Bruised, bloodied and triumphant. Battered but jubilant. By beating New Zealand 3-0, the GB women’s hockey team made the Olympic final for the first time in history. Bronzes in 1992 and 2012 are not to be sniffed at, but now the team, led by the evergreen Kate Richardson-Walsh, are on the brink of glory.
Beat the Netherlands today and they will win Olympic gold to add to the European title they won last year. The Dutch were beaten then, on penalties, after a superhuman effort from goalkeeper Maddie Hinch. Can they do it again in Rio on the biggest stage of all?
Eighteen women are ready and willing to put their bodies on the line, just as they did on a muggy Wednesday evening at the Olympic Hockey Centre in Deodoro. There were a number of injuries during that fiercely-contested semi-final against New Zealand. Crista Cullen was the first to go down – a nasty elbow to the head spilling blood on to the water-soaked pitch. She was branded a warrior when, 10 minutes later, she ran back on with just a plaster and a few stitches to staunch the flow.
But a year ago, Cullen wasn’t even in the squad. Instead she was working for her family’s security business in Nairobi. Her Olympic days were over. After helping Britain finish third in London she had settled in Kenya with a dog and a home. She was co-owner of a Cross-Fit gym, the only one in East Africa, and helped run Galan Wildlife Conservancy, a 60,000-acre conservation project set up to protect African wildlife. She had also passed her test to become a pilot. But the GB hockey coaching staff made the call to bring Cullen back into the mix ahead of Rio. It was a risk which has paid off.
“It was a gamble, I knew that,” the 30 year old admitted. “But then I thought, ‘I’d be crazy not to do it’. Africa will always be there. What’s important is seeing what I’m capable of though there was a chance this could be a push too far. I had an Olympic bronze medal – why not try to make that one – or two – better? So here I am, back with great ambitions.
“I’ve had an element of a ‘normal’, responsible life and I think I’ve come back with a different outlook this time. I think I’m a lot more balanced, but with just as much aspiration to fight and do well for my team. I will eventually return to Africa. In the meantime, though, I’m a hockey player. I believe this GB team is capable of great things. We just have to play to our absolute limits and be lucky. Then anything can happen.”
The stakes are high. But on the surface it’s business as usual and the focus is unwavering. Social media apps have been deleted, and every detail, from sleep to food choices, has been scrutinised.
Hannah Macleod is drawing on her experiences from London to keep calm. She said: “The reality is, when you break it all down, it’s just another hockey tournament. I don’t want to appear like I’m downplaying the Olympics. But if you spend any time thinking about just how enormous it is, how much it means to you and your family, and how much of your life it has consumed, I can assure you, you’ll feel so nervous you won’t even be able to hold your hockey stick, let alone run.
“Focus is totally on preparation, performance, recovery and rest. I am no longer a fan – I am a competitor – and we are a team after gold. We are mentally prepared to deliver our game at the greatest sporting occasion in the world.”
For captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, who is set to retire after the Rio Games, this is the ultimate swansong. She has already led a team to equal their best finish in the Olympics, now they must be fearless in pursuit of gold. “As part of Team GB, I know we will be doing everything we can to make the British public proud,” she said in a message to everyone back at home. “Even though we’re thousands of miles away we will feel your support and it will lift us to great things once more. Thank you for all of the support you have given me to help me reach my fourth Olympic Games. I hope I can make you proud.”
Great Britain face the Netherlands in the Olympic hockey final at nine o’clock tonight UK time
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.