The British Olympian who demonstrated the highest pain threshold at London 2012 will retire from the international scene at the end of the Rio Games. Kate Richardson-Walsh, the GB women’s hockey captain who played on with a shattered jaw at her home Olympics, announced her retirement exclusively in her interview with former England cricket captain, Charlotte Edwards, before she left for Rio.
Following the 2-1 defeat of Australia, perennial tough rivals, in their first pool match in the early hours of Sunday morning, the expectations are growing that this GB team could go beyond their historic bronze medal in London. If they do, it will be a fittingly dramatic swan song for an athlete who broke the record as most-capped female GB hockey player earlier on this year with more than 350 appearances.
“Yes, this is my last thing,” she admitted to Edwards. “At the moment I keep touching wood like a nutter because I just want to get to Rio and play my best. But, yes, it’s time to go on to pastures new. I’m going to play in Holland for a couple of seasons in their domestic league. I want to go into coaching and want to get a different perspective.”
The longest-serving captain in the modern era of elite female team sports – her international career which began in 1999 includes four Olympics, four World Cups and three Commonwealth Games – she is most renowned for indestructability. The broken jaw she sustained from a Japanese hockey stick during the London Olympics proved no bar to her leading the team to a bronze medal after missing a mere two matches for surgery.
“From that moment of impact I knew I’d done something bad because all this row of teeth popped up. Then I went really calm. I felt like everyone else was faffing around me. Three blokes were trying to get this suction thing to work to get all the blood out of my mouth. I got into an ambulance with two lovely ambulance ladies, but they were from Yorkshire and didn’t have a clue where they were going.
“The whole night seemed to draw on forever. At that point I thought I was out. There were quite a lot of tears. I didn’t sleep. But from the moment I saw the surgeon it was like a guardian angel walking into my room. He said, ‘I think we’ll be able to get you back out there’.”
When doubt crept in again as she lay in her hospital bed, reinforcement in the form of her sister was on hand. “She could see me thinking, ‘Actually, I’m not sure I can do this’. I just felt really weak. So she started force-feeding me yoghurt, mashed banana, anything. She was basically just shoving it down me.”
She resumed play with a plate in her jaw, a protective mask on her face and nerve-blocking drugs to numb the pain. One injection missed the spot and which hampered the most important team talk of her life. “I couldn’t really speak.”
Her enduring memory of the time largely recalls the disruption to the team. “My face was so swollen I looked like a ‘Moomin’. Before I came back to the squad, the coach told them I was a little bit self-conscious so not to stare. And one of the players told me later that as soon as I walked into the room, she screamed ‘Waaagh!’
“My partner, Helen, was playing in the team so it was particularly tough for her. She lost her roomie and her partner and had to do extra work in training and matches.”
The first married gay couple to compete at the Olympics, they double-barrelled their names following their wedding in 2013. “When we play hockey we’re just Kate and Helen. There’s a few jokes. When Helen dribbles round me – which is quite often – people will laugh. But it’s all open and jokey. We try not to take work home with us. But it’s impossible. Helen is so absorbed. She loves it, so we do talk about it at home.
“She was a good cricketer when she was younger. When she was 16 or 17 her nickname was ‘Cocky’ because she was good at everything. Now she’s trying to do an Open University degree in psychology while playing in her fourth Olympics having come back from double back surgery. She’s so strong. She’s such a good example for the team. A great role model and I’m really proud of her.”
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Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles