Team GB’s women’s hockey team bounce back from lows after Rio gold

They had planned for that final penalty shootout, had prepared for it with scrupulous attention to detail. They had studied and learned the shots each of the opposition’s players tended to make under pressure, discussed how long the goalkeeper should take to make the walk to the goal, whether the rest of the team should shout out in support or not, and what they might say if they did, whether each of the penalty-takers wanted to dribble the ball before shooting, and how they would feel if they made a mistake while they were doing it. It was only later, long after it was all over, that they realised there was one thing they hadn’t discussed: what would happen if the plan worked.

It did, and they won gold, late on 19 August 2016 in front of a TV audience of around 10 million people on BBC One, while the 10 o’clock news was delayed to allow the nation to watch one of the headline stories of the Games being played out live. “The one thing a lot of us weren’t prepared for was the way it happened,” says goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, “and what came off the back of it. You know, we believed we could win, but no one really spoke about what would happen if we did it in front of 10 million people.”

For some players, the answer was obvious. Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, Georgie Twigg, Crista Cullen and Hannah Macleod all retired from international duty soon afterwards. Others, like Hollie Pearne-Webb, the scorer of the decisive penalty five years ago who will captain the team in Tokyo, found it was a straightforward decision to stay on. “I remember being on the pitch in Rio, and just knowing I wanted to do it all over again,” Pearne-Webb says, “It was my first Olympics, and it had been a difficult cycle, like they all are, but winning that gold made it all worth it. And I just knew I wanted to be part of that journey again. For me it was just a motivator. I knew how good it felt, and I wanted to go and do that again.

“But obviously it wasn’t like that for everyone. I think everyone in the squad that won gold that day experienced it in different ways.”

Like Hinch. “A rollercoaster is definitely the best way to describe this last five years,” the goalkeeper says. “We weren’t set up for what was coming when we landed, I certainly wasn’t, so we had that ultimate high, and it went on and on, we were really kind of living off it for the rest of that year. And then of course, it dies down. But I think as an athlete once you’ve tasted it, it’s almost like it’s so intoxicating that you feel you had to go find it again and then you’re chasing something that’s almost impossible to grab.”

Altogether, seven of the 2016 squad have made it through to the Tokyo Games. There ought to have been more, but the team has had a run of cruel luck with injuries. Alex Danson, who took over as captain from Richardson-Walsh, was forced into an early retirement by a brain injury caused by a concussion, so was Nicola White, while Sophie Bray decided to step back from international hockey for personal reasons. Pearne-Webb says every Olympic cycle is hard, but this one has been harder than most. As often seems to be the way with Britain’s national teams, they were almost thrown by their own success.

In 2018 England hosted the Women’s Hockey World Cup. It was a golden opportunity to capitalise on the success of Rio, and the organisers sold over 80,000 tickets. That meant the team was playing in front of the largest crowds they’d ever experienced. It got to them. They played poorly, and were knocked out in the quarter-finals by the Netherlands, who Team GB beat in that Rio 2016 final. Their coach Danny Kerry, who had been with England and Team GB on and off for over a decade, stepped down soon afterwards. He’s now coaching the GB men’s team.

Pearne-Webb says: “After any team has achieved ultimate success like the squad did in Rio, one of the biggest challenges is to go ahead and try and do that again, because you need to be better. And we had a significant loss of really experienced players and leaders in our squad after Rio, and then again after the World Cup with Alex’s injury. So there has been a lot of rebuilding and then a change of coach halfway through. And then obviously the pandemic delaying everything by a year.”

In one way, she says, the delay has helped because it’s given the squad more time to move on from the past with Mark Hager, their new coach.

We found ourselves kind of back to where we were when I started my career, in those fifth- and sixth-place finishes
Hinch took a three-month sabbatical in 2018, for the sake of her mental health. She found that the success had turned her into an obsessive perfectionist. “I felt every time I stepped on the pitch I had to be like this superhuman and only perfect would work. And I’ve never been perfect. I let in crap goals leading up to Rio, I let in a few of them during the tournament. But that all got forgotten just because of this medal. So yeah, these are the demons that I was fighting, those highs and lows. And it was tough.”

At the same time, the team’s performances dropped off, and “we found ourselves kind of back to where we were when I started my career, in those fifth- and sixth-place finishes.” Rio was a giant leap forward, followed by several steps back.

“For me personally it helped that I was back at my part-time day job as well which helps keep me very grounded,” says Pearne-Webb. “I’m also quite good at putting things in boxes. And it wasn’t long after I got back home that Rio was put in a box, and the medal was put away. And it was all about looking forward to Tokyo.”

She’s encouraged the entire team to try and take a similar approach. “This is a very different team and a very different squad,” she says, “So we’re looking to go there and create our own history.” Their expectations are lower, and they like it that way, it’s a way of coping with the extra pressure they feel because they’re defending champions.

“Rio does seem like a very distant thing now,” Hinch says, “And what I’m excited about is writing a different story. I think that the biggest mistake we can make is to go out there to Tokyo and repeat everything that happened in Rio. We have to make our own mark on the hockey scene. And I honestly believe that if we can perform consistently, we’ll come home with a medal, or we will certainly be in the hunt for one.

“I just want us to come back being proud of everything we put in out there, I want to feel that we didn’t fear anything, and that we left no stone unturned. Really, I think that could be our biggest concern: if we come home and think we just kind of bottled it. So let’s just go and put it all out there, and what will be will be.”