Leading from the Front

Words: Alice Ramsey

With just under six months to go before the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Great Britain’s female hockey team surpassed expectations at the recent Champions Trophy in Rosario, becoming the first British team in history to win a silver medal. Only a single penalty corner strike by Argentina’s Silvina D’Elia, late in the first half, separated the two sides in their battle for the right to call themselves the best in the world.

Meeting the team, you are immediately struck by their self-assured and confident nature. They are also completely at ease in one another’s company– it seems that alongside professionalism and determination also exists strong bonds of friendship. Captain, Kate Walsh, who made her England and Great Britain debuts in 1999 and has since gone on to play at the full range of international tournaments including the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, comments that this has been fundamental to their successes. “What I love about the girls is that we are constantly honest with each other, both on and off the pitch. We know one another so well and that has created a real sense of togetherness”.

“Everyone on the team has a different story regarding how they got here, and each story is inspirational in it’s own way. We all have completely different backgrounds, but are all here for the same reason. It’s so powerful” she says with an endearing smile. Yet Walsh is also keen to stress the fact that to get to this level in the field of hockey has not been an easy ride. “We have all had to make some very big life changes and sacrifices, some of which have been incredibly difficult decisions, particularly at a young age.”

“I believe we can win gold. We all do.”

“It all requires a great deal of responsibility”, she says, “especially if you are lucky enough to become captain”. With Walsh being involved with the captaincy of Great Britain’s team since 2003, she has her fair share of experience under her belt and explains that there are definitely ups and downs involved in taking on this role. “At times, it has been quite a lonely place because you are consistently providing the link between the management and the players” she mentions calmly, “but all in all, I love it, because it suits my character. We do have a leadership group and I was therefore chosen to be captain by members of the team itself. That definitely gave me confidence.”

And her sense of pride–particularly over their most recent and pivotal achievement in Argentina– is evident, but like all great captains in the sporting world, she recognises that there is still more that they must do. “Winning the silver medal was not only a great achievement but also a strong foundation that we can only improve upon. I know we are on the right track – our results prove that – but now it is a case of fine tuning our techniques over the next few months and really pulling everything that we have learnt together.”

“The next few months” is something that Walsh mentions with intermittent ease, however she does, like the rest of Great Britain’s female hockey team, truly understand the scale of the London 2012 Olympic Games that she refers to. “It is really not that far away” – and for a moment you can see a hint of apprehension in her eyes – “but we have had such good results in the build up that I fully believe we can win gold. We all do.”

Such positivity and passion is both refreshing and admirable: as an ambitious and successful sportswoman she provides a strong inspiration to both her team and her nation. Interest in the Games will provide a unique opportunity to showcase this in more depth, which is something she believes in wholeheartedly: “the country is bound to get behind all athletes and the athletes will therefore become strong role models to young people. I would love to inspire members of the younger generation to join a club or just keep going with a sport. The biggest drop out is continued education but we want to prove what you can achieve if you work hard at your chosen sporting discipline.”

“Andy Murray kept coming to use our Wifi because we had better signal!”

But how would competing for her home country in her home capital compare to her other Olympic experiences? “To be selected would mean I would be part of something unparalleled by anything else I have experienced in my sporting career” she comments, “and although you could say it becomes like any other hockey competition in that your focus and diligence must always be there and no outside influences can be allowed to impact on your game, for me personally, just to have the honour of walking the team out and the emotion of doing that would make the memory of a lifetime.”

“What also makes the Olympics different is the range of sports involved and staying in the Olympic village. Often, it looks like tower blocks but it very quickly becomes your home. You meet so many athletes from varied disciplines and everyone talks to each other about winning a medal out of pure excitement” she laughs, “you become close as you are sharing the same experience. At our last Games, Andy Murray kept coming to use our Wifi because we had better signal!”

“If there is one thing we are consistent at, we will always give it absolutely everything and leave nothing behind. That is how we play.”

One thing is for certain – first and foremost, the team will be there to compete and win a medal. “Once you get into the tournament, it becomes extremely intense: the team becomes compact and your energy and enthusiasm as a group must never falter.”

Could we expect this level of determination to continue throughout what would be a gruelling and testing process, though? “We will take each match at a time and will be sure to keep delivering. Whether on a global or a smaller scale, Great Britain can expect a highly skilled, dynamic team, full of fast pace, stamina and above all, fitness. And if there is one thing we are consistent at, we will always give it absolutely everything and leave nothing behind. That is how we play.”

But even though Kate’s job as captain to an extent embodies a tough exterior, one can’t help but wonder who her chief inspiration was and who supported her with any burdens of her own. “My parents have been my biggest influence – I’d say my Dad in particular. He just knew I wanted and needed to do this. He had to drive me and my sister for one hour and a half, twice a week and wait in the car while we did our training. He also made me do my running when I really didn’t want to! Mum is also very supportive, always sending ‘good luck’ cards and visiting me when we tour. I am extremely grateful to both of them.”

It seems that for Walsh, and for Great Britain’s female hockey team, the future is bright. “When we finish with hockey we want to try and ensure that people have the same opportunities as we did: that this kind of success is actually attainable for people with a passion for hockey.”

Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, support women’s hockey from grass roots level through to Great Britain