Sam Ward celebrates scoring the match's opener
Twenty months after almost losing an eye in an horrific accident, masked hero Sam Ward completed a remarkable comeback by scoring the opening goal in Great Britain men’s opening hockey game in Tokyo.
The striker needed just two minutes to find his range with a ferocious drag-flick in Britain’s 3-1 opening Pool B game victory over South Africa.
But the strike had far more significance for Ward, who thought his career was over after a shot from team-mate Harry Martin, travelling at about 50mph, hit him directly in his left eye during Great Britain’s playoff win over Malaysia in Nov 2019.
Ward, now 30, suffered a shattered eye socket, seven facial fractures and a torn retina. To repair the fractures without leaving a scar, the skin on Ward’s face had to be peeled back from behind the ear – Face/Off style – but even so, he was left with four metal plates in his cheek and 31 metal screws to match the 31 staples across the top of his scalp.
"It was £17 for each screw. They stay in for good. But honestly, I cannot thank the NHS enough," said Ward, speaking in December 2019, a month after the accident. "I just have to try my best, do what I can and what will be will be. If I can I can, if I can’t I can’t. I’d just have to take it on the chin. I’m fit and healthy. I’ve got my limbs. I’ve got everything in life. I might just not play hockey again."
But it was not just the physical reminders he was left with either. For months afterwards, just hearing the sound of a hockey ball being struck would trigger "painful" flashbacks for the Rio 2016 Olympian, plus there were also frequent "night terrors" in his sleep in which people try to attack his "good" eye.
Many, including Ward himself, thought his hockey days were no more but with the help of sports psychologist Katie Warriner, whom Ward credits with keeping his mental health in check, plus family and team-mates he was able to return first for his club Old Georgians and then move back into the GB set up. Having "cried his eyes out" when telling his parents of the extent of his injury, there were instead tears of joy when he gained his second Olympic call up earlier this summer. "There are so many pieces to the puzzle who have made such a difference to me," he said.
The admirably optimistic Ward still has a “dead spot”, or blind spot, in his left eye and he chooses to play in a mask more to protect his good eye. Speaking to Telegraph Sport last month, he said: “I’m lucky that my right eye is good. I’ve done all sorts of neural training, eye-tracking and so on, to try to retrain the brain to ‘see around’ the blind spot. But it is what it is. Time is a healer. The more I go about day-to-day life, like anything, you just kind of learn to live with it. You’ve got to crack on, haven’t you?"
His positive attitude transferred onto the pitch at June’s European Championships, where he scored six goals to finish as the joint top scorer and cement his status as one of the top forward players in the world game.
And the marksman clearly carried that form into Tokyo with his quick-fire goal at the Oi Hockey Stadium while another low attempt was stopped by goalkeeper Erasmus Pieterse.
Sam Ward is congratulated by team-mates
His initial celebrations were briefly curtailed when Matt Guise-Brown’s precise drag flick found the corner of the net just a minute later but Britain rode out the mini South African storm before Liam Ansell’s second-half goal and Jack Waller’s late deflected effort sealed victory.
The team next plays Canada on Monday and will be looking for maximum points against another lower ranked team before their pool stage closes with daunting matches against World Cup winners Belgium, newly-crowned European champions the Netherlands and Rio bronze medallists Germany. Five years ago in Rio the team failed to progress out of the pool stages while the women, then led by current men’s coach Danny Kerry, went on to win Olympic gold.
Coming into the tournament, Ward declared his team were "definitely in the top three fittest sides at the Olympics, if not the fittest" and their superior levels told against the South African side.
“I think we performed well, we just didn’t take our chances," he said afterwards. “I think early in the tournament, you are here just to put on the best show possible. We are building into it and the big games later on are what we really need to focus on. We have got to take points early on and make sure we win those games.”