Penalty shoot-outs are nerve-wracking in any sport. Players and spectators alike know that one miss could be the difference between victory and defeat, joy and despair.
There is little margin for error, but the stakes are even higher in hockey. Each penalty-taker has eight seconds to dribble the ball from the 23- yard line and score. The shuffle is as tense as the name implies. And so, Great Britain captain Kate Richardson-Walsh could have been forgiven for some extra nerves as the women’s Olympic hockey final in Rio reached the end of normal time.
A thrilling match against the Netherlands had finished 3-3, and the shuffle was about to begin. Remarkably, she says she was far from fazed. “I was actually as calm as I think you can be in that situation. “I had an overwhelming sense of readiness. I knew how much work had gone into the penalties from the staff, players and goalkeepers.
“Every detail had been thought about, practised and reviewed – there was no more to be done.” That hard work paid off as Britain edged out the reigning champions 2-0, with Hollie Webb slotting home the decisive penalty to win the first Olympic gold for a GB women’s hockey side. Richardson-Walsh and her wife Helen also made history as the first married couple to win gold for Britain since 1920. “Looking back on it, it somehow felt inevitable.”
The image of Richardson-Walsh and her unbeaten side celebrating the winner summed up a remarkable summer for Britain. They recorded their best medal haul at the Games since 1908, coming second only to the United States. It may have been one of 67 medals won, but this one seemed to count even more. And yet, Richardson-Walsh does not see the gold medal or her record 375 international caps as her greatest accomplishment.
Instead, she is proud of the collective journey which led to that victory. “It would be easy to say the gold medal in Rio was my biggest achievement, but I feel being a part of establishing the foundations for the GB central programme back in 2009 was a huge turning point for myself and the whole squad.
“It enabled us to spend so much more time together to build a culture, work on our style of play and set pieces.
“We saw gains very quickly, culminating in that success.” The 2016 Olympics also represented the culmination of a long journey for Richardson-Walsh herself. Despite playing hockey regularly at school, she had no realistic aims to become a full-time player, much less an Olympic athlete. Soon, however, she would be making her debut for Britain. At 23, she was made captain of the senior side. That same year, she graduated from Brunel University with a 2:1 in Sports Science.
“As a 23-year-old it was quite daunting, with some big-name players and huge experience in the squad. “It took me a while to truly find my feet. In the end, I stuck to my values as a person and tried to lead with authenticity and care at all times.” Those leadership skills were often put to the test, such as when she played on with a broken jaw during the 2012 Olympics. Despite the injury, she captained the side to a bronze medal, demonstrating her fearless attitude.
But Richardson-Walsh had to cope with several other setbacks over the course of her international career. The Mancunian singles out her side’s failure to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and finishing 11th out of 12 teams at the 2014 World Cup as her two main disappointments as captain, both of which she felt “very responsible” for. The latter prompted a three month sabbatical and a “lengthy period of self-reflection” following the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
It also led to soul-searching for the squad as a whole. Richardson-Walsh returned to the fold in January 2015 to help establish a new sense of unity among the side. The squad became more resilient, ultimately leading to the gold medal. Twice they fell behind in the final against the Netherlands; twice they rallied back to take the match to penalties. Given how her team captured the hearts of British viewers, surely hockey deserves the same status as other national sports?
“I think hockey should have more media coverage and be broadcast on a more regular basis, but there needs to be changes to enable this to become reality.
“Netball is a great example of a sport that has been boosted hugely by private backing and regular broadcasting on Sky Sports.
“Although the women’s team have brilliant support from our sponsors Investec [who sponsor both England and Great Britain’s women’s hockey teams], we really need more corporate support to ensure we aren’t so reliant on government funding via the National Lottery.
“It’s a catch-22 situation. Without the TV coverage sponsors are reluctant to get involved and without sponsors, we are unable to create a TV-worthy package to showcase the sport.” Richardson-Walsh left international hockey on a high note following the Rio Olympics, but she does not boast a life of luxury like most retired Premier League footballers.
She says National Lottery funding has been vital, but that it remains “nigh on impossible” to get on the housing ladder in Britain with her average total earnings, which amount to “around £20k” including sponsorship. The lack of funding is a common thread in women’s sport. Richardson-Walsh is an outspoken ambassador for the Women’s Sport Trust, and is determined to make a difference when it comes to gender equality. She sees women’s sport as an “untapped area of growth”.
“It is well-documented that, for a relatively minimal financial investment, companies can get a massive return when choosing to invest in women’s sport.” The media, she says, have just as vital a role to play in the fight for equality. It was partly due to the lack of coverage of women’s sport that she was initially discouraged from becoming a hockey player.
“You have to be able to see it. I didn’t think I could ever be a professional female athlete growing up because I didn’t see any in my day-to-day life.
“The day I open a weekend broadsheet, turn to the sports section and read about male and female sports in equal measure, I know we will have cracked it.” This seems to be the next challenge on the horizon for Richardson-Walsh.
As in Rio, she is nerveless. “The media can stop hiding behind the lazy notion that women’s sport won’t sell papers. “Women’s sport is celebrated and applauded every four years. If it sells papers then, it can sell papers the rest of the year.”
Finally, I ask if she has any advice for students looking to balance sport with academic achievement at university as she did. “Having attained my degree in Sports Science at Brunel whilst training as an international athlete, I would say the most important thing is planning.
“It sounds boring, but being able to pinpoint potentially busy periods in your sporting calendar and cross-referencing with your academic calendar can help you plan for any clashes. Lecturers and universities want you to complete your studies just as much as you do and can help you juggle all of your commitments.”
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons