In the continuation of our Legendary Moments series we talk to two protagonists from different sides of the same match.
Reena Khokhar and Lauren Moyer represented India and the USA respectively in the 2019 Olympic Qualifiers in Delhi. Both teams needed to win the double header match to secure their place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. At the end of the first match it looked like a sure fire passage to Tokyo for India as the home side took a 5-1 lead.
However, the USA team knew they were only half-way through the fixture and, in sport, anything can happen. With 48 minutes of the second match played, they had clawed back the deficit with a sparkling and energetic performance that had taken them to 4-0, meaning the teams were level at this point.
Just 60 seconds later and USA hearts were broken and the Indian players were jubilant as India’s captain Rani scored the decisive goal that would see her team win the contest 6-5 and hence qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
With the Games now less than 100 days away, FIH spoke to Lauren Moyer and Reena Khokhar to get their respective opinions on that epic match and how it has shaped them for the future.
“That match was an absolute roller-coaster,” says Moyer. “The highest of highs and the most unspeakable low of lows.”
She explained how, in the months leading up to the match, she, her team mates and the coaching staff had been meticulous in their preparations.
“We had talked through almost every situation in preparation for the Olympic Qualifier, so we knew what we needed from each other heading into a deficit. It wasn’t in the plan to be down that number of goals but we re-grouped and briefed for the game.
“We collectively understood that we had to start climbing this mountain one moment and one goal at a time. There was nothing to lose. That mentality allowed us to just play. Staying in the present was key. Looking forward or looking back would have been destructive.”
As the first half of the match unfolded, the USA started scoring goals. By half-time they were 4-0 up and the momentum was coursing through the team.
“There was a wave of energy within the team,” says Moyer. “That was the team that should have showed up for the first minute of the first game. It was a unique and unifying moment to be a part of.”
Half-time couldn’t come quickly enough for India and the break in play gave the home side a chance to regroup. As she has done so many times, India’s captain Rani seized the initiative and smashed the ball past the USA defence to give her team a much needed goal and a respite from the USA onslaught.
“Credit to Rani, what a finish,” says Moyer. “But even after she scored, we still believed that we could go on to score and draw, then win the game. The reality and the unbelievable low didn’t hit until the final whistle. The other team and the stadium full of people were celebrating the very thing that we had wanted so badly. The atmosphere among the team was just one of numbness.
“For months afterwards I tried to pretend that game hadn’t happened. I couldn’t talk about it. Finally I decided I needed to move on and use it for the future. I look back on that game and the other things I had been a part of – the Pan Am Games, the World Cup in London – I believe all those events had built up to that Olympic Qualifier.
“Lock-down gave me a chance to reflect on how I could have been a better team mate, a better player. Every minute detail of me as a person and a player. I used that experience to grow and heal and come back to the national team revamped and refreshed. I know that I will step back on the pitch as a better player and a better person.”
For Reena Khokhar, her memories of the two matches are almost a mirror reflection of Moyer’s recollections. For the home team, the opening match was where they hit their stride and Khokhar says the first game of the double header saw India playing some of the best hockey they had played as a group.
“We hadn’t played in India in an international match for a long time and the expectations from within the team, but also among the crowd, was very high. We played the first match very well – with a lot of aggression and momentum – but we were very aware however that we were only half way there. We had seen other teams in other matches take a strong lead in the first match and end up losing. So we were prepared for that. We thought of the second match as being back to 0-0.”
Even with this resolute mindset, India were rocked by the turnaround from the USA team. Suddenly, the home side were on the back foot and USA were the side with the momentum and aggression in their play.
“The USA played very well in the second match. We couldn’t quite understand it because we felt as if we were playing our best as well. I think the match was so important that we started almost trying too hard. Everyone was trying to do their job and almost over-thinking it. We were trying but nothing was happening.
“At half-time the coach was very calm. He said: ‘there are still 30 minutes, you can do anything you want to.’ We started anew, with the aggression and excitement that we had in the first game. The coach must take a lot of credit for the way we played in the second half. He instilled a lot of belief back into us when we needed it most.’
And, as the final results show, it was India who found the resolve to score the winning goal and secure their place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
With a huge smile on her face, Khokhar says: “When Rani scored, it was the best moment. In fact, for many of us, it was the best moment we have had on a hockey pitch so far.”
Watch the full interviews with