete his rehabilitation.
Sandeep underwent rigorous training for nine months before he could play hockey again. He even began training at night so that others might not watch him as he lived with the fear that he would fail again.
“I was in the wheelchair for six months and lost all hope of returning to the field. I thought my career was over but my brother kept on encouraging me. All that you need to do is to be resolute to return to the field, he said. These words turned out to be magical,” Singh said.
“Gradually, I started playing hockey with my brother’s help. I used to play the whole night and sleep the whole day because I didn’t want anyone, except my family members, to know about my desperation to come back to the field. I was always afraid that if I couldn’t make it, people would laugh at me.”
After being almost paralysed, Singh returned to play for India after two months. He made his comeback for the Indian team under coach AK Bansal during the 2008 Azlan Shah Cup. He emerged as the top scorer of the tournament with nine goals, helping India reach the finals after a 12-year hiatus.
Later that year, he was appointed captain of the side. A year after finishing as runners-up, Sandeep steered India to the title during the 2009 edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The India captain ended us as the Player of the Tournament after scoring six out of the 12 goals for his side.
However, his main aim as captain was leading the Indian team to the Olympics again after they had failed to qualify for the 2008 edition in Beijing. Sandeep did manage to achieve that and led from the front, emerging as one of the top scorers for India during the World Cup qualifying campaign, accounting for 16 out of the 44 goals that the country scored. He even scored five goals, all from penalty corners against France in the final of the qualifiers to seal their place at the 2012 Olympics.
Though India endured a disappointing campaign later on at the Olympics, finishing bottom of their group, there’s no denying the influence that Sandeep had in getting them there. Be it his battle against paralysis or regaining fitness to work his way into the team, Sandeep always believed.
The veteran drag-flicker is yet to formally announce his retirement as he been out of the reckoning for the national squad since 2014. But despite his long-term absence from the game, Sandeep’s story of grit and indomitable spirit remains a fine example of how even the toughest of adversities can be overcome if one has the will to do it.
Watch him speak about his journey here: