Some people say that the challenging moments in your life teach you the most about yourself. That the disappointments you experience make you a stronger person in the long run. 2016 has thrown up its fair share of challenges. In no way would I say that things have gone exactly the way that I had planned, or hoped. But the lessons I have learned and the experiences I have had this year have been invaluable. In this piece, I hope to provide a little bit of insight into the highs and lows that an elite athlete experiences. There is so much more to being an athlete than what you see out on the field.
2016. Olympic Year. It’s what every elite athlete strives towards. After a disappointing fifth place finish in London in 2012, redemption in Rio was at the forefront of my mind. Since London, the Hockeyroos had risen from seventh to second in the world. From the end of 2012 to the end of 2014 we made the final of every major international tournament, we won a silver medal at the 2014 World Cup, closely followed by a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. We had the realistic belief that we were well on track to be a serious medal contender in Rio.
From 2012 I was a regular in the Hockeyroos line up, but in no way did I ever feel secure in my position. I was constantly being challenged to make improvements in my game to ensure that I remained in the first team picked. A criticism that I often received was that despite my potential and skill, I would play too safe, too conservative, and never make a big enough impact on the game, despite always being a solid contributor to the team. If I didn’t change I would soon be left behind.
At the World League Finals in December 2015, I believe I had a breakout tournament. I was playing with a new level of confidence and freedom that I had never experienced before. I felt amazing. At the end of the tournament, my individual feedback was nothing but positive. I was told that I was the best performing striker at the tournament, and less than a year out from the Olympics, I was in a pretty good place. But of course I knew I couldn’t rely on those performances to get me through. I had to keep improving.
In January 2016, the entire Hockeyroos squad travelled to Singapore for a training camp, and to play some matches against Holland and Germany. After all the progress I felt I made at the end of 2015, just one month on and I felt like I was back to square one. I was only picked to play in one out of the four test matches, and it was again being questioned whether I was doing enough to set myself apart from the rest.
Over the next few months we played numerous international matches and intra-squad matches. Sometimes I was in the top team, and sometimes I wasn’t. I was feeling very insecure.
In June, I was selected in the 18 women squad to compete at the Champions Trophy in London. Taking place every two years, the Champions Trophy essentially consists of the top eight nations in the world. This year the tournament also served as important preparation for the Olympics, which began at the beginning of August. It would provide teams with their last serious hit out before heading to Rio. The opportunity to finalise strategies, structures, and of course, personnel. Although every other international hockey tournament in the world allows teams to play 18 players, the Olympics is the exception, permitting only 16 (plus three travelling reserves who could be called up if there was an injury). So although getting picked in the Champions Trophy team was an important step towards Olympic selection, it in no way guaranteed it. It was made pretty clear that if you performed at the tournament, you would go a long way to booking your plane ticket to Rio. If you didn’t, the coaches would look elsewhere. Pretty simple really. However the fact that only 16 could go to the Olympics constantly played on my mind. It was common knowledge amongst the group that of the 18, it would be a striker (my position) and a goalkeeper that would be dropped.
The Champions Trophy was one of the most emotional, stressful and mentally draining tournaments that I had ever played in. This was probably not the optimal frame of mind to be in when you know that you play your best when you are confident and free.
In no way would I say that I had a terrible tournament, but there were a couple of games in particular where I felt so weighed down by the pressure I put on myself to perform, that I know it affected my performance. Normally I pride myself on my ability to play under pressure and not think too far ahead, but I just couldn’t shake off the weight of impending Olympic selection.
I finished the tournament goalless, which wasn’t ideal when your job as a striker is primarily to score goals. I felt pretty ordinary.
On our last night in London we gathered as a team to debrief the tournament and discuss what needed to be done in our final month of preparation leading up to Rio. We had just finished fourth, losing the bronze medal game to the USA on shootouts. Given that our goal was to win gold in Rio, it was clear that there was still a fair bit of work to do.
Of course there were many technical and tactical points that were addressed, and also some physical improvements that could be made. Although we were once believed to be one of the most physically dominant teams in world hockey, we could still be fitter, faster, and much leaner than we currently were. So we were told that we shouldn’t be eating processed foods, including bread, pasta and of course refined sugar, until the team departed for Rio, to ensure that we were at our absolute physical peak.
I remember sitting there thinking “this is absolute bullshit. There is nothing wrong with having a piece of bread!” But whether it was right or wrong, I think a part of me wanted the challenge, and to prove that I was 100% committed to the cause. So I made a deal with myself that I would live an unprocessed, bread free, refined sugar free life (I had already been off refined sugar for about a month. I even begrudgingly said no to my passionfruit baked cheesecake birthday cake) until the end of the Olympics.
The next morning we hopped on a plane back to Australia. Olympic selection was in a few days, and fortunately we were given the week off so that we could be in our home states surrounded by our families when the team was announced.
The flight from London to Melbourne is a long one, and it left me a lot of time to reflect. In the meeting the previous night we had also been told that every athlete in the room would be in Rio, in one way or another. That meant you were either going to be in the 16, or you were one of the reserves. Deep down, I knew that I would be one of the reserves.
I arrived home in Melbourne and gave Mum a huge hug. I immediately broke down in tears.
“I don’t think I will be able to handle being a reserve”, I cried.
Of course the team hadn’t even been announced yet, but I could just feel it, and I knew my Mum could too. I knew that I had given it everything I could, and ultimately I didn’t have any regrets (except for maybe not slotting a couple of goals at the last tournament), so I think in a way I was more concerned about what other people would think. Having played over 180 games for the Hockeyroos at the age of 24, and being at the London Olympics in 2012, I felt that people would just be expecting me to be picked for Rio. I just didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Mum did her best job to comfort me “You know we are all so, so proud of you. You have already achieved so much. Yes, this will be hard. But you will be able to get through it”.
Over the next couple of days leading up to the announcement I caught up with a few of my old school friends. I banned all talk about hockey. I was worried I would probably break down again.
The team was due to be announced via email on Friday morning, and conveniently I had scheduled a coffee catch up with one of my friends at that time. I turned off my phone, told my Dad to read the email, text me the news, and I would look at it when I had finished up.
When I said goodbye to my friend, I shakily turned on my phone and waited for a message to pop up. Dad: “You are a reserve. I’m so sorry”.
Although I knew it was coming, it was still hard to have it officially confirmed. I was a bit unsure what to do next. Both my parents were at work, and all I really wanted to do was stuff my face with Nutella pancakes, but I was determined to stick to the deal I made with myself (technically Rio still wasn’t over for me, if there was an injury I could be called in, and I wanted to be in the best condition possible if that was to happen). So I went to a café nearby, sat by myself and ate a mixed grain salad with tears in my eyes.
Now, I am a pretty conservative person. I don’t like to break the rules, and generally I am a pretty sensible type of person. So it came as a surprise to many that the day after the team was announced I booked myself in to get a tattoo. I often thought I would be the last person to ever get a tattoo. In fact, I always said that the only one I would ever consider getting would be the Olympic Rings.
I put a bit of thought into it, and decided to get an arrow on my wrist. “An arrow must be drawn back to propel forward with force”.
My parents were quite supportive. The only condition was that the little arrow doesn’t turn in to a full sleeve!
We weren’t due back in Perth for training until Monday. The training session was only for the selected 16, plus the reserves. The other members of the squad who had missed selection were not required back until later in the week.
By this stage I had already had many discussions with the two other reserves, Anna Flanagan and goalkeeper Ash Wells, about how we were going to get through the next few weeks.
For me it meant facing the rest of the team, and coaches, as soon as possible. Both Anna and Ash felt they needed a bit more time to process, and so chose not to go to the Monday session, a decision I fully respected as I know everyone deals with disappointment differently.
But personally I knew the longer I waited, the harder it would be, so on Monday morning I put on my bravest face and turned up to training.
As I expected, it certainly wasn’t easy. The group was full of excitement, and rightly so. They were going to the Olympics! We had a bit of time to congratulate each other with hugs and big smiles. I received lots of hugs too, but they felt a bit more sympathetic. I could tell it was a bit awkward for the selected girls to know what to say to me, but I did my best to keep a smile on my face. At least I had fun showing off my new tattoo!
At the end of the session, I met quickly with the coaches. They told me what I already suspected. It wasn’t that I wasn’t playing well; there were just people that were playing better.
Sitting in the car on the way home, I actually felt a lot lighter than I had in ages. I was so relieved to have successfully cleared that hurdle. I received a few messages in the coming days commenting on my strength of character for turning up to that session. That really meant a lot to me.
We had a couple of weeks of training in Perth before heading to Chile for a pre-Olympic camp. Of course you never want one of your friends to go down injured, but every time there was a niggle, or a trip to the physio, it left me with a bit of hope that I may get a call up.
As we boarded the plane to Chile, that bit of hope was now pretty slim. After a week in Chile where we had numerous training sessions, meetings and a couple of practice matches, it was finally time to head to Rio. Upon arrival in Rio, we went straight to the Olympic Village to receive our accreditation. The first big kick in the guts was having our temporary accreditation ripped up, and receiving our new accreditation. It was basically the same, except for the big letter ‘P’, instead of the letter ‘A’. We were not athletes. We were reserves. And as reserves we were not permitted to stay in the Village.
Feeling a bit dejected, we grabbed our bags and walked 400m down the road to our Air BnB accommodation that was to be our home for the next couple of weeks.
Along with my fellow reserves Ash and Anna, we were also lucky enough to have our sports physiologist, Claire Rechichi, staying with us. In a way she became the on tour Mum to our little family. We called ourselves the Little Wins crew. That was going to be our motto for our time in Rio. We knew it was going to be a challenging experience, but it would be the Little Wins that would help get us through. Every piece of uniform we got #littlewin! Every event we got into without a ticket #littlewin! Every time our toilet flushed successfully (Rio was not known for its brilliant plumbing) #littlewin!
The next couple of weeks brought with it a rollercoaster of emotions. When the team did poorly, it was disappointing, but I also couldn’t help but think, would I have made a difference if I was out there? When the team did well, of course I was happy for them, but also pretty jealous that I wasn’t a part of it. I know it sounds a bit selfish, but I challenge anyone in the same position to not experience similar thoughts.
The other difficulty was finding the right balance of involvement with the team when it came to meetings, trainings and other commitments. With the possibility of a potential call up, we had to remain switched on and active. But being around the team all the time became quite mentally draining, and we ran the risk of being completely burnt out if we were needed.
In the end we decided that most importantly we needed to keep our hockey in good touch, and our bodies active, but keep our minds reasonably fresh.
During competition, the team rarely trains, and if they do the sessions are very light, more strategic. So to ensure we didn’t let our fitness levels drop too much, Anna, Ash and I would do make up sessions, including extra hockey, running and gym. These were often self-driven, and usually done pre game on the practice pitch next to the competition turf. As the spectators filed in for each match, they would walk past the practice pitch, and many would stop to observe our three man training session. Sometimes they would even cheer for us if we did a nice shot or made a good save. A little confidence boost!
We would then finish up, quickly shower and head into the stands to watch the game.
After a bit of a shaky start to the tournament, the girls made it through to the quarterfinals, where they came up against arch rivals New Zealand. Always a fierce battle against the Kiwis, the stakes were incredibly high as the loser would be knocked out of the Olympics; no second chances. Right from the opening minute of the game, I had a sinking feeling that the result would not be going in our favour. The Kiwis got on top early and dominated the game. With only a few minutes to go the writing was on the wall; we were 4-1 down and the dream of Olympic Gold was essentially over. Even before the final whistle blew (the game finished at 4-2), the tears were flowing. To be honest, I actually shocked myself at how much I was hurting. I know it sounds awful, but I always thought that if the team didn’t perform and I wasn’t playing, I would feel slightly satisfied, almost secretly pleased.
But there were none of those feelings. Instead I felt shattered. I think because I knew that it was about more than just this Olympics. It was about all the work we had put in over the last four years. The training sessions, the hours of culture meetings, the tournament wins, the rise in our world ranking, in the end it all meant nothing. I always thought that one of the great strengths of our group was how close we all were, and to see my friends absolutely heartbroken, I couldn’t help but share their pain. I know I said the same thing after London in 2012, but it makes me even more determined to never ever feel that again.
For us, Rio was officially done. That night I consumed six slices of pizza, a bowl of fries, three ice creams, a chocolate éclair, a hot chocolate and a couple of gin and tonics. Eating. Ban. Over! (For the record, heading into Rio I was in the best physical condition that I had ever been in, so something must have worked!)
And so our Rio adventure finally came to a close. Fair to say it wasn’t exactly the adventure I had been hoping for at the start of the year. I always thought that if I wasn’t selected for Rio, if we didn’t win a gold medal, the world would end (a little dramatic, I know, but that’s what crosses the mind of an elite athlete). But, amazingly, the sky didn’t fall down, and the ground didn’t open up (though there were a couple of minor earthquakes while we were in Chile!)
Yep, there were some pretty shitty days. But there were also plenty of good moments, lots of laughs, and some amazing experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything #littlewins!
Post Rio, we were given three weeks off before we were required to get back into training for this years Australian Hockey League competition to be held in Perth at the end of September. For a while I was tossing up whether to return for the AHL, or whether to take a bit more time off after a rather hectic year. Although the AHL is a serious competition, it is considerably more relaxed than our usual commitments with the Hockeyroos, so I felt that it would be a nice introduction back into hockey. I always have a blast with the Victorian girls, and a couple of my close friends in the team were considering it to be their last year, so I wanted the opportunity to play with them one last time. So it was decided that I would take my three weeks break, and then get back into it.
After what was such a stressful year, it was so nice to be able to fully let go of everything and just relax. I went on an amazing holiday with my boyfriend to Queenstown, NZ, where we went bungee jumping, white water rafting, speed boating and mountain biking (ok, maybe not everyone’s idea of “relaxing”) and ate my fair share of burgers and ice cream. It was just what I needed!
Feeling mentally and physically refreshed, I felt happy to pick up a stick again. We had a couple of weeks of small group training in Perth to get back a bit of touch, and fitness, before the start of AHL. Having done no training with the Victorian team prior to the tournament, I thought it might be a bit tricky to slot back in, but I immediately felt comfortable with the group. They are a great bunch! We had heaps of fun off the field, and importantly I was enjoying myself on the field as well. Playing for Victoria, it’s always about the team, not the individual. We have never relied on individual brilliance, rather a quality all round team game that prioritises passing and hard work. That game plan paid off, and we made it through to the final against Queensland. After losing to Queensland in the final the previous year, we were out for a bit of revenge. In a sense of déjà vu, we couldn’t quite get over the line this year either. Although a disappointing way to finish, it was an enjoyable week of hockey, and that was exactly what I was hoping for.
Standing around for the medal ceremony after the final, my mind was more focused on the pizza we were about to eat for dinner, rather than what the announcer was saying. As well as the winner and runner up medals, there are always a series of awards handed out at the end of each tournament; goalkeeper of the tournament, player of the final, and player of the tournament. Playing national level hockey since the age of 11 I had never been recognized for an individual award. Anyway, I thought I had had a pretty good tournament. I had scored a few goals and created lots of opportunities. But I didn’t really think much more of it, until the announcer said “Player of the Tournament…from the Victorian Vipers……”
Could it be???
I was slapped on the back by my teammates as I walked to collect my trophy. After a challenging year, it was something to smile about #littlewins!
2016 is still not over. In a few weeks, the Hockeyroos are heading to NZ for a Trans-Tasman series, followed by a few matches against India in Melbourne as part of the Festival of Hockey. I was thrilled to be named in the team for both of these tournaments. I can’t wait to pull on the bodysuit once again, and take this opportunity that I have been given, because you never know when it may be your last. To add to the excitement, it will be the first time since I made my debut for the Hockeyroos in 2009 that I will have the chance to play in front of a home crowd in Melbourne. I can’t wait!
Things in life might not always go the way you planned. There will be set backs, there will be hard times, and there will be moments when you wonder whether it is all worth it. But if it weren’t for those moments, the good times and the achievements wouldn’t mean nearly as much. I have learnt that life is all about celebrating the #littlewins... and one day they will turn into #bigwins!
Watch this space!
Proud Hockeyroo and red head. Ambassador for The Orangutan Project. Lover of all things food.
Follow Georgia Nanscawen on Instagram @Gnans02