'As long as I'm good enough, I want to continue' - PR Sreejesh's plan for 2022

India's goalkeeper PR Sreejesh celebrates after India's bronze medal match against Germany. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

On August 5 last year, shortly after experiencing perhaps the high point of his career as an international athlete, PR Sreejesh went up to Graham Reid, coach of the Indian men's hockey team, with a question he hadn't considered until then.

Now that he had got down off the crossbar of the Indian goal where he had climbed up in the exhilaration of the victory over Germany in the Olympic bronze medal match, the 34-year-old genuinely wondered -- what next?

The answer, Reid would tell him, lay within. "I told him he had to find the enthusiasm that he had back when he was starting out," Reid said later.

Those early memories are what continue to motivate Sreejesh.

This Monday, he won the World Games player of the year award- just another in his list of accomplishments. Speaking in a digital press conference on Wednesday Sreejesh, though, says he never thought of winning that honor, or the FIH goalkeeper of the year, the Olympic, commonwealth, or Asian games medals, the Arjuna award or the Khel Ratna.

"At the start of my career, I didn't even think I was going to wear the blue India jersey. I just went with the flow. I was only focusing on training and hard work. Wearing that jersey isn't for every person. You have to work really hard to get it. When you do, you have the chance to make your country proud. That gives you excitement to play and work hard. I know how hard it was to win that first jersey and how hard it was to come back from injury. So now there's a lot of excitement to wear it," he says.

Now into the 18th year of his international career, Sreejesh will be part of the Indian team that will be competing in the FIH pro League next week, before taking part in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Winning the latter would qualify India for the Paris Olympics.

One historic medal won, would it be too hard to wish for another?

"The Olympic medal was a dream. I achieved that but I now we have a chance to decide on the color. We got bronze but now we are targeting silver and gold," he says.

But that's not immediately on his horizon. What is, is the desire to keep earning that blue jersey. It's one that's kept him a mainstay in the side even as his seniors, then his contemporaries and then even some juniors have hung up their boots.

That's come with its share of unintentional challenges. "When I was playing with Raghu (former defender VR Raghunath), I could be myself. I could scold them. Abuse them. Sometimes they'd ask me to give gaali [cuss words] so they got pumped up. But when you are playing with youngsters, for them you are a super senior and the words from you can affect them negatively. So I'm very conscious how I talk to them. I try to be calm. I try to be short and clear," he says.

Sreejesh knows he's nearer the end of his time between the posts than nearer to it. But that doesn't mean he's calling it a day anytime soon. Speaking of his goalkeeper, coach Reid had said what stood out about Sreejesh was his constant drive to get better.

As he gets older, Sreejesh says he has to adapt even faster. "The best way to stay in the system is to be change yourself every time and rectify mistakes. Once you get to a certain age you have to take care of everything. You need proper sleep, extra time to recover, you are competing with youngsters. If you are ready to adapt to changes and learn new things and change, that will help you," he says.

"I am addicted to this game. But I also know that it is a phase of my life. I know there will be a time when I have to hang up my boots. But a goalkeeper can play a lot longer than other players but what matters is how hard you work and how passionate you remain," he says.

At the moment while there's no fading of his passion, Sreejesh isn't chasing any long term goals. With the Paris Olympics three years away, a milestone he's set for himself is a World Cup medal - which he says would complete his collection in major tournaments. "As long as I'm good enough, I want to continue. At my age, it's important to keep short targets. If I do well at the World Cup then maybe I can think of pushing myself further. I don't want to dream big now because that will give me extra pressure. Once you are good in your career, you should enjoy every match and not think this might help me for my next tournament," he says.

The support of his family in this matter has been critical. The father of two children approaching their teens, Sreejesh admits he struggled with the necessity of staying away from his home and missing their growing years as he prepared for the Olympics, and then with post-Games felicitations. "Over the last couple of months I was able to take my family for a holiday. That helped me develop a bond with my kids. That was a very rejuvenating moment. My wife told me she has no more complaints and that I could focus on my hockey once again. Now that phase is over, I'm back preparing for the Pro League," he says.

What a newly refreshed Sreejesh means for a bunch of talented youngsters waiting in the wings is that a place in the Indian squad isn't just going to be handed to them. They'll have to earn their place past Sreejesh.

In Wednesdays' press conference, Sreejesh was asked what his advice would be for young goalkeepers who aspire to be like him. His response, "I will tell them not just be like me, but be better than me. Or you will reach only to my level. You must be hungry to be beyond my level."

While it's true that Sreejesh wants to be remembered as the best goalkeeper the country has produced, he genuinely believes the harder he works the stronger it will make the team. "We finished third in the Olympics. We have set a bench mark now. So every time an Indian team is on the field they need to keep that standard. When you wear that jersey, you have a responsibility to keep it at that level," he says.

What he wants is for that level to remain as high even when he does step aside. And that's by setting such a high standard that whoever replaces him is even better than he is. "Suraj and Krishan are in the system for a long time. My duty is to raise the level of keeping so they keep working hard and India doesn't have a problem with goalkeepers in the future. When I spoke about improving the colour of the Olympic medal, I can do it in two ways. I can either do it myself or I can raise the level of the team to such a level that we have to win it. I want that the goalkeeper who comes after me has to come above me. That's my target," he says.