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“I THINK THIS WILL BE THE MOST UNPREDICTABLE OLYMPICS THERE’S EVER BEEN”

On August the 19th of 2016, an incredible figure of just over ten million people in the UK spent their Friday night glued to their TV sets as they witnessed one of Great Britain’s greatest ever Olympic achievements. After a dramatic and incredibly tense penalty shoot-out, Team GB overcame the odds to beat The Netherlands in the women’s hockey Olympics final to claim the gold medal for the first time in their history. The person who scored the crucial winning penalty was Belper’s very own Hollie Pearne-Webb.


What Hollie helped to achieve that night cannot be downplayed. The nail-biting Olympics final victory over The Netherlands was voted the second greatest moment in the history of British women’s sport and was voted in the top ten greatest British Olympic moments of all time. With the stakes so high and with such a high audience figure, even the BBC News at ten o’clock was pushed back to allow for uninterrupted live coverage of Team GB’s glorious gold on the hockey pitch in Rio de Janeiro. It was undoubtedly a breakout moment in British women’s hockey and a moment to cherish for British sport in general.


Derbyshire’s Hollie Pearne-Webb has had an excellent sporting career so far with the potential for even more success in the future. Hollie, who plays for Surbiton in the Women’s England Hockey League Premier Division, has long been regarded as one of the best defenders in the sport over the last decade. As well as winning Olympic gold against the number one ranked team in the world at the time and winners of the previous two Olympic Games tournaments, Hollie has also won a gold, silver and bronze medal in the European Championships representing England as well as securing a silver and a bronze medal representing England at the Commonwealth Games.


In 2017, Hollie was awarded an MBE and was also granted the Freedom of the Borough of Amber Valley. In 2018, she became captain of both Team GB and England’s hockey sides. In just over four months time, she will lead the British team out in Tokyo in a bid to defend their Olympic gold medal won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She is undoubtedly one of Derbyshire’s greatest ever sportspeople.


The big question for Hollie now is: can she add to her impressive medal tally yet again? Could she even repeat the remarkable golden success of Rio 2016? I spoke to Hollie recently to discuss a wide variety of issues including the upcoming Tokyo Games, the challenges and frustrations of preparing for an Olympics during an ongoing pandemic and a look back at that incredible penalty shoot-out against the Dutch to win the gold medal.


It goes without saying that the preparation for the Tokyo Games has been unlike any other Olympic or Paralympic Games. Every athlete from every nation for every sport has been affected hugely in some way. It’s been a twelve month period of reflection, anxiety and learning to adapt as Hollie looks back at how the sport changed from around this time last year:


“It’s been tough for absolutely everyone. Hockey has been affected in the same way that a number of sports have…we’re lucky in the sense that Team GB’s women’s hockey team has a full-time centralised programme which means we’re funded by UK Sport and we’re able to train full-time. We are based in Bisham Abbey in Berkshire, so you have to relocate from wherever you’re originally based and live around that area. For me personally, one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been not being able to travel home to see family members over his period. That’s been challenging for every Team GB member individually. We’d just got back from Australia and New Zealand for some Pro League matches, which is a tournament that happens every year for the top eight nations in the world where they play each other home and away around the world. So we’d got home from Oceania at the end of February in 2020 and was getting ready to go to South Africa in March for a warm weather trip in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. But that got cancelled a couple of days before we were scheduled to head off there because of the pandemic. We were all ordered to stay at home and train at home while the Olympics was still scheduled to go ahead. So that was the first major change to take place. If you were lucky enough to have a garage at home, it was a case of transforming the garage into a gym and doing the best they could! If you didn’t have a garage or a garden, then it was a case of the team member having to train for the Olympics in their own living room.”


“Then later on in the year, we found out that the Tokyo Games were going to be postponed. At that point, there was definitely a mixture of emotions. Everyone was annoyed it wasn’t going ahead. We’d all been working four years for this and we were so close. There were a number of players in our squad that had plans to retire from the sport immediately after the Olympics or they had jobs planned or they had plans to play their hockey abroad. Like everyone else in the country really, all our plans were stopped and were forced to change. So we had no choice but to reassess. But for the women’s hockey programme, an extra year was actually in a way a huge benefit for us. The squad has gone through significant change over the past four years. We got a new coach in 2019. So that was a big period of change. A few players had moved on and retired, so we now had a very young, new squad. So an extra year for this team could actually be of huge benefit. I think we will actually fare better in Tokyo this year than we would have done if it had gone ahead as scheduled last year. I’ve been in a lot of rehab over this pandemic following an injury that required surgery but now I’m fully ready and able to be back on the pitch playing again. We’ve played nowhere near as many international matches in preparation for the Tokyo Games as what we did to get ready for the Rio Games. But that’s the same for every nation’s team for the Games coming up. With the Games being held in Tokyo, we’re expecting this to be the hottest and most humid conditions we’ve ever played in and we’ve not been able to prepare with a warm weather trip for training. So yeah, lots of change to how we would normally prepare and a lot of challenges but it’s the same for pretty much every other nation. We’ve just had to learn to adapt and be flexible. We’re still very lucky that we at least have a little bit of normality going on in our lives.”


Despite being reigning Olympic champions, there was certainly no guarantee that Team GB’s women would be in Tokyo to defend their Olympic title. As Hollie explains, the qualification process for the Olympics tournament is tough and extremely competitive. Despite securing Tokyo Games qualification in November 2019, the qualification route wasn’t all plain sailing for Pearne-Webb’s team:


“Within hockey, there’s two routes available for you to qualify for the Olympics. The first one was via continental championships. So we had our European qualification tournament in 2019 where the winner of this tournament would qualify automatically for the Tokyo Games. Hockey in Europe particularly is incredibly competitive. It’s the definitely the most competitive continent. You’ve got the Dutch who are world number one in the rankings, Germany who I think are number three in the world, us as current Olympic champions, you’ve got Spain, Belgium, Ireland. You’ve got six top teams in Europe just there when there’s only one automatic qualifying space available. The Netherlands won that tournament so they qualified automatically. This meant that everyone else had to play a team home and away that was based on your world rankings. We drew Chile for these qualification play-offs. This took place in November 2019 and we won both the home and away legs, so that’s how we qualified for the Olympics. So we’d already qualified by the time the pandemic hit.”


In the women’s hockey Olympics tournament there are two pools of six teams who compete in a round-robin format with each team playing each other once in their pool. After every pool game has been played, the top four nations from each pool qualify for the knock-out phase of the tournament, starting with the quarter-finals, then to the semi-finals and then the bronze medal play-off and concluding with, of course, the final to determine gold and silver medal placings. With just the twelve best nations in the world going for gold, this is an extremely competitive Olympic sport with an agonising fine line separating success and failure.


Team GB have been drawn in Pool A along with The Netherlands, The Republic of Ireland, Germany, India and South Africa. Hollie will lead the team out for their first Tokyo Games match on July 25 versus Germany. She’s in no doubt that it will be an extremely tough pool stage but also expects there to be some surprising results in both pools:


“With the Olympics, it doesn’t really matter which pool you’re in when you look at the quality of teams that are there! Australia, New Zealand and Argentina are in the other pool. They’re all high-quality teams. Every match is going to be a really tough match. I think this will be the most unpredictable Olympics there’s ever been. Not just for hockey, but for every sport. That’s because of the pandemic and the various different effects it’s had on everyone’s training. Heat and humidity will also play a huge part. Teams like ourselves haven’t been able to get out and train in that kind of exposure and climate, like we would normally have done if the pandemic hadn’t happened. So yeah, I think it’s all going to be really unpredictable. Maybe the most open Olympic Games there’s ever been. There will still be expectations on us with us being the reigning Olympic champions. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, we are a completely different squad and a completely different team to the one we had in 2016. We are a very young team now. There have been a lot of retirements from the sport post-Rio.”


“A gold medal in Tokyo is 100% what we’re aiming for. We believe we are capable of that. For us, if we achieved that, then we would consider that as the first gold medal we have won because we’ve never won anything with this current squad of players. It’s a very different look, a very different feel and with a different coach. But especially in hockey at the moment, on any given day, any team can beat anyone on their day. It’s so unpredictable but it’s going to be interesting. Some teams who some people probably won’t have considered to go far will do a lot better than what they thought they would. India are managing to get a lot of games in currently. I think they’re going to be really strong. As the host nation, Japan will have invested loads into their programme. They might not be on people’s radars but I think they’ll be right up there. And then you’ve got your traditional heavyweight teams in hockey. It’s going to be really exciting for viewers back home.”


Of course, I can’t really not ask Hollie about that incredible August night in 2016 when she converted the winning penalty to cause a big upset and beat the Dutch to win the Olympic gold medal for Team GB for the first time in their history:


“I remember lying in bed that night thinking about the build-up to the penalty I took and I got nervous just thinking about that! I was thinking, how was I not nervous in the moment? I guess it just all goes down to the preparation that we did. We had absolutely no idea what it was like back home. When you’re in the Olympics, once you get over the initial buzz of seeing huge superstars in the village, you do just treat it like every other big tournament really. You go through the same routine and you’re playing similar teams that you would normally do. Eight of us practiced for penalties for the tournament back in England at our training base at Bisham Abbey. So I knew I could be chosen to take one if we did get to a situation where a penalty shoot-out was needed. I said that if I was going to be asked to take one of the penalties in a shoot-out at these games, then please tell me after the game has finished as a draw and tell me then what order players would be taking the penalties. I probably wasn’t expected to be picked as one of the five penalty takers when the Olympics final ended as a draw. I got told in the team huddle directly before the shoot-out that I had been chosen by the coach as one of the five penalty takers and that I was going to go fifth on the team. You don’t normally reach the fifth penalty taker in a hockey shoot-out, so I thought I probably still won’t be taking one anyway! I had a Plan A and a Plan B though just in case I was still needed. We did research and scouting on what the Dutch keeper did in their last match as they actually won their semi-final via penalties. As the penalties started to be taken, I just stood with my team in a line and just tried not to think what might be about to happen."


"When we missed our fourth penalty, I knew I was definitely going to be taking one. So I just went through my training routine in my head. I knew the worst thing I could do was to rush my penalty or get so nervous that I just can’t execute what I’m wanting to do. I just said to myself, I might never get this opportunity again. Just breathe and if you run out of time then it’s fine. I just got into this bubble. I didn’t think about the occasion. I was on a hockey pitch, I was in my comfort zone. As I ran up towards the Dutch keeper, everything just went sort of slow. It wasn’t until the ball went in and I’d triple-checked that I had actually scored that everything sped up. And that was the time where everything just went crazy. The best moment was when my team-mates all ran over to me. All their faces are completely different. Some are crying because they’ve worked their whole lives for this moment and they’re about to retire so this is their last hockey game, some are just shocked and excited like little kids. It was just amazing. I still can’t really put it into words and can’t fully comprehend how I was able to just treat the penalty as calmly as I did. We weren’t aware of all the hype we’d created back in the UK. We genuinely had no idea until we were all back in the changing room. We all switched on our social media which we hadn’t been on throughout the tournament and it just blew up pretty much! We found out we’d delayed the ten o’clock news!”


I asked Hollie what the following two to three months were like once the Rio Olympics finished and whether it was hard to come to terms with success and becoming a household name overnight:


“I actually found it great. I knew I wanted to do it all over again in Tokyo at the next Olympics. That was already my next goal. The first few months post-Rio were really busy. I was doing things I’d never done before. I was on The Jonathan Ross Show, it was just mental. I was on a Children in Need special of Strictly Come Dancing. I was on Lorraine Kelly’s show. All these amazing things and I got to meet some amazing people. So the team had a great time doing stuff like that. And then after that, for the players who were definitely continuing and not retiring it was like, okay, medals in the box and under the bed, back to the sport now. So yeah, from that point it was just back to training and back to my part-time day job as an accountant. So it was really nice to sort of live that double life for a bit. Great memories. Great experience. I’m naturally quite a grounded person anyway so I don’t think the whole experience changed me much.”


I was interested to find out what Hollie’s opinion was of hockey’s coverage within British media. Considering the huge audience figures and the success of Rio 2016 at the biggest stage of them all, I told Hollie I found it surprising that there is still seemingly very little hockey to be found on TV or radio five years later:


“Well, we were on BBC iPlayer over the last weekend with our match against Ireland. But I 100% agree that we want our sport on TV and in the media a lot more than it is. But saying that, I think women’s sport in general needs to be on TV and in the media a lot more than it is. Half the population are women and I think we’re missing out on such a huge opportunity when stuff like men’s football is on the TV so much and women’s football is on very late. So I don’t think it’s just our sport that needs more coverage. I think there needs to be a huge shift in terms of what we put on for women’s sport so we can have little girls aspiring to be professional sportspeople just like boys can. I think there was a huge uptake in participation in hockey in the UK after the London Games and the Rio Games. I think hockey’s one of those sports that most kids do play at school…so most people have played it…hockey’s such a great sport socially. When I was at university, playing on the hockey team there was such a great way of meeting people. So I think there is some way to go in improving the media coverage of the sport because it is a fast, exciting sport and when it is on in the Olympics, people will watch it. Part of our mission with our current squad is to inspire the next generation of sportspeople. Hockey is also pretty much a 50/50 split in terms of gender participation. Men and women will both play at the same clubs. It’s family-friendly. It’s just such a great sport. So yeah, I would love to see more coverage of hockey in the media but I would love to see more coverage of women’s sport in general.”


“I do think we need more companies to get more behind women’s sport. Demand would be there if it was shown more. A lot of people won’t know much about women’s football for example because it’s just not on as much as the men’s game. So a lot of people won’t know the details of all the teams and who the best players are. Like for any sport that you know very little about, you won’t have much interest in it, unless you’re given the opportunity to know the ins and outs.”


As our interview draws to a close, I asked Hollie what the preparations will be like for the Tokyo Games from this month onwards. Bearing in mind that the Tokyo Olympics is still not actually guaranteed to take place and with no further time available to postpone it to a later date, there is still understandably a lot of uncertainty, nervousness and preparation methods that still aren’t ideal. As Hollie makes clear, despite the clear progress made with vaccinations (particularly in the UK) the sport of hockey still finds itself in an odd place:

“England, Wales and Scotland have got the European Championships to play before the Olympics this year. That doesn’t normally happen. So Team GB will actually split up just a month and a half before the Tokyo Olympics. So the Team GB Olympics squad will be confirmed either just before or just after these European Championships takes place. Domestic hockey still isn’t happening yet due to Covid. So we’re all fully in a Team GB programme right now and fully ramping up for the Games. We are meant to have a hot weather training trip abroad next month but we’re still not sure if that can go ahead as scheduled. We’re also meant to have a couple of Pro League games in May but, again, depending on what the world situation is like, we’re not sure whether that will take place. So there’s still a lot of uncertainty with Covid and a lot of the preparation is still up in the air. But hopefully, from the start of May onwards: Pro League games, European Championships, Olympic Games. It should be very full on. Fingers crossed.”

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