When British field hockey goalkeeper Abi Walker isn’t trying to stop balls smashed at speeds up to 70 miles an hour, she’s busy as a surgeon on the operating table. She sees similarities between the two skills.
The 30-year-old works one day a week in the hospital, training in plastic surgery or ear, nose and throat work. The rest of the time she spends with the Olympic hockey squad in the run-up to the London Olympics, starting July 27.
“In medicine, if you become very emotionally attached to it, it can cloud your thinking,” Walker, reserve goalkeeper for Team GB, said in an interview. “In hockey, you can have one situation which seems really critical, but you actually have to distance yourself from that. Particularly as a goalkeeper, if maybe you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve let in a goal, you can’t carry that with you through the whole game.”
The 28-women strong British team will know tomorrow morning whether they have made final cut. After training together at their base in Bisham Abbey, 34 miles west of London, for three years, a squad of sixteen women plus two reserves will be going to the games. Although the team won a four-nation test event on the bright blue pitch of the Riverbank Arena at the Olympic Park earlier this month without conceding a single goal, it sustained injuries to two key players, Crista Cullen and Alex Danson.
The British women have only made the podium once since their sport had its Olympic debut in 1980, winning bronze in Barcelona in 1992. Having failed to qualify for Athens in 2004, they finished sixth in Beijing. Bronze followed at the European Championships in 2009 and 2011.
In February, the fourth-ranked British team played in its first Champions Trophy final, losing to Olympic bronze medalists Argentina after beating third-ranked Germany. In the same tournament, they drew 2-2 with Olympic champion Holland, the world No. 1 on the rankings of the International Hockey Federation.
Walker will return to medicine full-time after the games. Sometimes the sport has had a negative impact on her medical career, she said.
“I’ll be honest, there have been times that I’ve been a little bit nervous about playing hockey,” Walker said. “I’ve had to sit some surgical exams with a broken finger, because I’d broken my finger in hockey the night before. There have been times when it has been a bit challenging.”
Scotland-born Walker isn’t the only member of the squad who’s combining top-level sports with a profession. Although British Hockey receives 3.8 million pounds ($6.2 million) a year in U.K. Sport funding and last year struck a five-year sponsorship deal with Investec Plc (INVP), a private bank with operations in the U.K. and Africa, many players have jobs or are studying because their sport doesn’t have a professional league.
Hannah MacLeod combined playing hockey for her club Leicester and the England and Great Britain teams with studying for a Ph.D. in exercise physiology at Nottingham Trent University. MacLeod, 27, also worked for GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK), the U.K.’s biggest drugmaker, as a sports scientist on its Lucozade energy drink. She left last November to dedicate her time to winning Britain’s first gold in women’s field hockey, and plans to go back to work after the games.
“It’s about time management and realizing how productive you can be,” MacLeod said, when asked how hard it was to combine work with trying to get fit to run as much as six miles a game. “I think there are a lot of athletes that are very used to a very comfortable life. Until you’ve actually realized how hard you can work perhaps in a different environment, it makes full-time hockey training a bit easier.”
Women’s hockey has been “transformed” since the team started training in Bisham Abbey three years ago, according to MacLeod. Better facilities, and support from the English Institute of Sport on nutrition and performance analysis, have “moved us from being ranked seventh in the world to a team competing for gold,” she said.
The 550-member British Olympic squad, the biggest ever, is expected to deliver a record medal haul on home soil. The country finished fourth in Beijing with 47 medals. Like MacLeod and Walker, 70 percent of the squad will be competing in their first Olympics.
London last hosted the Games in 1948, so no one has competed in front of an Olympic home crowd. The hockey team’s penultimate test before the Olympics will be the Investec London Cup on June 5-10.
“It does come with a particular pressure in that obviously there is going to be a crowd with expectations,” Walker said. “But I think that’s going to be a positive thing.”
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