Janneke Schopmann stood there, collecting herself for a moment, eyes welling up. In front of her were scenes of chaotic celebration.
Savita Punia, quiet undemonstrative Savita Punia, was unleashing scream after scream. Most of her teammates were rushing towards her, screaming equally loudly, half dancing, half jumping, entirely unsure of how to handle all this emotion.
A few players, Gurjit Kaur included, made their way to where Schopmann stood, away from the spotlight. Bear hugs and a few seconds of deep, one-on-one conversation followed. Soon, though, Schopmann was dragged into the middle of the pitch before being bodily lifted and thrown into the air in celebration, American-sport style. Her tears had made way for loud laughter.
India had just won Commonwealth Games bronze, and coach and players and everyone else associated with the team just didn't know what to do with themselves. They took a victory lap to soak in the applause of an appreciative audience. They danced impromptu to the bhangra beat the DJ obligingly laid down. Some took selfies, others just collapsed into hugs and tears and laughter. Some yelled victory chants, others just yelled wordlessly into the bright morning sun.
The bronze had come, as most good things have for this team, the hard way. A match almost completely dominated by India, a match in which they led for thirty minutes and had held it till the last thirty seconds. "It's what we are used to," Schopmann would grin afterwards. "We do it the hard way."
As Savita spoke to media in the mixed zone, the party had already started in the dressing rooms behind where we stood. 'Suno gaur se duniyawalo' blared from a speaker, the 'Hindustani' in 'sabse aage honge Hindustani' cried out by twenty-odd voices.
Savita spoke clearly, about the emotion of the amount, about what this meant to her and to her team, about how this medal was not the colour they had wanted but how it was still a reward for all the hard work they had put in. As she spoke, though, still clad in the full heavy gear of the goalkeeper, you could sense she was just being professional about it. She stood there talking, shifting weight from one leg to the other, continuously peeking over our shoulders. You see, what she really wanted to do was join that chorus yelling out 'Hindustani' and who could blame her.
#WeAreTeamIndia & we have won Bronze in the ������ #CommonwealthGames22 We're so grateful to all the support you've shown us��������. It's not just a medal for us. It's an inspiration to the future of India.We are honoured to be recognized for our performance & commitment. pic.twitter.com/wJfhk6G8iD
- Savita Punia (@savitahockey) August 7, 2022
Two days ago, she had stood at the very spot, heartbroken. That had been a shootout too, in the semifinal against Australia. She had saved the first attempt, only for a retake to be controversially ordered. She had then proceeded to concede that and the next two. She had been angry and sad and frustrated.
Today was redemption. She had saved three out of the five penalties, and crowded out a fourth so well that she'd forced it wide. It was an incredible goalkeeping display, and this was a match won almost solely thanks to her expertise. Pride and happiness replaced the agony.
She spoke happily about how the mood of the dressing room had changed ever since Schopmann had first entered the national team setup, the emphasis as much on enjoying themselves as it is on working hard. As soon as the media work was done, she sprinted away - waddled very fast actually, with those massive pads around her legs - to join in with the party.
Coach Schopmann came last, allowing her players the spotlight, allowing them time to celebrate amongst themselves... just as she had on the field. "This isn't about me... it's about them," she said. About how hard they have struggled in the time
"I've never really cried before after a win," she said. She's been in nine semifinals as a player, winning all nine, going on to win 4 of the finals: an Olympics, a World Cup and two European championships. "Everyone was always crying, but I was never crying... but you know what, we've come a long way. That's what these emotions were about. We [get] so close every time, and it's so hard for the girls to pick themselves up again, to be positive again, to fight again. And when [New Zealand] scored I was like..."
One more loss might have been too much for even this bunch of fighters. The tears of Schopmann and the yells of the others was as much relief as it was sheer joy. "They finally got rewarded," she said. "They deserve it."
"I know we are doing a lot of things right. The outcome is not always there... but for [the players] it's so important. They deserve a medal, something tangible. As a player when you fight so hard, you want a medal."
Now, they have it. As Schopmann walked away, you could sense a weight had been lifted. She looked drained, exhausted but properly happy. Properly proud. Over the past year they've finished fourth in the Olympics and ninth in the World Cup. Now, bronze in the Commonwealth Games. A medal that signals to the wider world that they're very much here to stay.... Their choice of music telling the message they want to convey to everyone else: 'sabse aage honge Hindustani'