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‘We are Asia’s No. 1 team now’

Naveen Kapoor, captain of the India Inline Hockey Juniors team, talks to Patriot about the challenges representing India at the international front, his first World Cup, World Roller Games and his favourite competition, the Asian Championship

How did you get into this sport?

I was in 1st grade in school and had this skating championship coming up, an inter-school thing. The school coach came to our class asking if anyone was interested in learning this sport. Out of 20 students, some 11-12 students showed interest. So my career started from 1st grade itself. The others practised, but they didn’t take it as a serious opportunity. I was really looking into it. Because I could see students practising in the morning and this sport seemed really interesting to me. It wasn’t tough, nowadays I see 4-5 year-olds taking this sport seriously.

How was the learning process? Was it challenging?

It’s been more than 11 years. You need to follow a strict movement in order to balance yourself and keep yourself in a proper position. There are more chances of getting injured in this game, because you’re always in speed. It’s not just about skating on the floor, you have to have your basic athletic training. More of exercise on stairs, more endurance based. When I was into speed skating, I used to skate non-stop for 15-20 km at one point of time. If one wants to be into Inline Hockey then one needs to be a professional skater first, because just skating is a different thing and playing hockey is another. You have to break any time, you have to sprint again.

How hard it is to explain this sport to people?

Good question. This sport is quite similar to ice hockey. While explaining I say I play ice hockey, but there’s a difference in skates. Checking out my videos on social media gives a better idea of the sport. When I was a speed skater, I could see my seniors playing a match and it is really a very aggressive sport. So I was always interested to learn. But to get into this sport was a different ballgame altogether, I had to train more. I thought this game would be easier than speed skating. It took me two-three years to learn the sport well. I started off as a goalkeeper, then I chose to become a player. I had to train rigorously with my seniors for four-five months. After learning, I just needed gaming experience. There were less championships during that time, so tough for me to break in.

When did you get your break then?

In 2016, when I gave my first intentional trial for  World Inline Hockey Championship, which happened in Italy. I was 14 at that time. The trials were going on and I got selected at Number 6. It wasn’t because of my hockey skills, but skating. I was still a newbie.

We had our camp practice happening in Visakhapatnam for three months. I got into the routine, which is: Eat, sleep, hockey. Training for three hours in the morning and three in the evening. Not thinking about anything else. No study at all. My parents were pretty okay with that, because I was representing India for the first time. That was the time when I transformed myself as a professional player.

After coming back I had my national championships in two months. The international championship gave me exposure to excel here too.

How was the first World Cup experience for you?

It was an amazing experience. Right from leaving from the Delhi airport to going to Italy, I was experiencing everything for the first time. We had our training game. The facilities, the infrastructure is totally different in Italy as compared to India. Inline Hockey is like their national game. We have roller skating in India, but not Inline Hockey.

Then came our first game against Latvia. Before the start of all the international games, our national anthem played. That moment, I had goosebumps. It was such an amazing feeling, I cannot forget it ever. We won that game 4-0, the first time the Indian juniors team was playing. We had our final game against Korea, we were winning at 3-1, but one of our player got injured, and we needed to replace him. The game tied at 3-3, and we lost to them in the golden goal.

Which has been the most memorable championship for you and why?

It was Asian Championship in 2018 in Korea. It was the best tournament of my life. I’ve never been a captain before. And it was the national team, so a great feeling. Each player was from a different corner of India, I had the responsibility of holding my team together. Usually our camp training lasts for three months, but during that time, it was only for a month. So, it was a difficult task for me to hold all the players together.

It was a difficult championship because India has never won a medal there. The first game was against Korea. We lost 5-1. Then the time came for our bronze medal game against China. That was the time when India and China were facing some crisis too.

There was the strongest rivalry in that tournament. There were a lot of people during that particular match. China scored their first goal in the 19th minute during the first half. We had lost all hope by then. It was a difficult challenge for us to score a goal. We had one minute left, and I scored a goal during that 20th minute. The game got even at 1-1.

During the second half, I scored two more goals. A hat-trick for me. The crowd was calling my name, I could hear ‘Naveen-Naveen.’ After me, two more players scored. We finished our match at 6-2. We got home a bronze medal and it was the first time in history that India won an international medal in Inline Hockey. It was a very proud moment for me.

Tell us about your last World Cup in Spain…

Last year it was an Asian championship, now this was a World Cup. The World Cup is 10 times the Asian Championship. I’ve always been nervous playing in World Cup and I was captain this time. I was playing in the juniors and seniors team as well, as they chose a few best players from the juniors to strengthen the team.

We lost the first game in the junior tournament to France, a harsh score of 20-0. Playing against France is tough, it’s one of the best teams in the world. During the World Cup, I scored 9 goals for my team. I became the 8th top scorer in the world that day. Before this, the best any Indian player achieved was Rank 64. I scored six goals against Korea — to which we lost last year, so we can also say that we are Asia’s No. 1 team now.

The compliments were nice, people would call me “Jersey No. 55” because we don’t have our names on them.

How do you see yourself in the future? What’s your career plan?

I was offered scholarships in Canada and US. They are the gods of this sport. Like we have inter-university championships for cricket, they have Inline championships there. So many universities there were offering me sponsorship but I didn’t go because I have a family here. I chose to do BBA in college because I want to help my dad with his business. I have an option to do MBA and I can play for the university then. I’m not yet giving my all to the business. I do practical training for three hours after college.

I’m seeing if I’ll build interest in the business, just trying it. There’s no pressure on me. If I don’t, I will be focusing on this sport only in future.