As I write this, it’s 114 days until Rio 2016 gets underway. However, despite loving sport in general and the Olympics in particular, on August 5th this year I will probably be hiding under a rock somewhere.
I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Lots of things have stopped me – shyness, embarrassment, not wanting to say something I’ll regret, wanting to be honest but not knowing how much of the truth to tell. I know I’ll never be able to convey in a few hundred words how and why my experiences and near misses have been so significant, so tough, so defining. I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not fishing for compliments. It’s not about blame or assessing why I didn’t get picked. So why am I writing this? I guess I just want to let the unlucky few who share similar experiences know you aren’t alone and that you will find a way to handle it. And for everyone else – those who play, those who watch – maybe in the coming months it will help you remember to spare a thought for those whose Olympic dreams aren’t made, but broken.
I know this sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I need to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – I know I’ve been fortunate to experience some pretty incredible things during my hockey career. I made my senior international debut aged 17, I’m a Commonwealth and triple European medalist, I’ve played at a World Cup, I’ve been national champion multiple times with two clubs. I’ve travelled the world thanks to a bit of ability and a lot of hard work with a hockey stick. I still play for a brilliant, successful club with a great bunch of mates. I’ve got a lot of good stuff to look back on. But ultimately, I won’t be able to look back and say I’ve achieved my dreams in hockey.
The problem with dreams is that if they were easy to reach, they wouldn’t be dreams. They’d just be plans. Intentions. Actions. When I was 22, I had my first experience of not being selected for something. Unfortunately for me, that something was Beijing 2008. As reserve, I trained at the preparation camp in Macau with the girls then had to stay there on my own for a week (as a bit of an emotional train wreck) when the team travelled to Beijing. Four years later, I was involved in everything until selection, but missed the cut for 2012. The London Olympics was brilliant, devastating and totally inescapable.
I’m aware that people suffer far worse things in life than not getting selected for the Olympics, but this is where words fail me a bit. I can’t really describe how it feels to miss the tournament you’ve given everything for and dreamed about since you were a kid. I could tell you about things that have happened to me. Randomly bursting into tears at Tesco a few weeks after selection when a cashier asked me how my day had been. Surviving four months on three hours sleep a night. Being a bookworm, but unable to read a whole page for six months when all I wanted was to be able to escape into another world. Sitting with a teammate on the bus home from training at the Olympic Park and admitting to an irrational sense of extreme guilt at letting my family down. I’ve never felt as alone as I did in a stadium of 16,000 people in London – I was inconsolable when the GB women lost their semi final and inconsolable when the GB women won a bronze medal two days later. I could tell you about those and a hundred other things but in the end none of them really get to the nub of what you actually feel like inside.
There’s all this stuff going round in your own head and heart, but of course the world goes on, and thankfully I’ve always been lucky enough to have some pretty special people around to help get me through. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing when people say they can’t believe you haven’t been picked (it still is). Selection, the big pink elephant in the room, has made me feel like an awkward friend/housemate more times than I care to think about (it still does), but the mates I know have really got my back never make me feel bad about it. Sharing a look with one of my best friends when she was on her bronze medal victory lap, and her taking a second to share my pain instead of revel in her elation, was something so powerful to me I don’t think she even realises.
It’s been over two years since my last cap, I’m not even in the GB squad any more and I still find it impossible to get my head around Rio being so soon. It kills me feeling like the odd one out in large parts of my friendship group, not having that same daily routine and camaraderie and sense that I’m part of something. I still believe I should be an Olympian and I still believe I should be in with a shot at Rio, but I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it exactly, but I guess I’ve learnt to look at things in a different way.
Some time, some perspective and some travel have reminded me of a few things. If I’m going to define myself as a hockey player – and maybe even as a person – based on whether I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve realised I’m devaluing myself. And as for anyone else who judges me on that? I probably don’t need to worry about their opinion that much. Instead, I try to focus on enjoying myself and pushing myself to be better, on and off a hockey field. In that end, that’s what I want to define me.