Indian women's hockey: Sixteen stories of struggle, one tale of triumph

The Indian women's hockey team made history by qualifying for their first Olympic semi-final - they lost to Great Britain in a nip and tuck battle on Friday. But the journey has not been an easy one, writes Deepti Patwardhan.

"What will she do playing hockey? She will run around the field wearing a short skirt and bring a bad name to your family," Rani Rampal's parents were told.

Vandana Katariya was discouraged to play hockey because it was "unbecoming of a girl". Neha Goyal, born to an alcoholic father prone to violence, sought solace in the hockey field.

Nisha Warsi's mother worked at a foam factory to keep food on the family's plate after her father suffered a paralytic attack in 2015. Nikki Pradhan, who hails from the tribal belt of Jharkhand, laboured in paddy fields and started playing hockey with borrowed, broken sticks on gravel playgrounds.

They tackled the odds, ignored the naysayers and silenced the critics. They overcame.

Rampal, Katariya, Goyal, Warsi and Pradhan are only some of the protagonists in India's history-making squad of 16.

For the first time, the women's hockey team competed for a medal at the Olympics. On Friday morning they played their hearts out before going down 3-4 to Rio 2016 gold medalists Great Britain in the fight for bronze.

Even before they left for the Olympics, not many gave them a chance to progress into the knockouts. But they did.

In the quarter-finals they took on former champions Australia. They played with the kind of skill that the world associates with Indian hockey, and the kind of pace no-one had quite expected from them. They defeated Australia 1-0 on Monday to make their maiden Olympic semi-final.

It was a momentous occasion for hockey, which is so intricately linked with India's sporting glory.

India once ruled field hockey, mainly when it was still played on a natural field. While the men were put on a pedestal, women were largely ignored.

India has won 11 Olympic medals, including eight golds, in hockey. But the women's team, which made its debut in 1980, has played in only three editions, including Tokyo.

Most of the women in Indian hockey came from impoverished backgrounds and were used to making do with meagre resources and official apathy. At times, the promise of a government job and a steady salary had to suffice over athletic dreams. It wasn't till 2012 that efforts were put in to improve the women's game.