Back from the brink, Reena Khokhar eyes spot in Tokyo Olympics squad

The midfielder is back from a career-threatening eye injury and is aiming to make the Tokyo cut.

Indian hockey women’s team midfielder Reena Khokhar would never have imagined that a routine workout could potentially end her sporting career.

“I was using a stretch-band to do some simple flexibility exercise when the band snapped and hit my left eye. It happened so quickly that I had no time to react,” Reena Khokhar told Hockey India.

To make matters worse, it happened in early 2019, a crucial year for the Indian hockey women’s team, as they were looking to qualify for their second-consecutive Games appearance at the Tokyo Olympics.

Reena Khokhar, who made her debut for the senior team in 2017, had slowly started to cement her place, even making it to the 2018 World Cup squad as a relatively inexperienced player.

Her surging run in the Asian Games semi-final against China sparked off several attacking waves from the Indian hockey women’s team and Gurjit Kaur’s winner eight minutes from full-time took them through to the final, where they eventually ended up with silver.

The freak injury and the subsequent diagnosis made her doubtful of regaining her career. "Initially the doctor has said it will heal soon but even after a month when the pain was persistent, the doctor then advised surgery to rule out permanent damage to the retina,” she revealed. “The news was devastating.”

Sjoerd Marijne’s belief

After undergoing surgery, Reena Khokhar was on bed rest for two months and was naturally not very confident when she returned to the national camp. This is where Indian hockey women’s team head coach Sjoerd Marijne stepped in.

The Dutch coach had always believed in the midfielder’s abilities and his support was how she had made it to the World Cup and Asian Games’ squads in the first place.

“Chief Coach Sjoerd Marijne would talk to me regularly to pep me up. He would tell me about a player in the Netherlands who played hockey with vision only in one eye,” explained Reena Khokhar.

“Positive stories like these and emotional support from my parents and some close friends outside of hockey kept me motivated.”

Her condition improved and she made it back to the Indian hockey women’s team in time to be considered for selection in the squad for the Olympic qualifiers, where the eves secured their passage through to the Tokyo Olympics.

Reena Khokhar underwent another corrective surgery in December last year and is now ready to go through the hard grind again. "I got a break in the Indian team quite late. I was around 24 when I made my India debut and do not have much experience at the junior level,” she stated.

“So, the next one year I will do everything I can do to prove myself worthy of a place in the Olympic-bound India squad.”

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