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'We're really aware that we can provide a bit of light, with the mood in Ireland quite low at times'

Anna O’Flanagan and the Irish women’s hockey team ‘want to achieve what we know we’re capable of’ through a massive summer.

THE PLAN WAS TO be in Malaysia for a warm-weather training camp right now, but the script was ripped up and torn to shreds.

Last Friday, the day they were due to fly out, Hockey Ireland confirmed that Sean Dancer’s side had cancelled the trip which was part of their preparation for the Olympic Games.

It was a camp — with matches against Malaysia and Great Britain pencilled in — Anna O’Flanagan and her side were certainly relishing when we spoke last week, with Covid-19 protocols, precautions and hotel quarantine all in place after some uncertainty in the build-up.

But that uncertainty soon changed to a dead-cert cancellation.

dare-to-believe-olympic-schools-challenge Irish international hockey player, Anna O’Flanagan, pictured following the launch of the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s new Olympic Schools Challenge, ‘Road to Tokyo’. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

It’s a setback the Green Army will surely just take in their stride, finding a way around it ahead of the biggest few months of their lives. First up, it’s European Championships in May, the event also acting as a World Cup qualifier, and then it’s all eyes on their first appearance at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July.

It’s something tangible now, something O’Flanagan and her team-mates can envisage after a challenging 12 months or so. A successful camp in Spain laid solid foundations for 2021, before the memorable SoftCo Series win over Great Britain, which all bodes well for what’s to come.

“It was great to see that all the training we’ve done alone is actually all coming to fruition and we’re clicking together quite well,” O’Flanagan told The42, launching the Road To Tokyo Olympic Schools Challenge.

“The last few months, we’ve really realised how lucky we are. I know the mood around Ireland is quite low at times, and people are struggling, especially a year on now with with not much light at the end of the tunnel. I think we’re really aware that we can provide a bit of light in these circumstances.

“Some people tuned in to watch us play GB, which was brilliant, and then to see us get a win and some good results is great. We just want to keep building on that and, and keep remembering how lucky we are, but also trying to provide that little bit of entertainment or just excitement for people back home.”

They’ve done just that for quite some time now, stealing the hearts of the nation at the 2018 World Cup across the water in London, and keeping them ever since.

After so many shortcomings and so much heartache through the years, Ireland produced a simply stunning run to shock everyone but themselves and reach the final.

The returned to these shores with silver medals, but more importantly, recognition, respect and a massive new fanbase as they put Irish hockey on the map.

It’s been a surreal few years, O’Flanagan nods, the history-makers backing up their surprise of the summer to qualify for the Games in the most dramatic of fashions, expertly coping with a managerial change right in the middle of it all.

“When you play international sport at this level, and you’re trying to really compete at an Olympic Games, it’s certainly a roller coaster. There are good times and bad times but there are also good days and bad days along the way as well.

“Definitely the last few years have been pretty crazy in terms of some bad things that have happened, we’ve not succeeded at some points and then the huge success that followed. For us as a squad, it’s about trying to remain a bit grounded and trying not to allow your emotions get too caught up in the good days and the bad days.

“As a team, our good days have been very, very good and our bad days have been very, very bad. If you allow yourself to go up and down like that, it can be difficult to perform every day and and to just keep focused on the task that you’re trying to do so.

“It’s certainly been a rollercoaster but it’s taught us some valuable lessons in staying grounded and just really taking each day as it comes and having smaller goals along the way that we can tick off to achieve those greater things.”

nicola-evans-and-anna-oflanagan-celebrate-the-moment-they-qualified-for-the-2020-tokyo-olympics Nicky Evans and O'Flanagan celebrate the moment they qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Staying grounded is certainly key, as her team-mate Chloe Watkins said recently. With that recognition and hype comes pressure and expectation, as interest and participation levels growing at a phenomenal rate across the country.

Is it a burden? Is it something they take in their stride?

Pressure is a privilege, as they say. And it’s nothing but positive.

“There is a bit more expectation on us now,” O’Flanagan nods. “People are certainly more aware of us now than they were before, or they actually even just know who we are now, I suppose, which is different to before.

“That’s obviously brilliant for the sport, and it’s amazing what we’ve achieved, and hopefully that stays like that for a long time. As a group we’re very aware of what we can achieve. We’re very driven and we know that we set our expectations for ourselves – and we really, really try not to let the outside influence and noise come in.

“As a group, we just want to achieve what we know we’re capable of. We put more pressure on ourselves, probably than the outside pressure we get. That’s something we definitely work through. And of course, we’re expecting a bit more heat on us, I suppose, but we’re going to take that in our stride. We just want to achieve what the team and each other know we can achieve.”

And two of the biggest opportunities possible to do just that come in the coming weeks and months, the Euros first in view as they look to improve on their best-ever fifth-place finish two years ago, and qualify for the World Cup.

“We know we have the ability to do to do something special at that tournament, but then a month later you’ve got the Olympic games as well and we want to achieve so much there.

“Two major tournaments in such a quick turnaround is certainly not something that’s common in hockey. Normally, you have a couple of years between these tournaments, but the way things fall makes it a very intense period.”

But it’s one they really can’t wait for, exactly where they want to be, in the business end of proceedings. While the Euros might not be on the radar of some casual fans, the Olympics certainly will be — as they are every four years, or five, in this case.

And O’Flanagan makes one thing clear: they’re not just going to take part.

They back themselves each and every step of the way.

“That’s something we’ve always said as a group,” the Rathgar native nods, “that for us, it wasn’t just about taking part in these major tournaments, it’s about competing at them and showing everyone and ourselves what we are capable of and how good we are.

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“We have really big expectations as a group. You don’t want to go to an Olympics and go through the motions. You don’t want to just be mesmerised by what’s going on around you.

“What’s a positive out of the Covid situation for us is is that a lot of the hype around the Olympics in terms of when you get there and things that are going on around you will actually be limited. I think that will suit us as it is our first Olympics and and you don’t want the occasion to get you.

“We haven’t experienced any of the other Olympics so we just go in like it’s any other tournament and we compete to the best of our ability. There’s such a buzz around it now and you can really see it happening, which just gives you that extra pep in your step.”

dare-to-believe-olympic-schools-challenge O'Flanagan is hoping for another memorable summer. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Another thing that gives her just that is her immersion in her sport for the next while.

Having taken a step back from her full-time job as a solicitor, O’Flanagan explains her and most of her team-mate’s status as “full-time athletes on part-time wages”.

This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, so O’Flanagan wants to put 110% into every single effort, rather than trying desperately to juggle everything and ending up stressed with loyalties lying in numerous different places. 

“You’re able to just focus your energy on your hockey,” she concludes, with plenty of time for extra sessions, recovery and video analysis, providing an “extra edge”.

“For me for the next few months, the priority is getting myself in the best possible position to play and compete in an Olympics. Hopefully your career outside of hockey will last a very long time and you have a very long time to put into that.

“But months like this don’t come around too often where you’re preparing for such a major tournament, and you have the ability, thankfully, through some of our sponsors to actually be able to take a bit of time and focus fully on that.

“It’s different certainly, not working and and just putting all your focus into your sport but I don’t want to have any regrets. In 10 years time, I want to look back and say, ‘I gave that absolutely everything. I was in the best possible I could have been [in] at that time.’”


Anna O’Flanagan was on hand to launch the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s new Olympic Schools Challenge, ‘Road to Tokyo’. Find out more here: https://www.daretobelieve.ie/roadtotokyo  

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Emma Duffy

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