Team GB’s performances in Rio have been truly exceptional. To date 50 medals have been won, with the 19 golds currently enough to sandwich the United Kingdom between the sporting might of the USA and China in the medal table.
Success has come in such a wide variety of sports; some of the athletes are already instantly recognisable, others have suddenly become household names, and the lives of so many British sportsmen and women will undoubtedly change forever at the end of this South American adventure.
As with every Olympic Games, people will have their own particular highlights; moments where that sense of pride at the individual and collective achievements of fellow Britons have brought a tear or two to the eye… well at the risk of repetition, I am hoping my highlight is still to come.
Until last night, the progress of the women’s hockey squad had gone largely under the media radar, but a semi-final clash (and repeat of the 2012 bronze medal match) against New Zealand belatedly—and deservedly—earned Kate Richardson-Walsh and her players top billing in the BBC’s schedule.
Under the expert guidance of coach Danny Kerry and with Kate’s inspirational leadership, the girls had the only 100% record during the pool stage of the competition, the world’s seventh-ranked side overcoming countries ranked second and third in the process.
Topping the group earned a knockout quarter final against Spain and a brilliant first half laid the foundation for an ultimately comfortable 3-1 victory and a date with the Black Sticks….
If you missed last night’s game, I’m sure you’ll have heard the result, but those glued to their television screens were treated to an hour of wonderful action: skill, athleticism, bravery, tension, drama… and three goals that earned Team GB the right to face the Netherlands for the gold medal.
Alex Danson scored twice, the first a trademark close-range poacher’s finish, the second from a penalty stroke, just four minutes after Helen Richardson-Walsh had also netted from seven yards.
Helen left the field after seemingly tweaking her hamstring in the act of flicking the ball past the Kiwi goalkeeper, but she was far from being the only casualty, as Crista Cullen needed stitches in a head wound and Georgie Twigg was hit in the face by the ball; a high-speed and nasty-looking deflection that she had no chance of avoiding. I would reckon that Crista and Georgie will both play a part in the final, and I just hope that Helen was kept out of the remainder of last night’s game as a precaution; it would be terrible if she, or any of the squad, had to sit out the biggest game of their lives.
New Zealand more than played their part. They were a constant attacking threat, and came desperately close to scoring on a number of occasions, but the “narrow margins” which I mentioned in an earlier blog went the way of Team GB and whilst the win was undoubtedly deserved, the scoreline doesn’t fully reflect just how tight the game was until those two late penalty strokes were (rightly) awarded.
Up until the semi-final, I’d picked out a player of the match from each game during the competition, but there’ll be no selection from last night. Every single British player made a telling contribution; the girls were magnificent from 1 to… 28 (I think Nicola White has the highest squad number), and it simply wouldn’t be right to single out any one performance.
A medal is now guaranteed, but the message from both the British and Dutch camps will be that the final is all about gold. Ultimately only one nation will celebrate, but whatever the outcome, an Olympic final is the only rightful way for Kate Richardson-Walsh’s international career to come to an end.
I’ve said it before and make no apology for saying it again, Kate is just the most inspiring leader that any sporting squad could ask for. She is surrounded by players who are talented, dedicated, fit, strong and determined to leave everything out on the field for their captain. The girls will lack nothing in preparation, motivation and belief… and the same I’m sure will be true for the Netherlands. It promises to be a fantastic final, but the only prediction you’ll get from me is that whether it is gold or silver for Team GB, there will definitely be tears in my eyes.