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Chak De Marijne: Coach of the year, coach in a generation

Sjoerd Marijne with the Indian team following their loss against Great Britain in the women's bronze medal match. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Over the course of a couple of hours on August 2, 2020, Sjoerd Marijne became a social media star in India.

One tweet posted at 2.46 pm that day - with more than 18000 retweets and 90000 likes-- was almost destined for 'virality'. It had him riffing on actor Shahrukh Khan and his character in the film Chak De! India. And, at this point, you'd have to be living under a rock if you were unfamiliar with the Indian women's hockey team, who were in the midst of making their own history.

Just a few hours before, India, who had barely managed to qualify for the Olympics, had pulled off a monumental upset in the quarter-final, beating three-time Olympic champions Australia. An upset win over Australia was a major plot point of Chak De!; to do so in real life on the biggest stage in sport was near unthinkable. Few would have expected it, not even team coach Marijne, who had originally planned to travel back home after the quarterfinal, expecting defeat.

As the players got into the team bus, Marijne took a selfie - one of the iconic images of India's campaign at the Tokyo Olympics - and posted it on Twitter. It captured the Indian women's team -- tired but exhilarated and right in front was Marijne, jaw agape at the improbability of it all. That tweet earned 23000 retweets and over 160000 likes and got the attention of Shahrukh. And left no doubt who was the 'real coach' behind this real-life fairytale story.

Marijne, who opened his Twitter account in 2010, has posted 4574 tweets to date. His Twitter handle gives a candid peek into not just his own journey but also that of the Indian team, which he first took charge of in February 2017. In contrast to the audience of hundreds of thousands his tweets from Tokyo received, his first tweet in India got a grand total of 0 retweets and likes.

So just how did Marijne manage to take a team of no hopers into delivering a highlight reel performance when it really mattered? It wasn't through a single peptalk or just an inspired spell at the Olympics. It was a task that was four years in the making.

There were no shortage of obstacles.

"We don't have tournaments in the country, no Pro League, no HIL, but we still did it," Marijne once summed up. The women's team wasn't even a priority for the federation, who moved Marijne to the men's team after a few months and eventually shunted him back. But even tougher was the fact that the Indian team, talented as it was, lacked ambition.

His first task was to instill a sense of self belief. "He trains us just like he would train a Dutch side. He hates us playing slow be it at a match or a training session and pushes us to challenge our limits," Indian captain Rani Rampal told ESPN in 2017. "More than anything else, he instills us with the belief that once we're out on the field, no team is beyond us," she said.

What Marijne did was give squad the tools that would allow them to bring good on their self-belief. Very early in his tenure, Marijne told tell ESPN that the Indian team needed work on the physical aspect of the game. "The importance of the physical factor is quite pronounced in international hockey. The team needs to learn that you are what you think you are. It will take time but I'm hopeful of a positive outcome."

Critically, Marijne would build a team that shared his vision - of an Indian side that believed they could go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world.

A key role was played by strength and conditioning expert Wayne Lombard who raised the fitness standards of an Indian squad who he had once mentioned were 18 percent lighter and 4 percent shorter than their western compatriots. Marijne's relentless focus on the improvement of the Indian team's strength and stamina would allow them to push higher rated teams to the limit when it mattered most. That knowledge that they wouldn't fade away built it's own confidence among the players. "Three year's ago our team was not at the same level it is now. We have come a long way in terms of our fitness and game awareness," Rampal told ESPN, ahead of the Olympic qualifiers against a highly rated USA team.

While they might have qualified for the Olympics, few would give the third lowest ranked side in the tournament much of a chance to qualify for the knockouts let alone compete for a medal.

Fate, though, would conspire to make the eventual fairytale even more challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in early 2020. Competitions would be cancelled, training curtailed. Four months before they were to begin, the Olympics would be postponed. Timelines would have to be recalibrated. But few realized the challenges that would need to be overcome. Multiple women's players were infected with the virus before recovering. Training in the bio bubble of the SAI Bangalore campus came with its own obstacles that often needed novel solutions.

After many months, India got the chance to play a tour in Argentina and although the team returned winless, there was a marked change in the attitude.

"In all matches, the score could have very well been the other way around and that means we are getting closer to the top of the world. There is a big difference in the attitude of our players now when playing a top side. In the past, our players went into these matches telling each other to keep the score difference as low as possible but now they are trying to go for a win and were really disappointed when they couldn't do so," Marijne told ESPN.

It was a new look Indian team that travelled to Tokyo and that was in more ways than one. While Marijne had changed the outlook of the team, a host of optimistic, confident youngsters who would become a part of the core group cut their teeth in his tenure. Lalremsiam, 21, i joined Rani in the forwardline in 2017, while Sharmila Devi, 17, made the grade in 2019. Sharmila was the one of two teenagers in the Olympic squad, along with the versatile and speedy Salima Tete.

Marijne' faith in the team would be tested as would the girls' own self belief following three straight losses in Tokyo. It would take a goal three minutes from time against Ireland and then a final quarter goal in the final quarter against South Africa for India to squeak through to the quarterfinal, last in their group.

At this stage, Marijne could have been more than satisfied with his squad's performance. By virtue of making the quarterfinals, the Indian women's hockey team had already made history. Far from having to fight for recognition, they were already front and center in the public imagination.

But they would not be done just yet.

Marijne's own tickets home that had already been booked would have to be cancelled as the team toppled the previously unbeaten Australians. An improbable underdog story was now looking incredibly plausible as India took the lead against Argentina in the semis before falling short.

In their final chance, against a Great Britain side they had been hammered by at the CWG three years earlier, they appeared spent, going down 2-0. Yet almost by sheer will, they turned the scoreline around, leading 3-2 at one stage. The dream though had gone as far as it could. Great Britain would find the equalizer and then the winner in the final quarter.

There were tears that followed but they should have been ones of pride in what the team had achieved. Under Marijne, they had gone from being no hopers - an afterthought almost for the federation - to one of the highlights of the Indian performance in Tokyo.

"I am proud of how close we were in matches against Great Britain and Argentina. It was not a walkover. The fighting in the last match, coming back it shows the new Indian women's team. They never gave up and it is something that has changed over the years. That's an effort of the girls and the whole staff," he'd say later. "You believe in yourself and that's where it starts. Then you have to work really hard, be disciplined in what you do or otherwise you are not achieving anything. And then it's about dealing with the pressure. The women's team does not always face that pressure. So we have come really far and that's what makes me proud in what we achieved," he'd say.

Having helmed the side to the end of their Olympic story, Marijne would write himself out of it, resigning shortly after the team returned home to India. It's uncertain whether Marijne will ever return in a coaching role in India. If he does though, he would have given himself the hardest act to follow.