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The Long Road to London

Words: Pietie Coetzee, Professional Hockey Player | Photos: Asfar Beg

The build-up to the South African Women’s team qualifying for the Olympic Games began 22 months ago, when our head coach Giles Bonnet was appointed. Since then it has been a long, anxious and exciting road to where we are now.

Over 100 Test matches have been played and there are another 18 to go before we come home for a few days in mid-July, ahead of departing for London with the rest of South Africa’s Olympic Games athletes on 19July. Then it’s setting up base in the Olympic village and training for about a week before the Olympic Games’ hockey matches start on 29 July. We will know by around 12 August where we end up, but a top-eight finish is definitely possible.

It’s been a huge sacrifice for the players, who have had to give up, or put on hold, so much to achieve this goal of qualifying for London 2012. First there was the preparation that began what seems like ages ago and then there was the setback of the official Olympic Games qualification path for us; winning the Africa Qualifier Tournament and not being accepted by our Olympic governing body, the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), who felt that qualifying in Africa was too easy.

Apart from winning the Africa tournament, SASCOC had said that we also needed to reach the final of the Champions Challenge tournament in Dublin, Ireland last June. We were unbeaten, scored the most goals and beat the eventual winners, Japan, 5-1 in a Pool A match, but lost out on an experimental rule that forced us to play a quarter-final instead of going straight into the semi-finals as the winners of Pool A. We lost to Spain on an extra-time golden goal. I broke the world goal scoring record in Dublin and while it was great to share this achievement with the team, the highlight of my hockey career, it was bitter-sweet in that we didn’t achieve the criteria SASCOC had given us.

It would have been very unfair for us to lose out on going to London 2012, having fulfilled the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) criteria, but not SASCOC’s. Eventually we were given a lifeline when the FIH, the IOC and SASCOC gave us the opportunity to play in another Olympic Qualifier tournament in Delhi, India. Again we were unbeaten, and this time we made absolutely certain of qualifying for London when we beat India in the final. I cannot describe the excitement and sheer relief the girls felt. I had missed two preliminary round matches due to a viral infection, yet my teammates and strike partners stepped up and got the job done. Everyone in the team plays for each other, it’s like a family, and the team spirit is amazing.

Photo credit: Afsar Beg

I am currently playing at Pinoké, a Hoofdklasse club team in Amsterdam, Holland, and in really good shape. I have increased my training and found a personal coach who helps with my explosive ability. I also make the most of Amsterdam’s incredible forests and parks by running almost every day. London 2012 will be my third Olympics and when it is over, I will complete my studies in emergency medical care at the University of Johannesburg – I’m in my fourth year – and take hockey coaching clinics at schools.

As far as our chances at this Olympics are concerned and looking at where we’re at, currently ranked 12th in the world, I think we have a good shot at eighth position. We’re not going to go for anything less than that. Around a dozen of us have already been to an Olympics before; for some of us it’s going to be our third Olympics, so we understand the distractions that are always present at an Olympic Games. Our collective experience will be valuable for the team as a whole.

Although it is not what we would have chosen, the mentally and physically draining qualification process and then the massive pressure to win in Delhi has matured the group. Add to that the superb programme Giles has developed leading up to London over the next few months and attention to detail that can make the difference between success and failure, there is no reason why we should not feel confident in ourselves. What I find really exciting is that each player, striving for a place in the Olympic team, is doing her absolute best to add extra value to the team through continual improvement in every aspect of their game. It’s really healthy for the group and I believe it will give us the capacity to perform when the pressure is on.

A massive amount of thought and effort from so many people has gone into our Olympic campaign; our Investec sponsorship has given us the means to make things happen, the SA Hockey Association has been behind us all the way, the amazing support we have had from the public back home, the dedication of the players, Giles’s fantastic support staff and specialist coaches and building up self-belief through spending so much time together in training, playing matches and on tour; these are the ingredients that make for a successful team that all South Africans can be proud of.