Olympic hockey captain hopes London 2012 will 'right the wrongs' of past disappointment
London, July 29, 2012
The first ‘push back’ of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament is today. In the run up to her team’s preparations, we caught up with Team GB captain Kate Walsh to talk about the sport she loves, her Olympic experiences and what she hopes to achieve in London this year.
How important was sport to you growing up?
Sport was a really good release. I wasn’t overly academic and it was a chance for me, for a few times a week, to let myself go. I was a really shy child and I became a different person, certainly as I grew playing hockey I gained so much confidence. I would be terrified to pick up the phone or talk to the coach at the beginning and now I'm captain of the women’s team so it’s completely the other end of the spectrum and I wouldn’t be that person without sport.
How much of a sacrifice was being a high achieving sportsperson at a young age?
I was 17 when [hockey] got really serious, that was when I started playing for [England] under 21s. Looking back I suppose I did make some sacrifices, but at the time it didn’t feel like it because it was what I wanted to do. My friends started going out [when I couldn’t] and I never played for my university hockey team, we weren’t allowed because you can’t whilst playing for the national team. So I didn’t do fresher’s week [when starting at Brunel University to study Sports Science] so all of that stuff went over my head. But I didn’t feel I was missing out because I was getting so much other good stuff.
So do you think team sports are particularly special?
I started off as a swimmer and I got to 14 and I had to choose and I don’t know how I used to do the swimming. The monotony of being in your own head space, swimming up and down, I think they’re amazing, these individual athletes. I know on a bad day I can talk to my team-mates and they are sympathetic, help pick me up, but when you’re on your own you’ve got be so mentally strong.
Maybe if I hadn’t chosen a team sport I would have stayed that little bit more introverted.
So you started your international career at 19, what was it like to be at such a high level so young?
It was quite daunting. The oddest thing was [playing with] older players who had already been established, already been to the Olympics.
But within a year you were at your first Olympics?
Literally a year after. The GB coach was selecting his team in September time and I remember thinking ‘I am nowhere near that’ and I was just really enjoying being in the team. And so when he sent out some squads and I was in there I couldn’t believe it and so that whole year was just like the ignorance of youth, having a great time, not putting too much pressure on myself because I didn’t expect too much from myself.
And how was the experience off the pitch?
On the first day that I was in the canteen and I was getting my stuff and… you know when you stare at someone and are like ‘I know you, I feel like we’re friends’ and then you realise it’s Monica Seles! I was like ‘oh my god how embarrassing.’’
Three year’s later you were captain, what was it like to get that position at just 23?
It was a little daunting and I think at the time I took it in my stride because I was a natural leader on the pitch. I just told myself as long as I did that it would be fine for now and I was going to have to learn to be the kind of captain I wanted to be. Originally, I cherry-picked [qualities] from other captains I had played under and it helped to formulate how I wanted to be, but it took a good 5 years to find out what kind of leader I wanted to be.
What makes a great captain for you?
Knowing the other players, knowing what they need, reading their body language. Knowing how they feel too. They might be telling me one thing but feeling another.
The team didn’t make it to Athens 2004, which was the year after you made captain. What did that mean to you?
I still get upset just thinking about it. It was just devastating. I think looking back with hindsight it began the year before, 2003. We went to the European [Championship] and finished 4th when we were definitely in the top 3. There were a lot of changes in the coaching staff … and the team suffered because of that. And I was a very young captain and at that time I was unaware really of the job I had to do.
What stays with me now is how there were members of the team maybe 10 years older, who I’d been watching at the Olympics growing up and had to escort off the pitch because they just didn’t want to leave, they didn’t want to believe what had just happened. That stays with me and fuels me now to right those wrongs.
So how have preparations gone for this very different Olympic year for you?
It’s like another galaxy of difference. After Beijing we decided that we were at a level that if we kept training as we were then we would always be somewhere between 6th and 10th and we would always finish somewhere between there.
We decided something had to change and that we as players and the coach Danny Kerry would all locate to the same place. So, we all moved, left houses and went to Bisham Abbey. We now train twice a day, everyday. It used to be a camp format with weekend training here and there and might not see each other for a month. Now it is everyday and our full-time job.
And how are the team finding it?
The good thing is we’ve been training at the Olympic venue since October/ November, so even just going down there it starts to feel a bit more normal. Over half the team has already been at a multi-sports games like the Commonwealth Games so they know what it’s like.
What we don’t know, being a home games, is what it’s like to have so much more public interest I suppose. … We’ve never been on billboards, taxis and things like that before, but we are just trying to take it in our stride. Though if you think about it, it is a bit scary.
And you even trained with the Duchess of Cambridge earlier this year?
It was great promotion for our sport, and she looked comfortable with a hockey stick in her hands again after 10 or more years.
Would you be so calm if you were a 20 year old at your first Games?
The youngest girl in the team is just 21, I trained with her this morning in the gym, and she really has that youthful lack of fear. She loves it. It will never affect the way she plays. We’re pretty good at keeping it separate.
I don’t know if it’s just confidence that these fearless players are the ones that often make it, but I find it interesting that this is the way it happens.
What would a successful Olympics be for you?
We are ranked 4th in the world now and we’ve just come back from the Champions Trophy in Argentina in February where we got the silver medal, so we very much believe we can win gold and we’re going with that intention. But I think it’s definitely very realistic to get a podium.
If we can get to semi-finals, then I think we can get gold.
Would that be the ultimate achievement of your sport?
Definitely. It would be life-changing for all of us individually but also for the sport.
I’ve seen some awful times in my career as a hockey player but having recently won the bronze at the world cup in 2010, which is the first time a British team has done that at the event, we’ve already made history. So it’s not like we’re turning up at the Olympics saying ‘because it’s the Olympics we’re able to win a gold medal,’ we think that because we’ve been building up slowly to it.
And what about the Olympic legacy for this country?
I hope lots of opportunities are made available, especially for young people. I also hope the Olympic park doesn’t become a ghost town in London and that it thrives, that jobs become available and arenas are get used again.
I think the park looks amazing and even just having a park like that in east London is amazing. It used to always be about west London, but east London has just a buzz of its own and this all adds to that, it has a very cool vibe about it and now there’s this other element that’s brilliant for the capital and the whole country.
Laureus Ambassador Kelly Holmes has picked you and your team as ones to watch at the Games this summer, do you think you still have something left to prove compared to other sports?
We know the only way to get there is to be successful. We need to win something really important and we have to do it at the Olympics. Hopefully that will spur people on to get even more interested in hockey.
Laureus works across the world helping children through sport, why do you think sport can be important to young people?
I have been really fortunate to travel quite widely with hockey and the national team and I’ve been to some really poor areas in South Africa and Argentina and they’ve [children of these areas] got hockey sticks and balls and the enjoyment on their faces, you know, the day to day grind of daily life for them is so hard and for them to have a release, to have an hour where they can be free to go play with their friends, it’s such a freedom. I think Laureus is so brilliant because using all these sports that they do throughout the world gives children these opportunities, often to children who didn’t have these already. They do such great work that I don’t think anyone else is doing on such a great scale.