India's Rio 2016 Dreams: Devinder Walmiki, the Hockey Trump Card
When Yuvraj missed the 2012 London Olympics due to injury, gloom descended upon the Walmiki household that always wanted its two sons – Devinder being the other – wear India colours on the field of hockey.
On July 12, at the announcement of Devinder's name in the squad for Rio Olympics, a tear must have rolled down the cheek of Yuvraj, who will now see himself in his younger brother wearing heart on sleeve for the nation at the biggest stage for any athlete.
Life has come full circle for Devinder whose flourishing career was once forced into wilderness for participating in the unsanctioned World Series Hockey (WSH). But the moment he struck a goal on debut for the senior team in Belgium last year, the junior Walmiki was on his way.
His team-mates at the club he played for in Germany called him 'Miki', but he prefers sticking to Walmiki, for he wants people to know that he is the younger brother of Yuvraj Walmiki.
Since the 2015 Hockey World League semi-finals in Antwerp, Devinder has cemented his place as an attacking midfielder, who creates space out of nowhere with his exceptional off-the-ball running.
In a team that rests largely on the shoulders of skipper PR Sreejesh (goalkeeper), VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh in defence; Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh in the midfield; and vice-captain SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh in attack, Devinder could well be the trump card up the sleeve of coach Roelant Oltmans.
Devinder and drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh are two players who have come up the ranks over the 12 months and have earned a place in the Olympics squad on the weight of their skill and performance. And like others on the flight to Rio, their confidence has also sky-rocketed after India's historic silver medal at the Champions Trophy last month.
Fine-tuning his preps in Bengaluru before the teams flies to Rio via Spain, Devinder told News18 that the ecstasy over selection has sunk in and he is now fully focused on oiling himself for the Rio extravaganza.
At last, a Walmiki will represent India at the Olympics. How big a relief is that?
Yes. This is the greatest moment of my life as after 14 years one boy from the Walmiki family will represent India at the Olympics. Everyone back home is very excited and happy. I know they will be waiting to watch the matches that begin on August 6.
For sure, Yuvraj was the first person you spoke to after getting selected. What did he have to say?
When the team was officially announced, the first call I made was to my brother, Yuvraj. When I gave him the good news, he was very happy and proud of me. It was his dream that I fulfilled. He had missed out on representing the nation in the London Olympics 2012. All he desired was to see me in the team. I had made a promise to him that I will get selected and this was the best gift I could ever give to my brother.
Is Yuvraj your critic as well?
Yuvraj has been my mentor from day one, ever since I started playing hockey. It is because of him only that I picked up hockey as a career. When I got into the junior camp or even the senior camp, we would always discuss my performance, areas of improvement. Though he played the role of a critic well, he always made sure I took any negative comments in my stride. His guidance has taken me a long way and has always helped me better my game.
You are the only Mumbai player in the squad. What has been the reaction back home?
It is a big event and a huge feat. It's a dream come true. It's not just people from Mumbai who are wishing me but supporters of hockey from across the globe are sending me messages on social media. It’s very encouraging to know we have garnered this kind of support.
My friends and family always supported me. They kept me going. I was very disappointed and dejected when I missed the 2013 Junior World Cup. I was very sad. I didn’t think I would have a future in hockey, but my family kept me motivated and always said the opportunity will come. I will never forget the line they often said to me -
"Be a fighter, not a loser. With this attitude, you can always achieve." Now that I am in the team, I feel really proud to be rubbing shoulders with some of the senior players I once looked up to.
What is your biggest strength on the hockey field? Jagbir Singh once said that Devinder's off-the-ball running is superb and he could be India's surprise weapon in Rio.
(Smiles) I should thank him for that. If I keep my cool and stay calm on the field, I can surprise anyone. When I get the opportunity, I can score. I think that is my biggest strength.
Many past Olympians have considered first appearance at the Olympics as the toughest, because the stage is much bigger than what a debutant expects. How do you plan to approach this challenge?
I think it’s their perception. For me, there is no pressure. I motivate myself all the time. I tell myself - I can do it. Pressure in big games is always there, but I enjoy that pressure. The coach and psychologist also say that we must enjoy the pressure on the field and not let it affect us negatively.
You have been part of the upswing in Indian hockey where we are now No. 5 in the world today. What according to you made this happen and what's needed to reach the top three?
The way we are going now, we are on the right track. We have worked step by step and the work is still in progress in all areas. The idea is to keep it simple and stay focused. The team has bonded over the years and that’s worked well for everyone.
When Sreejesh was captain in the Champions Trophy, he would always tell us, “Be free, be jovial, never think seniors or juniors. You can talk to me and joke with me.” Our team bonding is that strong. There are times mistakes happen on the field but they are always encouraging us. That’s how even we as juniors feel confident and take equal ownership of the overall game performance. These factors have resulted in us climbing up to No. 5 in FIH Rankings. It is a great achievement and I am sure we will escalate to higher rankings soon.
Let's end it on a routine note with the questions many must have already asked you. But let me put it this way: Is the team thinking of a medal in Rio?
I think the way we played in the FIH Champions Trophy, people have started believing in us and I think if we stick to the plans coach (Oltmans) has for us and manage to execute them, then we can do some wonders in Rio.