Rourkela: From a remote village named Lulkidihi-Bahamnibahal of Sundargarh district’s Balisankra block to being a double Olympian — Deep Grace Ekka has indeed come a long way.
“It’s a great feeling to get the opportunity to represent India in the Olympics for a second time,” Grace told Odisha Bytes on Thursday after being named in India’s Tokyo Olympics-bound women’s hockey squad.
A dependable defender, Grace was a member of the Indian squad which participated in the 2016 Olympics as well. In a month’s time, she is set to be Odisha’s first female sportsperson to have taken part in two Olympics. The only Odia to have done better is former men’s hockey team captain Dilip Tirkey, who is a triple Olympian (1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Games).
The women’s team didn’t fare well four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, losing four matches and drawing one to finish bottom of the league table.
This time, though, Grace is confident of a much better performance.
“The team has gained experience and is full of confidence ahead of the Tokyo Games. We hope to give a much better performance than Rio Olympics,” the 27-year-old said.
Born in a modest tribal farmers’ family, Grace is the youngest among three sons and two daughters of Charles and Jaimani Ekka.
Grace had never touched a hockey stick till she was 12 years of age. Then she joined Sundargarh Sports Hostel in 2006 and later switched to SAI Centre Sundargarh, where she honed her skills between 2007 and 2010.
It was Tej Kumar Xess, a relative of Grace, who spotted her under the sports talent hunt scheme of the state government.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I picked her on her physical abilities, not hockey skills. I am delighted she has reached this far,” said a proud Xess, her first coach who shaped her formative years in hockey.
Under SAI coaches Lucila Ekka and PK Sarangi, she continued to make rapid progress, becoming a part of the hostel team and then different state teams. She was picked in the national camp after a series of impressive performances in the domestic circuit.
Having made her India debut in 2011 in the Under-18 Asia Cup at Bangkok, where India won the bronze medal, Grace graduated to the senior team the same year for the tour of Argentina.
She also played a part in the Indian junior team’s historic feat of winning the country’s first bronze medal in FIH Junior Women’s Hockey World Cup 2013 at Monchengladbach, Germany.
She has over 200 international caps to her credit, which include appearances at two Commonwealth Games (Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018), two Asian Games (Incheon 2014 and Jakarta 2018) and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Among her prized possessions are a bronze medal from 2014 Asian Games and silver from 2018 Asian Games, as well as Women’s Asia Cup gold (Japan 2017).
Currently employed with Western Railway (Mumbai), Grace was awarded the Biju Patnaik Award last year and also received Sportswoman of the Year accolade in team sports at the second Sportstar Aces Awards in 2019.
Asked if she expects a podium finish at Tokyo, Grace said, “When we are participating in the Olympics, we definitely want to win a medal. We will take one match at a time, according to the opponent’s strength.”
She didn’t forget to add that every member of the team is determined to give her best at Tokyo.