Two weeks ago, if you had asked me which GB athletes I expected to be most impressive during the 2016 Rio Olympics, I likely would have named the track cycling team (which has since stormed to 11 medals, with every single member of the team stepping onto a podium at least once) or the rowers (who ended the games with 5 medals, including a historic silver for the women’s eight, losing only to the incredible force that is the USA). Impressive stuff, indeed. Yet ask me that question again today, on the fourth-to-last day of competition, and I have one sure response: GB women’s hockey, set to play the Dutch for gold today.
Rewind to the final few days before the games kicked off, and if you’re like me, you probably didn’t know much about this particular team. Other than a vague recollection of its members’ bronze medal win in London 2012 (and, of course, the infamous incident in the opening match of those Games wherein captain Kate Richardson-Walsh broke her jaw, said NBD and returned to the field six days later following surgery to insert a metal plate in her face), they are a relatively low-key outfit within Team GB.
But this is the magic of the Games, which raise the profile, if only for a couple of weeks, of sports rarely given TV coverage. Last week, I happened to switch onto the team’s penultimate pool match against Japan, who they led 1-0. As someone who has dabbled (very briefly, I might add) with hockey in the past, I decided to see out the match to its conclusion, a 2-0 victory for GB. Although captain Richardson-Walsh commented afterwards that the team’s performance, though solid, was far from their best, I couldn’t help but be struck by the athleticism and aggression shown by the GB squad. Intrigued, I did some research into the team’s set-up and preparations.
I think most people can agree that when you read about training for the track cycling or rowing teams, you are not surprised to learn of the endless hours these athletes put in at the gym. Nearly every aspect of their everyday life is tailored to the smallest detail, all geared towards ultimate success on the grandest sporting stage. But hockey? I asked myself: Is that even a full time sport?
Short answer – yes. And a mighty serious one at that. It didn’t take me long to discover that this group of athletes work as hard and are every bit as dedicated as all of those arguably more visible athletes on Team GB. They are what I like to call “quiet grafters,” working day in and day out both individually and as a team, on the pitch and in the gym at their base at Bisham Abbey, Berkshire, to little public acclaim. They make use of detailed video analysis, physiotherapists, nutritionists, psychologists and lifestyle coaching, all in a bid to be as well prepared as possible for competition. And, as their captain puts it, they are constantly looking for better. Their commitment and professionalism is undeniable: As the BBC’s David Faulkner pointed out, on arrival in Rio, the whole squad signed off of social media and chose not to attend the opening ceremony “for fear of standing up too long,” wanting instead, one assumes, to rest in preparation for the start of competition. Even when the team has the chance to step into the spotlight and enjoy the glamourous side of the event, they decline. The only place they care about shining is on the pitch.
Journalist Colin Murray said following GB’s quarter-final dismissal of Spain, “They are the epitome of what team sports should be.” I couldn’t agree more. In one particular video featurette by the team’s sponsor Investec, the players are asked superlative questions about their teammates –– tidiest, fittest, most gullible –– that they answer happily, pinning the titles on various members. But when it comes to the final question –– laziest –– the response is unanimous: no one. As forward Alex Danson says, there’s no room for it in the squad. This is a group of players who work endlessly hard for one another, and slacking off is simply not an option. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the working squad is made up of 31 players, while only 16 are selected shortly before competition. Finding a post-match interview from the past week where a squad member doesn’t thank the whole team, especially those who grafted with them, but got left at home, is rather difficult.
At its extreme, the players’ commitment to each other is shown in their resilience to in-game injuries, which is reminiscent of Richardson-Walsh’s 2012 heroics. In last night’s semi-final win over the New Zealand “Black Sticks,” both Crista Cullen and Georgie Twigg shed blood, taking an elbow and ball to the face, respectively. Nonetheless, the former returned to the pitch soon after receiving treatment –– rumoured to include stitches –– while the latter returned to the side line almost straight away to cheer on her teammates, clutching an ice pack to her swelling cheek (world of men’s football, take note).
I think this tight-knit team dynamic is perhaps one of the most endearing things about this group and one of the reasons I’ve become so invested in their success; I was lucky enough to experience something pretty similar during my novice year in the university boat club. It’s an almost inexplicable feeling but infinitely special for those who have felt it: being invested far more in the success of your team than your individual triumphs and working every day to become a stronger, more competitive unit; showing up for each other –– even when the moon is still out and it feels like the rest of the world is still asleep; winning and losing as a team and enduring all the pain of training together, as one; and quietly grafting. I can’t help but get chills every time I think about racing with my girls, the insane thrill of pushing your body harder than you thought you could as your cox calls for 10 more strokes for your inimitable coach and another 10 for all of you.
I know how it feels, and that’s why I’m rooting so hard for this group of women, who have been working hard and showing up for each other nearly every day for the past four years. As I write this, media interest in the team’s progress is growing, and deservedly so. By getting to the gold medal match, they have already bettered their London 2012 performance, and regardless of today’s result, are certain to get their moment of glory after endless, quiet grafting. Here’s hoping they take the chance to enjoy it at the closing ceremony.