"I would never get a proper diet and my shoes would often be torn," laments Neha Goyal, her voice slowing down under the burden of memories from a rather sorrowful childhood.
But the 26-year-old, who's a member of India's Women's Hockey team, doesn't let her past cloud her present. "People said I am short, but I never lost hope," she adds quickly.
Born to a poor couple in Haryana's Sonipat, Goyal had all odds stacked against her when it came to playing hockey — her father was an alcoholic and her mother worked in factories to bring food to the table for three daughters.
Amid all of this, Neha was in the fifth grade when she was told by her friend that she would get free kits if she started playing hockey at a nearby ground.
""My father was an alcoholic and would often not return home. He would beat my mother up as well. We were really scared of him. I was in the fifth class when my friend said that If I played Hockey, I would get shoes and a kit. I told my mother that I want to play and she said okay, you can go. That's when I started playing hockey."" - Neha Goyal
From having a short height, to the lack of nutrition being provided at home, Neha scaled one hurdle after another and soon started playing at the national level.
Knew She Would Shine: Neha's Mentor
Goyal's coach, Pritam Siwach, still remembers the day she first saw a young girl peeping through the grills. "When she came inside, I asked her if she wants to play hockey and she said yes. She gave me a mixed response when I sent her to play with the younger lot," she added.
When Siwach handed the young girl a skipping rope, she was surprised to note the agility with which Neha jumped up and down. "That's when I told my husband that this girl will become a big player one day."
But it is not just her coach. Neha is remembered and revered in equal measure by those like her, who she has helped on multiple occasions by donating hockey kits.
For college student, Antim, however, Neha isn't just an inspiration, but also a saviour. When Antim's hostel shut its doors to students during the second wave, it was Neha who offered her shelter.
"Had it not been for her, we would have had to go back home. We are able to practice only because she helped us," she says, hoping to pay Neha back by becoming an Olympian like her one day.
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