I was pretty much petrified of hockey at school. I’d skulk on the outskirts of the pitch, certain of a shattered cheek bone. So it’s with foreboding that I agree to a training session with the GB women’s hockey team. With flights to Rio less than a week away I assure myself it’s likely we’ll just line up to hit a ball, they won’t risk their Olympic ambitions being butchered by bungling members of the press with undetermined motor skills.
I am wrong. We plunge straight into a game. I’ve no idea who wins – for the majority of the match, I can’t work out which end my goal is. Thankfully, none of us injure anyone on Team GB, and the game is followed by a skills session. Cones are set out, and midfielder Nicola White shows me how to turn my stick, to roll the ball back and forth. She tells me this is called an Indian dribble – a practise I’d be more likely to associate with my Peshwari naan arriving in a restaurant.
White tells me hockey originated in India and they were the best, due to hours spent doing this dribble – then everyone else caught up. Now the main contenders are the Dutch, who won Gold in both the London and Beijing Olympics.
Prior to today, the PR sent us players’ bios, asking who we’d like to interview. Scrolling through, I’m convinced they’re a super breed, with DNA from Stephen Hawking, and the benevolence of Jesus. They each seem to have an unnatural number of hours in the day, racking up MBEs, PhDs, and England caps, while finding time to coach kids, launch law careers, and bake cakes for family birthdays.
I pick Kate Richardson-Walsh, as she’s Captain, and defender Sam Quek, who’s written in her hobbies section: “I can do a really high kick when I’m lying on my side!” This is the only aspect of anyone’s bio I can relate to.
A journo from The Telegraph wants to speak to “Kate and Helen.” “Everyone wants Kate and Helen!” replies the PR. Why?? “They’re married,” says the Telegraph guy, “and one of them was with a guy on the men’s hockey team before they got together!”
Before we sit down to do interviews, I ask if we can do a ‘team photo’ together. “Yes, put your arm around me,” says midfielder Susannah Townsend. The girls start laughing. Aiming to look authentic, I ask where to put my other hand. “Anywhere you want!” says Townsend. The rest of the girls roar with laughter. Townsend’s girlfriend is Dirkie Chamberlain, who played on the South African hockey team in the 2012 Olympics.
I’m introduced to Sam Quek, and I ask if she’s considered a sport less violent. Hockey’s risks are real – Captain Kate’s jaw was broken in London 2012. Fitted with a metal plate, she re-joined the team six days later, and they took bronze. Quek says: “I’ve got a twin brother – I’d put coats on, then he’d rugby tackle me! I was used to roughness. I learnt early, if you didn’t get out of the way, you got hurt!”
Crista Cullen retired from hockey after the London Olympics, but came back to train for Rio, after getting a call from the Head Coach. She says although it’s winter in Rio, “it’s in its 20s, so the weather we’ve had recently has prepared us for that.” Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch wears protective gear on the pitch. She says, “when it’s 22 or 23, for me it’ll feel about 30!”
Hinch tells me she has rituals before a match. She drinks a Red Bull, does three tuck jumps, and plays a warm-up song she chose because, “I heard it on the radio once when I was driving – it made me want to fight someone!”
After several assurances that of course I’ll get time with Captain Kate, it turns out I won’t. I get a lift back to London with a cabbie who’s been there all day. “There weren’t any black people, were there?” he says. I suspect he would be more than mollified by other ways in which the team is diverse, but I do not want to distract him from his driving.
Investec support women’s hockey from grassroots to the GB and England national teams.
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. She can be found tweeting here