Ireland Hockey ace, Chloe Watkins talks about the emotional rollercoaster of a 10-year journey to achieving Olympic qualification, the team’s hopes for Tokyo 2020 and inspiring the next generation of hockey stars.

It’s an Olympic qualifier game, we’ve drawn the match, so it goes to a shoot-out. Momentum shifting from side to side. We can’t be separated, so it goes to sudden death. We are on the brink of becoming the first Irish hockey team to qualify for the Olympic Games. Then in a moment, it’s ripped away. We lose. Total heartbreak.

It feels like we have fallen off a cliff.

The cycle of the team has ended, our management finishing up, players retire. We are back to square one. Time to start all over again.

My sister was standing next to me on the pitch that day after the shoot-out. I turned to her and said, “I can’t go through this again for another four years.”

We hadn’t thought past qualifying for the Olympics. Not just as hockey players but as people, we hadn’t thought past that moment, so we didn’t know what to do next. There was just a giant void.

The rug gets pulled from under your feet, and you’re left thinking, “I’ve done everything possible and given everything I can, what now?” For a long time afterwards, questions run through your head, “Was it worth the sacrifice, or was it all just a big waste of time?”

That was June 2015 in the World Hockey League quarter-final in Valencia having just been knocked out by China.

Ireland's Chloe Watkins and Jiaojiao De of China during Hockey World League Quarter-Final, Valencia, Spain, 2015 ©INPHO/Stanislas Brochier

Ireland’s Chloe Watkins and Jiaojiao De of China during the Hockey World League Quarter-Final, Valencia, Spain, 2015 ©INPHO/Stanislas Brochier

A lot of people didn’t see the pain we had to go through from that devastating defeat to where we are now – preparing for Tokyo 2020.

That’s sport though. It’s cruel, and we’ve learned some harsh lessons. But it also gives you incredible highs like this team experienced in Donnybrook, and London, and everything in between. That’s why we love to play hockey for Ireland. It’s everything to us. That’s why we kept going and ultimately achieved our goal, albeit four years later.

Following the defeat to China in 2015, it took the guts of 12 months to get the squad back to a good place. We struggled. It was a grieving process. It might sound ridiculous saying that because there are so many tougher things that people have to deal with in their everyday lives, but that is what it felt like.

We had a few girls who joined the squad who were amazing, so that went a long way for us to heal the wounds from Valencia. As a group, we decided that there was nothing else to do but put everything on the line and put ourselves in a position to qualify again.

You prepare yourself to miss out on weddings, family events, seeing friends, progressing your career. When someone asks you to do something the answer they always get is, “Sorry, I have training”. I can count on my hands the number of times I have seen my friends since last year, but that’s the commitment it takes to play for Ireland, and the privilege of that is never lost on me.

By the time it came to the World Cup in London last year, we were ready to hit the ground running. The people of Ireland love their sport, and they definitely love a bandwagon, so we were delighted to see the reaction and how people got on board. We were winning and enjoying ourselves, and very aware that the opportunity we had doesn’t come around often. For many of the people watching it was all new, but for us, it was years in the making.

Ireland Anna O'Flanagan and Chloe Watkins celebrate with their silver medals Hockey Women's World Cup Final, London, 2018 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Ireland’s Anna O’Flanagan and Chloe Watkins celebrate with their silver medals following the Hockey Women’s World Cup Final, London, 2018 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Other countries at the tournament couldn’t believe the support we got from home. The homecoming reception in Dublin, RTE getting on board and broadcasting some of our games. It was incredible.

It was what I dreamed of being part of from when I was a little girl.

My dad and brother both played for Ireland, so I grew up with a stick in my hand. It was totally my choice, hockey was never forced on me, that surprises a lot of people. I just loved sport. I played football for Cabinteely FC, I played tennis too, but hockey was the route I chose.

Dad was big into coaching, he would have retired from playing before I was old enough to see him play, but most of my early childhood memories would be standing at the side-line of matches in full ski suits in the middle of winter when we were four or five, watching hockey matches.

Hockey is such a great game. It is where I have met all of my friends, which is probably what kept me playing, to be honest. It was never a chore. I was always buzzing to get down to the pitch and play.

Any family holiday was planned around travelling to see my brother play. Wherever in Europe he was, Holland or Spain, that was the holiday destination, and we loved it. I can think of two holidays ever that weren’t based around hockey. It shows how much we love the sport, as a family.

My sister was a year ahead of me in school, so she paved the way for me. My brother is seven years older than me. I remember going to watch him play for the Irish U16 team, and the girls were playing at the same tournament. I was standing on the side-line with my grandma, and she said to me, “There’s the girls’ Irish team.” I was only ever exposed to men’s hockey, so I was shocked to learn there was a girls’ team as well.

Chloe (aged 10) with her family following her brother Gareth's gold medal win with Ireland at the U-18 European Championships in Holland in 2002. © Chloe Watkins.

Chloe (aged 10) with her family following her brother Gareth’s gold medal win with Ireland at the U-18 European Championships in Holland in 2002. © Chloe Watkins.

I thought to myself “Okay, that’s me sorted so; I’m going to play hockey for Ireland when I’m older.” I was seven years old at the time.

I often think back to that moment. Especially now that we’ve qualified for the Olympic Games.

It is going to be very tough in Tokyo, and I’m taking nothing for granted. I think about some of the other athletes that are going to be at the games who are superstars in their sport like Simone Biles. It’s hard to imagine that if all goes to plan for me over the next few months, I will be an athlete competing at the same event as her.

There will be a lot going on between now and the Olympics with our training so that’s what I have to think about, first and foremost. Staying fit is the main goal and being fit for selection, getting on that plane.

Before the qualifier with Canada, I was having a coffee with one of the girls. We were saying to each other, “If we don’t get qualification this time around it will have been 10 years of our lives wasted.” I know we shouldn’t be thinking like that, but that was how much it meant to us. We wanted to bring our sport into the Olympics and show other girls in Ireland what is possible. That’s what drives you to seize the moment and step up in a shoot-out.

I was number five to take the penalty to put us through. I was ignoring everything around me and focusing on putting it in. I wasn’t following the score, if I let myself think that way, I would have tripped over my feet walking to the ball.

Ireland's Chloe Watkins in action during the Olympic Hockey Qualifier Second Leg, Dublin, 2019 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Ireland’s Chloe Watkins in action during the Olympic Hockey Qualifier Second Leg, Dublin, 2019 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

I watched it back a few days later and felt sick with nerves even though I knew the outcome of the game. I watched myself calmly score it and didn’t know how I stayed so cool.

Nicci scored, Ayeisha was making saves, Beth scored, we had momentum. All I was thinking was, “We are not losing again.” I put it away, and Roisin edged us ahead.

Our families didn’t thank us for the stress that we put them through, but that’s how it is; it’s harder for the spectators.

The atmosphere in Dublin was better than in London even though it was only half the capacity. There was such a buzz in Donnybrook, people were in their seats an hour before the game, we couldn’t hear what people 10 feet away from us were saying. We were thinking what it must be like for professional sports players who play in front of 40,000 people every week.  We had the two best days of our entire lives that weekend, it was like playing in Wembley or something, it was mad.

It was special to have our families there too because they have gone through all of this with us. They were probably more relieved than we were. They were allowed on to the pitch after the game, which was cool. They experience all of the lows with us and have to endure that, so it’s only fair they get to experience all of the good parts as well. Beth had her 93-year-old granddad there, it’s those moments that are extra special.

As we’ve been getting more media coverage and more people come to see our games, people are starting to say we are role models for their daughters and their kids. I can see myself in that because I was going to the games as a kid myself, the excitement was always there, and it is spreading. All clubs are experiencing surges in their junior sections, which is what our sport needs. There are even new clubs popping up.

We are amateurs, so following all the excitement we have to return to everyday working life. I’m a trainee accountant with Mazars who’ve been very good to me.

Leaving Ireland camp can be like someone throwing cold water over you. We’ve developed a fantastic culture within the squad over the years. That culture is built off the pitch, it isn’t something that just happens as a by-product of playing together. It exists because, in times of pressure and adversity, you need to rely on the person beside you to put their body on the line. As a group, we don’t hide from our responsibility. When you’re in that atmosphere you form a special bond. So, when you have to walk away and get back to normal life, it can be very emotional. You realise how much being part of the Ireland team means.

This group has huge ambition. Going to Tokyo, nothing else other than a medal will be on our minds. Qualifying isn’t the be-all and end-all, a medal is what we really want – that is the end goal. Nobody wants to be the token “Aren’t they great” team. We have earned the support. We are one of the most successful Irish teams there has ever been. All we’re doing is trying to be successful, and we know that success promotes interest in our sport.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. It isn’t the “women’s hockey team”, it’s just, “the hockey team”.

Irish players celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, 2019 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Irish players celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, 2019 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Everyone is getting behind it. It’s what the 20×20 campaign is all about, and it’s fantastic to play a part in that. It’s so that we can make the most of what happened in Donnybrook a few weeks ago. We need to inspire more young athletes so that they can experience moments like that, especially if they have no background in the sport, that’s how we grow the game.

My mum didn’t come from a hockey background. She was pushed into this life of hockey, and she has become the biggest fan. She is normally the one who freaks out during the shoot-outs while Dad is relaxed, reassuring her. When she saw how frantic my dad was in Donnybrook she started to panic. Dad is hugely passionate; I don’t think I get my calm demeanour from him.

When I was playing underage, Dad was the one driving the team, bringing us to tournaments in Holland, and coaching us every weekend. He couldn’t believe how many people were in Donnybrook. He said he never thought in his lifetime he would see hockey being on the front page of the newspapers. That was the biggest thing for him. He battled his way to the barrier after the match and was hanging over the edge to celebrate with me.

We play for those moments. You just can’t buy that feeling.

We’ll be chasing more of those moments in Tokyo.

 

Chloe,

November 2019.

If you enjoyed Chloe’s piece you might like Nicci Daly’s – “Hockey In The Fast Lane”.

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