“You will reach anywhere if you work hard enough” – Lotla Mary.
From living in a village near Visakhapatnam called Yellamanchilli, 17-year old Lotla Mary is now playing at the National Hockey Academy in New Delhi. This is arguably the highest level a young Indian hockey player could play at in the country’s current sporting landscape. So, how did she make it all the way there?
Her first time picking up a hockey stick was at her local village school in 2013. There was no coach there, but she learned the sport from her seniors. Playing for her school team for a year helped Mary realise that hockey wasn’t just a hobby and could potentially become something much bigger. Born into a family of farmers, her sister, who is also a district level hockey player, and she has taken a different path altogether. However, her parents supported her every step of the way and in 2014, venturing quite far from home, she arrived at the Anantapur Sports Academy on the other side of Andhra Pradesh.
The Anantapur Sports Academy (ASA), an initiative by the Rural Development Trust (RDT), is a development program that reaches out to close to about 9,000 children on a weekly basis and provides them with infrastructure, education, coaching and nutrition.
More than just a facility to provide children with a platform to excel at sports, ASA is an initiative that uses sport as a medium to create social change amongst rural communities in Andhra Pradesh.
Mary learned of ASA through coaches at her District Hockey Association and was successful at the selections held for the academy in 2014. In the hockey program at ASA, there are 30 girls in total, 25 from the Anantapur district and five from the rest of the state.
Thinking back to when she shifted to Anantapur, Mary said “Coming to Anantapur was a big change for me. The facilities at ASA are great compared to my school, and the coaches have taught me so much.”
Mary spent four years at ASA, not only learning Hockey but also studying at a school in Anantapur town. However, her focus has always been on hockey, and that is perhaps what has made the difference with regards to her getting selected at the National Hockey Academy. Mary’s longtime friend and teammate Saritha said, “I was her teammate at ASA for three years until she went to the National Academy. She changed a lot in this time, she’s very interested in hockey, and it has always been her priority.”
After initially getting selected for the SAI hockey academy in Bhopal, Mary was recommended for the National Hockey Academy selections by the District Hockey Secretary in Visakhapatnam because of her impressive performances at the district level.
“When she arrived at ASA, our selections were based around the physical aspects of the game, which Mary was great at. In four years at the academy she improved the technical and tactical aspects of her game tremendously”, said Hockey coordinator Laxmi Narayan on the progress Mary made at ASA.
Mary joined the National Hockey Academy in Delhi in July 2018 and is determined to use this opportunity to it’s fullest. The level is a lot higher than she was used to at ASA, but she is slowly starting to adapt. Playing with the best young Indian players from across the country is naturally very challenging, but the toughest aspect of training at the Dhyan Chand Hockey stadium is something else entirely. Having played on gravel pitches all her life, making the transition to AstroTurf has proved to be very difficult. “The ball moves so much faster, and it was challenging to adapt initially, but I’m getting used to it now, and I am really enjoying the new pitch.”, said Mary.
Her game and fitness levels have become much better as she aims to become a professional athlete now. However, there is still a lot of hard work to be done “I couldn’t get into the starting 11 when I first arrived, but now I am playing in it regularly. The nutrition here is excellent, and I have learnt so many new skills that have improved my game. But now I have to become better physically and have been working to do that with core exercises in my free time”, continued Mary.
Her overall game has improved a lot. One of the aspects she feels has helped her ability to play better has been reducing the tendency to ‘hit’ the ball and learning to sweep it instead. This is essential when one plays on turf.
Off the pitch, Mary doesn’t speak fluent Hindi or English but is more than managing to hold her own. She is learning Hindi slowly and having lived her whole life in Andhra Pradesh; she has enjoyed interacting with people from different states. To name a few, her teammates come from Haryana, Bihar, Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Fortunately for her, there are two other players from Andhra Pradesh at the academy, and they have helped her settle in. One of them is Bhavani, also a former ASA player, who joined the National Academy a year ago.
Her goals are ambitious, and now that she is at the National Hockey Academy she doesn’t intend to stop there. Currently playing at the sub-junior level, she wants to make it to both the junior and senior national teams. The Indian national team starlet, Lalremsiami, who stays in the same hostel as Mary in New Delhi, is a great source of inspiration for her.
“She’s a good player I believe that if she keeps working hard in 2 years or so at the National Hockey Academy, she can make it to the Junior National team”, said Hockey coordinator Laxmi Narayan, when discussing Mary’s potential.
The support of Mary’s parents was key to her pursuing hockey, going to ASA and eventually making it to the National Academy. Some of her teammates had similar opportunities but couldn’t grab them because of the lack of support from their families. Most parents feel that education should take the priority or are not comfortable with their children moving so far away from home. However, the backing Mary has received from her family has encouraged her to not only travel to Delhi and Bhopal for selections but also perform well and get in.
Mary, who recently returned to ASA for a brief visit, is now an inspirational figure for her old teammates. “The selections will happen again next year, and I am determined to join her at the academy”, said Saritha. Hockey coordinator Laxmi Narayan also believes that there are quite a few girls at ASA who, like Mary, have the skill and potential to make it to the National Academy in Delhi. She has set an example for many children and their parents, who now know that with hard work, it is more than possible to take the next step in Hockey. At ASA, the plan, for now, is to send more players for selections and the coaching staff are keen to discuss this with parents to garner their support to ensure it happens.