Last November, armed with a bunch of flowers, I drove over to the Cheshire to have a cup of tea and a chat with a former athlete who, back in 1964, was responsible for my favourite ever moment in British sport.
She is Mrs Ann Brightwell now, but fifty-two years ago, she was Ann Packer, winner of the 800 metres at the Tokyo Olympics. The back story, the race itself, the time, the trackside embrace with her future husband… it encapsulated everything that can be truly magical about sport—and to be able to spend time in Ann’s company was nothing less than a privilege.
I am too young to actually remember the 1964 Games (despite appearances…), but in all the intervening years, I have never witnessed any sporting event that could come close to matching the brilliance, the drama, the achievement, the joy of those two laps in Japan—until last night.
Anyone who has been even a reasonably regular reader of my blogs will know how much I admire the GB women’s hockey squad. Their bronze medal at London 2012 was my highlight of the Games, last year’s EuroHockey triumph (albeit in the guise of England) was the most wonderful sporting theatre, and over the past couple of weeks, I have tried to keep anyone willing to listen and/or read up-to-date with the exploits of Kate Richardson-Walsh and her players over in Rio.
Their progress through to the final was hard to fault. From a crucial opening pool victory over Australia, there was a consistent improvement in performance resulting in the only unblemished record heading into the knockout phase. Spain (comfortably) and New Zealand (superbly) were then defeated to set up last night’s historic clash with the Netherlands, the reigning Olympic champions.
The respective world rankings of 7 and 1 pointed towards a third consecutive gold for the Dutch, but Team GB’s preparation, fitness, spirit and unwavering belief meant this was always likely to be a much closer contest than the bare rankings may have suggested. In addition, that 2015 EuroHockey success had been gained over the Netherlands (courtesy of a stirring last quarter fightback and thrilling penalty shoot-out victory) and so the stage was well and truly set for a memorable evening of Olympic action.
Fifteen minutes in, the British girls were in front; Lily Owsley nudging home from close-range after some superb play from Sophie Bray.
For the next forty-five nail-biting minutes though, even the rosiest-tinted pair of glasses couldn’t have hidden the fact that the Dutch dominated proceedings. Their stick work was fantastic to watch, they were a constant threat in open play and won enough penalty corners for the umpires to be suffering from RSI this morning, yet the British defence was breached just three times.
Maddie Hinch had set the tone by saving a penalty stroke early in the first quarter, and the defence repelled wave after wave of attack. Chances at the opposite end of the pitch were few and far between, but Crista Cullen’s flick somehow eluded the Dutch goalkeeper to level the scores at 2-2, but the Netherlands regained the lead in the third period and that single goal still separated the teams as the game entered the final ten minutes.
Just over a minute later Susannah Townsend and Lily Owsley combined to win Team GB’s first penalty corner. A goalmouth scramble resulted in a second penalty corner. Laura Unsworth’s shot was blocked and in the ensuing melée, Nicola White was able to reverse-flick the ball home and restore parity.
The closing eight-and-a-bit minutes are a bit of a blur to be honest, but with the final whistle came the realisation that the gold medal would be decided by a penalty shoot-out… and we had Maddie Hinch!
The respective keepers were in charge during the opening exchanges, but when Sophie Bray was fouled, a penalty stroke was awarded and Helen Richardson-Walsh stepped up to nervelessly convert from seven yards. Maddie Hinch held the Dutch at bay and when their fourth attempt struck the post, you just sensed it was to be our night… and a few seconds later, after Hollie Webb pushed the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and into the net, victory was assured and the celebrations could begin.
And what celebrations they were. I could try and describe those truly glorious scenes, but the best thing you can do is sit back and watch them for yourself. I was in tears… and I’m sure I was far from alone. I cried again when the National Anthem was played, and the Union Jack raised… and the depth of emotion on each of the girls’ faces was just a joy to behold.
It is hard to appreciate the enormity of what the British women’s hockey squad accomplished in just two short hours; one thing’s for sure, their lives will never be the same again. The media will rightly praise individual and collective achievement, but this squad wasn’t suddenly amazing last night… they’ve been amazing for years.
To claim bronze four years ago after the heartbreak of a semi-final defeat in front of a partisan home crowd was, in hindsight, a massive turning point. Obviously in any Olympic cycle there are ups and downs on and off the pitch, but London 2012 helped to create something very special indeed; and I’m just delighted that so many people had the chance to watch years of physical and mental exertion translated into the realisation of a dream.
Whatever the future holds for Dame (just putting it out there…!) Kate Richardson-Walsh and this incredible group of athletes, I just want to say congratulations to you all… and thank you. You are… and always have been amazing!