Going to the Olympics was a dream of mine from a very early age, as it is for many children. I feel very lucky and honoured to have fulfilled that dream.
I don’t think I really let myself believe that it was going to happen until we stepped into the stadium for the opening ceremony. There is always a risk that you can pick up a last minute injury and all the hard work would be for nothing, but stepping into the “Birds Nest” stadium in front of so many people and along side some of the biggest athletes in the World was really special. Watching Roger Federer as he carried the Swiss flag with Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, the basketball stars from USA, standing just a few feet away was a very surreal moment.
We were lucky that we weren’t playing until three days after the opening ceremony, which meant that we were able to go. I suspect that many people don’t understand why athletes choose not to march, but when you leave the village at about 6pm and don’t get back until about 1am, having sweated away several litres, and spent several hours on your feet, then you realise that it isn’t really a sensible idea for anyone competing the next day or probably even the day after that.
The opening ceremony was really the indication that all the preparation was done and it was just down to performing in the games to do justice to the hard work that we had put in. From October 2007 through until the games in August 2008, we had trained for three days a week at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, as well as training individually in the time away from the group and trying to keep our employers happy. The preparation had taken us to Malaysia, South Africa, Chile, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Holland and Ireland.
Undoubtedly the tensest time was at our qualifying tournament in Chile, where only one of the six teams at the tournament would qualify for the Games. Realistically we knew that it would come down to a two horse race between ourselves and India. We were ranked 9th in the World and India 8th. We managed to get through the tournament only conceding three goals in six games and beating India 2-0 in the final. I have never known an atmosphere like that on the morning of the final. To have all your hopes and dreams riding on 70 minutes of hockey is incredibly nerve wracking, and the relief at coming through unscathed was reflected that evening, in one of the most intense drinking sessions I’ve ever seen! That night, however, was an anomaly in a year of self sacrifice and hard work. All of it was worthwhile, though when we got to Beijing knowing that we were as well prepared as we could be and probably the fittest team in the tournament.
The tournament got under way for us with a win against Pakistan, followed by a narrow loss to the Netherlands, another win against South Africa, and two draws against Canada and Australia. Without doubt, the result against Canada was the low point of the games for us. We were ranked well above them and should beat them regularly. It meant that we had to beat Australia by 3 goals in the last game to make it into the semi finals. That was always going to be a tall order against the reigning Olympic champions and World Cup runners up. We gave it everything and they ended up feeling lucky to come away with a 3-3 draw. We will never know what might have happened if we had beaten Canada, but there is every chance that a draw might have been good enough to get us into the semis. That is the frustrating thing; we will never know, and that feels like an opportunity missed.
It is well known that the games were the most successful for GB for a long time, if not ever. To share in that was really special. The way that the Olympic village is organised means that we were living in close quarters with the rest of the British athletes. We occupied the top floor of one building and on the bottom two floors were the cycling team. It was pretty incredible to see them every day, seemingly having won yet another gold medal. In particular, Chris Hoy was really friendly and a very humble and genuine guy.
Another remarkable feature at the games was the Chinese people. There were simply thousands of volunteers and it seemed as though there was one on every corner. They were very friendly, but above all they were exceptionally passionate about their own country and portraying it in the best possible light.
After the group games, we were third in our group which meant we had to play Korea in the 5th/6th place play off. Korea were ranked 5th in the World prior to the tournament, compared to our 8th. They are often considered to be the fittest team in the World and were widely fancied to be the dark horses for the gold medal, given the climate in China and their experience of those conditions. We had not beaten them in a long time and it was clearly going to be tough.
In the end, we beat them 5-2 and finished 5th. I scored twice in that game, which will go down as one of my favourite memories from my career to date. 5th was GB’s highest finish since winning the gold medal in Seoul in 1988, and meant that we had significantly out performed our ranking and the 9th place finish from Athens. The difference between 9th and 5th is massive and realistically, to make a jump bigger than that in the space of 4 years is almost impossible in elite sport. Now our challenge is to continue to build on our relative success and push for medals when 2012 comes around.
Playing at the Olympics is the pinnacle for any hockey player, as it is for many athletes, but to have the chance to compete in your own country is something that very few people get to experience. I’m not certain that many people can appreciate just how big the Olympics will be when it comes to London in three years time. It stands to be the biggest single event this country has ever hosted, and whether I am playing or not, I am absolutely certain that it will be a fantastic time and I will want to be involved in any way that I can.
I had no idea that I was the first Olympian from the OSA, but now I do know, I am very proud. I have always had a lot of support from people in Southend and in particular from my family. It meant a great deal to me that eleven of my family (5 Old Southendians!) made the huge effort to come out to Beijing to watch and would like to take this opportunity to thank them and everyone else for all of the support that I have received over the years.
I remember once during my time at school that Mr Brooking told me that he thought Fergus Parker who was in the year above me was a better player than I was. No offence to Fergus, but I hope that I’ve managed to prove my point now!