Great Britain women's hockey team celebrate their gold medal success in Rio
Credit: Tom Pennington
There are few more iconic moments in British sport than Hollie Pearne-Webb leaping up and down in disbelief, her hockey stick hurled in the air, after scoring the winning penalty in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
By beating defending champions Holland in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to clinch the nation’s first women’s hockey gold, and delaying BBC News at Ten as 10 million people stayed glued to the final, the sport had its watershed moment.
The victory served as a springboard for the champions. Sam Quek was this month unveiled as the first female captain in the 50-year history of A Question of Sport. Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh – the first married couple to win an Olympic gold medal on the same team – were hailed as LGBTQ icons. For a country that continues to endure heartache in shoot-outs, goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, who saved four penalties after checking opposition notes in her “little black book”, became an overnight sensation.
Yet the outcome could have looked different had it not been for lengthy discussions among Britain’s coaching team about who would be their fifth penalty taker.
Karen Brown, the side’s assistant coach in Rio, says: “We decided it would be Hollie, about two minutes from the end of the final. We agreed to it over the radio. It was Hollie’s first Olympics – she’d never taken a penalty in any international competition, so no opposition had any video evidence on her – but she had played brilliantly in the final.”
Hollie Pearne-Webb celebrates scoring the winning goal in the penalty shoot-out
Masterminding the team’s defence was part of Brown’s remit, but her on-field presence during the final – with Danny Kerry, head coach at the time, preferring to watch from the stands – was equally important. When the shoot-out came, there was calm. “No one even mentioned the gold medal,” recalls Brown, Britain’s second-highest capped player who won Olympic bronze at the Barcelona Games in 1992. “The conversations were surreal. It was like we were back at Bisham Abbey in a training match against the Under-21s or a men’s team. As the fourth Dutch player walked up, Hollie was on my right shoulder. I said, ‘Hollie, if she misses and you score, we’ve won.’ Her eyes didn’t move. She just went, ‘Yep, got it.’ ”
Pearne-Webb is one of seven survivors of the gold medal-winning side who will start the defence of their Olympic title in Tokyo, following a tumultuous few years for the sport. With several top players retiring after Rio, the team struggled for consistency under new head coach Mark Hager and finished second bottom in their inaugural Pro League campaign in 2019.
At the EuroHockey championships that year, England suffered a bruising 8-0 defeat against Holland and failed to win a medal for the first time in 14 years. Last month’s EuroHockey championships were more disastrous still, with England unable to progress from their pool.
Off the pitch, questions began to swirl when several high-profile players unexpectedly transitioned away from the British set-up. Rio Olympian Nicola White was forced to leave the British programme 20 months after a head injury, while England Hockey apologised for how it handled the dropping of Suzy Petty when she was battling an eating disorder. In May, Great Britain international Emily Defroand unexpectedly retired at the age of 26.
Individual stories of personal pain and triumph intricately weave their way through the fabric of this Tokyo team. Yet perhaps the most inspiring narrative is the one that centres around Britain’s padded giant in goal. Hinch this year revealed she had been suffering from depression after struggling to live up to the “superhero” tag following Rio. She embarked on a constant quest for perfection and switched clubs to play in Holland.
Maddie Hinch produced heroics in goal for GB, but struggled with mental health issues after Rio success
“Some of the girls I played in that Rio final were my team-mates, which was a story in itself. People were then fascinated to see how I’d cope over there,” says Hinch, a three-time world goalkeeper of the year. “Holland has helped me grow as an athlete. I’ve become a better keeper from it. I never felt a pressure to prove to them, it’s always been a pressure to prove my worth within the GB hockey world.”
The player who had been coaxed into hockey by a PE teacher – who noticed how well she ducked and dived while fielding in a game of rounders – was even close to quitting the sport altogether. She planned her escape in the form of a three-month sabbatical in 2018, but it proved only a “short-term fix”.
“I hadn’t got on top of all the deep-down struggles that I was fighting,” Hinch reflects. Therapy – and going public with her mental health battles – has since helped her mould a more positive mindset. “I see happiness from winning, playing well, but the harsh reality of elite sport is that sometimes it does not go your way, despite doing everything in your power,” she says. “That’s why I have a different outlook on this one, but with the same kind of Maddy-drive to achieve.”
That sentiment has been echoed by UK Sport, which is adopting a more “holistic approach” to evaluating Team GB’s success at the Tokyo Games, rather than focusing solely on medals. It already appears a much-changed tone to the days when a young Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh were breaking into the British set-up. The pair both recall the agony when the team failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics, which resulted in hockey losing 70 per cent of its funding.
“I think it is good that they [UK Sport] are acknowledging that, however, I would say there is a balance,” says Helen, who recently took up a part-time role as a psychologist with Tottenham Hotspur Women. “I actually found the targets, that want to win and that desire to be the best you can be, really motivating and inspiring from a performance perspective.”
Despite the inconsistency of results and disruption over the past Olympic cycle, the general feeling is that the current squad can overcome the odds again.
Brown, who will be watching the Olympics from the sofa for the first time since 1998, says: “This team is on a unique journey. They’ve got to make their own history and create their own path, without the baggage of Rio.”