Olympic hockey star reflects on memorable year

By Chris Willmott Thursday 10 January 2013 Updated: 10/01 09:57

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Great Britain’s Sally Walton celebrates her Bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic hockey tournament, at the Riverbank Arena, Olympic Park, Stratford, East London, 10th August 2012.

It was a long time coming, and has gone in a flash.

However, it leaves behind all sorts of memories that have taken me to the depths and peaks of emotion that I will never forget.

For many years now I’ve been a member of the Great Britain Hockey Performance Squad based at the National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey in Buckinghamshire.

From here we have trained hard, and for most of the time competed for England in European and World Hockey Tournaments around the world. We only in fact come together as GB for the Olympics!

Over the last 4 years we have seen our world ranking rise from 6th to 4th, and this has been reflected in our Tournament placings.

In 2011, as England we won the Bronze Medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and then earlier this year we took Silver at the World Championships in Argentina, the highest achievement in hockey history.

In addition to Hockey I am a keen footballer and played for Aston Villa Ladies, although this had to be curtailed as the Olympics drew closer.

So we approached the Olympics with real ambition, albeit sufficiently grounded never to let complacency contaminate our mind.

However, as the Olympics drew closer, my natural worry was whether at the 11th hour my lifelong ambition would be dashed by not being selected for the GB Olympic squad which would both draw on the other GB countries and be a squad of 16 rather than the usual 18.

The squad was due to be announced in May 2012. The time leading up to this dragged very slowly and the weight of worry grew heavier with each passing week.

Helpfully along the way our spirits were held up as we first trained with the Marines and then were hosted at many glittering events, most notably being guests of honour at the Epsom Derby when the Queen was in attendance.

Then came the day of the Olympic Squad announcement. We had agreed as a squad that all 29 of the Performance Squad would receive an e mail at 8am on Tuesday …… outlining the 16 selected names for the Olympics.

I had spent the night before with a friend also in the squad, but come the morning I set off for home in Solihull and stopped at the Oxford Service Station to read the news.

My mobile pinged as the e mail came through and I shivered at the prospect of what I was about to read. I didn’t even read the words, I went straight to the list of 16. I just couldn’t believe it, it must be a typo?? There was my name, a member of the GB Olympic Squad for London 2012. I literally screamed out loud. I’m sure the people in the car next to me in the car park wondered just what was going on!

Back in Solihull my parents and brother were sitting having Breakfast with a friend staying with us visiting from Canada while they waited to hear the news. I rang home and had just about screamed the words ‘I’m selected’ when I lost the signal and the phone went dead. My Dad tells the story that Mum was asking ‘what did she say, is she in?’ He was so much in shock he refused to repeat what he thought he heard before I called back. Sharing that moment with the people nearest and dearest to me will always stick in my memory.

When I arrived home there followed the most fantastic Champagne breakfast you could imagine, laughing and crying and hugging, a high that probably equalled eventually winning the Bronze.

Following lots of calls the day became surreal. People often ask me wheat I did in the hours following selection, well I remember we took our Canadian visitor out for the day taking in the sights of Birmingham. I also visited my grandfather’s grave, took him some flowers and said thank you for the inspiration he was to me when he was alive as he was a massive driving force in teaching me the basis of the game.

If things had dragged on the lead up to selection, things were now speeding up as the Press whipped up a National frenzy. Everything was a publicity event including the most incredible Kitting Out process held at Loughborough University. I picked up enough Adidas, Next and Stella McCartney gear for me to open a shop, much of which is still unopened.

Moving to the Athletes Village was incredible suddenly to be surrounded by the best athletes in the world. Team GB certainly had simply the best of everything and we were the envy of the rest of the world. Nothing was spared. LOCOG not only thought of all our needs but also the thoughts and needs of the athletes ‘Nearest and Dearest’, credit to them all.

So, seven games between us and our Olympic goal. We started well with a 4-0 win against Japan in which I scored. The crowd was amazing which lifted us incredibly. Two more good wins and then our good start to the campaign faltered as we lost to China in the heats. We shouldn’t have lost this game though it wouldn’t stop us getting to the semi finals. In the semi’s we met Argentina, the World Champions. We still felt confident although on the day they turned up and we didn’t, until it was too late. I have never felt so drained as when the final whistle went. Most of us simply collapsed on the pitch, the dream of Gold was now over.

After a brief period of soul searching there followed rapid refocusing on the opportunity that still remained. It is a credit to every member of the squad and management team that by the time we went out to play New Zealand for the Bronze nothing was going to get in our way and we gave the performance we should have given against Argentina.

Then we moved to ‘Party Time’ which started in the world’s largest McDonalds at the Olympic Park moved on to Team GB House and then followed on to some great Clubs in the West End. Enough said.

The Bronze Medal remains the focal object through which London 2012 will be remembered but the list memories that will with me for the rest of my life include, the feverish support of the crowd in the stadium and indeed as it spread across the country, the bond I have with the squad, a real band of sisters. I loved the positivity that spread across the nation and how ‘bad news was suspended’ and the cynics silenced.

So as Olympics climaxed with the London Parade, everyone involved turned to the new challenge. How can maintain the positivity the Games created. How do we ensure the legacy of the games creates a positive mindset, how can we ensure youngsters turn to Sport, for all it can offer them, health, goals, ambition, plus team and work ethic and so many other positives?

Now comes the difficult part, living up to those ‘feel good’ words of the moment and putting in the hard miles converting sentiment in to action. All the Sports Clubs across the country are providing follow up and are having a real measure of success attracting youngsters to explore the benefits of Sport. Clearly National and Local funds are stretched but it should not be beyond the wit of leaders to find the way to exploit the network of Schools, Colleges and Clubs that already exist to provide healthy options and alternatives for our youngsters and hopefully have a good many more knocking on the door of selection for Team GB destined for Rio in 2016. It is called Inspiration and Leadership and we need more of it!

Since the Olympics I haven’t stopped and recently visited Buckingham Palace where I met the Queen plus many of the Royal Family and the Prime Minister, and I've loved every moment. Whether it is working with Schools across the Country, providing Coaching Clinics at Clubs and Colleges, attending fund raising events and Balls it is all providing great opportunity to work for the cause. People everywhere are just looking for some help.

Not surprisingly I am now looking the best way to rebalance my life, optimizing all I have learnt through a life pretty much dedicated to Sport. I have wonderful friends and family who have supported and funded my ambitions all this time and I owe them a lot. I am also developing my own web site though which I can interact with a wider network, watch this space.

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Sally scores the 3rd goal against Japan during their opening pool game in the London 2012 Olympic hockey tournament, at the Riverbank Arena.

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