Sunday Times

Pandemic havoc SA’s women will likely head to Tokyo without match practice

But SA targets semifinal spot in Olympic tournamet

- By DAVID ISAACSON isaacsond@sundaytime­

● SA’s women hockey players will likely head into the Tokyo Olympics without having played an internatio­nal in 18 months, but skipper Erin Christie says they’re sticking to their target.

The lack of match practice is just one more disadvanta­ge for an amateur outfit that will challenge mostly profession­al teams in Japan, though they’re used to trying to turn straw into gold.

“Our preparatio­n would have been different [without the pandemic],” Christie told the Sunday Times. “This year we’ll go in a little more blinded. Our goal won’t change, but our mindset has to shift.”

The target is to make the quarterfin­als, which means finishing in the top four in their pool of six, and that almost certainly would require them beating Ireland and India, eighth and ninth in the world. SA are 16th.

“We’re definitely not expecting to go there and win a gold medal. We want to compete in every game that we play and show that we’re not a joke,” said Christie, a science teacher at Rand Park High in Johannesbu­rg.

Getting to the Olympics has resembled a roller-coaster for the team, having been blocked from Rio 2016 by the tough qualifying criteria set by the SA Sports Confederat­ion and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).

The women seemed set to spend another Games in the wilderness until Sascoc eased its qualificat­ion policy in late 2019.

The trade-off is that the players might be asked to contribute financiall­y to the trip, although dipping into their own pockets is nothing new.

“It is a big concern for the team because we are not all super-wealthy and hockey costs enough as it is for us,” she said, adding players could spend upwards of R10,000 a year, excluding overseas travel.

Players contribute to a pot to help fund local trips as well as key equipment, like GPS pods to track player movements and access to video analysis.

To compensate for lack of match practice the players are attending national camps in Gauteng every second weekend. “Sponsors help every now and then, but we do get asked to put some money into the pool …

“And hockey is not even the worst off. I’ve got friends who play water polo for SA and they’re jealous of what we have.”

One debate in SA Olympic sport has focused on selection policy: taking all qualifiers versus medal contenders only.

The only thing that keeps Christie and her cohorts on the pitch is their love for the

We want to compete in every game that we play and show that we’re not a joke Erin Christie

SA women’s hockey captain

game, which resurfaced when they returned to the Astro in August after months off because of lockdown. “It felt like we could fly again. It was exciting. We were definitely rusty, but that moment was more about enjoying what we’d been missing for so long.”

Fears of Covid-19 are high for the players, especially so close to the Games.

Christie fell ill in June last year, losing her senses of taste and smell. “I didn’t get sick, but I felt like my fitness had just been sucked out with a vacuum cleaner.

“My resting heart rate was much higher. It was a good month and a half before I was allowed to train [as normal]. All the players are trying to be very careful because you can’t lose a month and a half now.”

For Christie there has been a lighter side to the Olympic delay, giving her a unique dilemma — which name to use on her shirt?

Christie, who got married in December 2019, said husband Andrew had agreed with her father before the wedding that she’d use her maiden name, Hunter, at the Olympics.

“Now that 2020’s past I don’t know if the deal continues,” she said with a smile. “It doesn’t really bother me. They spoke about it at my husband’s bachelor [party], so obviously there were a couple of beers involved and they shook hands on it.”

It is a big concern for the team because we are not all super-wealthy and hockey costs enough as it is for us

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