Nine hours out of the house, eight and a bit in the car, 373 miles, all for a chance to fulfil one of my charity challenges. There might be some raised eyebrows, but if you want to know whether or not such a long drive and a long day was worth it, then please read on.
The destination was Leicester Grammar School, the event was a hugely important clash between the Leicester and Reading ladies hockey teams, but the real reason was an opportunity to meet those members of the two sides who had been part of the GB Olympic squad that had won a bronze medal at London 2012.
My sporting prowess (limited as it was) lay on a cricket field, but I played a fair bit of hockey at school—only muddy and bumpy pitches back then. I did have a reasonable goal scoring record in inter-school matches, although it becomes less impressive when you take out the deflections past our own goalkeeper! I was once accused of playing hockey like a cricketer—an inference I angrily rejected by flicking a free hit through square leg for four...
But in 1988, I made a point of getting up an some unearthly hour to watch the wonderful and captivating exploits of the GB men's hockey squad out in Seoul, which culminated in a dramatic semi-final victory over Australia, and a classic gold medal-winning performance in the final against the Germans—where were they? Frankly, who cares....
The progress of the ladies' class of 2012 was equally compelling, but a heartbreaking semi-final defeat to Argentina, left the team needing to beat New Zealand to secure the bronze medal. The game was scoreless at half time, but three goals in fairly quick succession in the second period, all from short corners (or are they penalty corners?) gave the girls an unassailable lead and the intense disappointment of the previous game was replaced by elation as the reality of their collective achievement sank in. I get extremely patriotic about all things Olympic: I shed a tear or two at the time, and I might admit to a similar reaction when I watched the New Zealand game again on Friday.
It was a wonderful sporting moment, but before we could meet some of those involved in person, Elaine and I had to actually get to Leicester. Our trek south was slowed by constant speed restrictions, stopped altogether by a bloody traffic jam, and pleasantly interrupted by a live interview for BBC Radio Leicester, which was conducted on a side road just off the M1 near Denby Dale (I think!). I was slightly stressed when the call came, so hope I came across okay—thanks to Becca and to Ed for taking an interest and allowing me to appear on your programme.
We finally arrived at the school and found the pitch (not muddy and not bumpy), the best part of five hours after we'd left home. There were less than ten minutes remaining, the scoreline was 2-1 in favour of the visitors, and that's how it stayed.
I am indebted to Sarah at the club for helping to arrange for me to meet and be pictured with the two Leicester players and the three from Reading who had been members of the GB Olympic squad. The only problem was that Nicola White and Hannah MacLeod had literally just finished on the losing side in a vital game, and even though they knew I was coming, I'm sure the last thing they wanted to do was stand with some old bloke they'd never met before and smile for a camera.
But they were lovely. They chatted away, and even brought along their medals for me to see—and put round my neck. The medals are surprisingly heavy... a comment that has been aimed at me down the years, and it was so kind of them to set aside their understand-able disappointment and help make the day so memorable.
I then had the chance to talk (and be photographed) with Reading's Alex Danson, Emily Maguire and GB captain Kate Walsh—in fact, that should say Kate Richardson-Walsh (congratulations Kate!). In the picture below, I am wearing Alex's medal, which had emerged from a sock thrown down from the balcony! I will be checking my sock drawer later, I won't find an Olympic medal that's for sure, but I have a feeling my 2004 Great North Run medal might be hidden away in there somewhere....
It might have been only twenty minutes out of nine hours, but it was a pleasure to meet five young women who are amongst the elite in their chosen sport, and who have accomplished so much. Actually, it was a privilege. And was it worth all those hours and miles on the road? Absolutely. Thank you so much Nicola, Hannah, Alex, Emily and Kate.
The journey north was thankfully much quicker, and we got home about half past seven—or wine o'clock as it's more commonly known. And that is basically the story of the longest day and the completion of my thirteenth task. Feel free to leave a comment and, if, after reading this, you would like to read more of my reasons behind supporting the mental health charity Mind, or even make a small donation, please click on the button for my Just Giving page. Thank you!
On re-reading this, I can see that I've said "thank you" quite a few times, but I need to say it once more before I finish: to my wife Elaine, simply the most important person in my life, and without whose love and support none of this would be possible x.