Having seen his mother toil hard to raise him, India’s men’s hockey captain Manpreet Singh faced challenges quite early in life and as he gears up for his third successive Olympic appearance, he is driven by the desire to make her sacrifices count more than ever.

An Olympic veteran at 29, Manpreet, along with champion boxer Mary Kom, will be India’s flag-bearer in the opening ceremony and faces the herculean task of leading the country to its first hockey medal in the Olympics in over four decades, starting July 23 in Tokyo.

“My mother is the biggest inspiration of my life. If she was not there I would be nothing. She is the motivation behind what I am today. I owe everything that I have earned in my career to her,” Manpreet told PTI in an interview talking about his inspiration.

Manpreet’s mother, Manjeet Kaur, had to take up odd jobs to support the family after his father was bogged down by mental health issues and had to give up his career. His father died in 2016 while Manpreet was competing in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

“My mother has seen a lot of hardships. She raised me single-handedly from childhood after my father developed mental problems,” he said.

He is already living a dream after his nomination as a flag bearer, becoming the first hockey player since his idol Pargat Singh (1996) to be given the honour.

“It’s a big privilege for me to have been given that honour. I am the sixth hockey player who has got this opportunity.

“Pargat Singh was the first hockey player from my village (Mithapur in Punjab) to get this opportunity in 1996. I consider myself lucky to have got this opportunity,” he said.

The ace midfielder knows that it won’t be easy to clinch the country’s ninth Olympic gold and first since the 1980 Moscow Games. But he believes a concerted team effort can achieve even the impossible.

“Our target is to finish on the podium and my target can’t be different from the team because hockey is a team game. I can’t achieve anything alone,” Manpreet said.

“But to achieve that we have to keep our focus intact. We need to give importance to every team, can’t underestimate any team.”

Barring the World Cup and an Olympics medal, Manpreet has almost every medal that is there to be won in his cupboard.

“Besides Olympics, World Cup trophy is missing as well as a gold in the Commonwealth Games. But our present focus right now is only on the Olympics. We need to take hard steps for that, no team is going to be easy in the Olympics,” he said.

World no 4 India are clubbed in Group A alongside current champions Argentina, mighty Australia, hosts Japan, New Zealand and Spain in the Olympics and Manpreet said a sound league campaign would be key to India’s success in Tokyo.

“...our focus is on every single match. If we perform well in every single match results will definitely come our way. So we need to focus on our basics. League stage will be very important,” he said.

“We have worked a lot on our attack, penalty corners because the coach was of the feeling that we create a lot of chances inside the box but don’t get the desired outcome.

“We have the best drag-flickers in the world and the need of the hour is to use them as much as possible,” he added referring to the trio of Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Amit Rohidas.

Manpreet had battled Covid-19 along with four other players after returning to the national camp in Bengaluru from a short break last year. It was a tough phase for him.

“Yes, it was little difficult when I got Covid-19 along with four other players but I would like to give special thanks to Sports Authority of India, Sports Ministry and Hockey India for taking good care of us when we were in hospital,” he recalled.

In view of the surging Covid-19 case, the Tokyo Olympics will be held under a state of emergency with strict health safety protocols without any fans.

“We don’t know what sort of protocols and rules will be there in Tokyo. But if we speak about our group, we have been following the same Covid-19 protocols for the last one-and-half years,” Manpreet said.

“We are not meeting any people other than the group. We are straight going to our rooms from the ground. So I don’t think we will have too many issues in following the rules in Tokyo.”

The Indian hockey teams will leave for Tokyo on July 17 along with the first batch of Indian contingent.