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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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Highs, lows and sacrifices: Putting 'real life' on hold to chase the Olympic dream

Deirdre Duke and Ireland begin their Tokyo 2020 qualification campaign on home soil today.

WHICHEVER WAY YOU choose to approach UCD’s sports centre, the beaming smiles of three World Cup silver medallists — Katie Mullan, Lena Tice and Deirdre Duke — still radiate down from the otherwise featureless, colourless walls. 

Inside, there are reminders of Duke’s six years in the college colours as you meander your way through the maze of sports halls and changing rooms, the most prominent being a photo of her and Mullan, the Ireland captain, with the Women’s EY Hockey League trophy in 2018. One of many trophies the pair won together in UCD.

Deirdre Duke Ireland's Deirdre Duke. Source: Joe Toth/INPHO

“I played here for a few too many years,” she laughs, sitting in UCD’s poolside cafe, four days before Ireland begin their long road to Tokyo in Banbridge.

“I was just thinking when I was coming in, we had so many good times on that pitch out there. It made me as a player.”

It’s the fourth day of June but, from the weather outside, you’d hardly guess it. Term is over, many of the students having relocated to far-flung places for the summer months, yet Duke — although her face plastered on the outside walls — blends into the constant flow of people coming and going. 

“Yeah, life just goes on,” the 26-year-old admits, reflecting on the 10 months since a golden summer in London. “The World Cup is old news now. It’s obviously still a big thing for us and our families but everyone just moves on.”

There are reminders of it everywhere, but Duke has had no choice but to move on. After recently returning from Germany, where she spent the season playing club hockey in Dusseldorf, the Ireland forward has had a few days off to regain her bearings, before heading back up the road to reconvene with the squad for the start of the FIH Final Series.

Hockey Ireland had planned to stage the eight-team tournament here in Belfield, but work on the redevelopment of the venue has barely started, meaning Banbridge had to step in at the last minute.

While Duke is delighted to see the progress on the pitch outside, the sight of heavy machinery move in and rip it up carries sentiment on her first return to the college since leaving for Germany last September.

Like any past student, UCD will always carry special memories, both on and off the field, for Duke as it is here where she chased her ambitions of playing international hockey for Ireland, but also experienced some of the lowest and toughest moments of her career. 

Living just across the road, Duke was never going to study anywhere else once she left secondary school in Alexandra College, particularly when UCD offered her a hockey scholarship and so many internationals had come through the esteemed system here.

“I played a lot of soccer and GAA growing up,” she explains. “I came from a GAA house for sure and I didn’t actually join a hockey club until I was 16 but it was the thought of the Olympics and representing Ireland at an Olympics that saw me pursue hockey.

“I had played football for Dublin, I had played soccer for Ireland and the competitor in me wanted to play hockey for Ireland. That drove me on.” 

Up until last August, Duke often questioned if she had made the right decision. Watching Mick Bohan’s Dublin ladies win All-Irelands and following the international careers of former team-mates Karen Duggan and Dora Gorman, she wondered. 

USA v Ireland - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Pool B - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre In action at last summer's World Cup. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

A talented footballer with Kilmacud Crokes, a club that had played such an integral part in her childhood, Duke represented Dublin at underage level, while also pulling on the green of Republic of Ireland at the U15 and U17 age grades. 

“My parents always felt if I had have gone down the soccer route or GAA, because the Dublin ladies are just incredible at the minute and they’ve such a brilliant profile, I kind of missed the boat on that one.

“And it’s only in the last year or two when Mum has said ‘you were right to stick with the hockey’ because we, the team, finally got a bit of just reward for all the hard work.”

Now, it’s very hard to think of Deirdre Duke as anyone other than the Ireland hockey player. The sport has given her so much, taken away so much, made her smile, made her cry and, ultimately, shaped her. The highs and lows could barely be more pronounced.

Duke’s senior international debut came against Scotland in June 2013, having progressed through Alex and won the Leinster Senior Schools Cup under Miles Warren, who would then guide UCD to domestic dominance during the striker’s time in college colours.

Although Duke had made the breakthrough in her first year of studying Social Justice, she would not firmly establish herself in the Ireland squad until 2016 and the start of Graham Shaw’s reign in charge.

“I really struggled when I came into the squad at first,” she explains. “I got my first cap when I was 21 and I didn’t get picked for a tournament for almost three years. I was left out of the last Olympic qualifier for Rio and also missed the World League 2 tournament in March 2015.

That was one of the hardest experiences for me because the tournament was here in UCD. During that, I was really thinking, ‘Wow maybe I’m never going to get into it.’ It was in my backyard and not to be picked was really, really difficult.

“When I got dropped for that, I thought what am I doing? When you’re 23 and still can’t break in. It’s demoralising and I actually went and played Gaelic that summer because I needed to get away. I played for Kilmacud Crokes and really enjoyed it but I wasn’t going to leave hockey on those terms. I wasn’t giving up on it like that.”

Ireland’s bid to reach the Rio Olympics ended in agonising heartbreak that summer but the departure of coach Darren Smith, to be replaced by Shaw, opened the door again for Duke and presented her with a fresh start at the onset of a new cycle.

“We went to the European B division tournament straight after the girls lost in Valencia and a lot of the girls didn’t go or they had retired. That was the first tournament I was picked for but none of the other girls wanted to be there but I was actually laughing about it the other day with Katie Mullan. She was saying that was the worst tournament of her life and nobody wanted to be there but I was just so excited. It all changed for me there.”

President Michael D. Higgins and Sabina Coyne with Deirdre Duke With President Michael D Higgins after Ireland's silver medal. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A lot of it, Duke says, came with maturity but after enduring the heartbreak of missing out on selection for a home tournament, the experience drove her on and focused her mind. Although an amateur athlete, she realised she had to live like a professional.

“In hindsight, I wasn’t remotely fit enough to be a part of that squad,” she admits. “I wasn’t good enough. At the time I probably thought I was, but I really wasn’t. I really worked on my mindset and confidence. I saw a sports psychologist and did every little thing I could tick off that would give me that little bit extra. It was more of a self-confidence thing.

“Then being made UCD captain was huge for me. For my confidence as a player.”

After being part of UCD’s first-ever league-winning side, Duke went on to score the winner in the 2017 Irish Senior Cup final and then captained Warren’s side — which included Mullan and Tice among others — to a domestic treble in 2018.

“Every player has had their own journey and for me not getting picked for that World League 2 four years ago really gave me the kick I needed,” Duke says. “I needed to park the social life and really focus on hockey. Sometimes your lowest moments springboard you on.”

Since then, she has become an integral member of the Ireland side, winning 115 caps to date, and was a key player in the run to last year’s World Cup final, notably scoring a brace in the first game of the tournament against USA.

Before the World Cup, Duke’s performances at home had earned her a move to German outfit Düsseldorfer Hockey Club for the 2018/19 season, while her contributions at the Lee Valley saw several other clubs register interest in her services.

“It’s flattering,” she laughs. “It’s not something I’m used to so to have these clubs wanting to sign you is cool and a big confidence boost. Not only to get picked up but then going over to a big European league and holding your own.”

Düsseldorfer and Duke enjoyed an excellent season, reaching the German league final only to be beaten on strokes by Club an der Alster, who had Mullan in their ranks. 

On the back of the experience, Duke has returned home for this crucial qualifying tournament a better player technically, considerably fitter for the semi-professional lifestyle and much more assured of herself.

In the last year or two, I feel I’ve come into my own within the squad and more comfortable with the player I am. You end up trying to mimic other players and how they play but we’re all in the squad for a particular reason and you try to focus on that.

All the focus now is on Ireland’s opening game against Malaysia at Banbridge this afternoon [3pm, BBC Northern Ireland], but Duke has retained her dream of playing senior inter-county football for Dublin at some stage.

Her brief return to GAA a couple of summers ago re-ignited her love for the game after time away and certainly, the prospect of recommencing her football career in the coming years is not beyond the realms of possibility.

“I loved GAA, it was probably my first love, but the best you can do is win an All-Ireland,” she continues. “Some of the girls say this as well, but I was better at GAA and soccer than I was at hockey and that was annoying. As a competitor, I wanted to improve that.

“And I think ultimately, it was the Olympics that attracted me to hockey ahead of the other two. I also genuinely think it came from me not being as good at hockey and wanting to prove it to myself that I was able to make a team. I’m just like that.

USA v Ireland - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Pool B - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Duke and Ireland begin their Olympic qualification campaign today. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“But I definitely want to go back and play football once I retire. My Dad says he’d love to see me put on a Dublin jersey at some point and that’s something he has always talked about. I’d love to do it so you never know.”

That’s for another day. Now, after a decade of peaks and troughs, of hard work and sacrifice, the road to Tokyo opens up. Ireland, ranked eighth in the world, know a top-two finish in this tournament will give them a shot at an Olympic qualifying-tie later this year.

“I don’t like to say there have been a lot of sacrifices but I’ve hard to park a lot of parts of my life, in terms of my career, friendships, relationships,” Duke explains. “It’s difficult to manage as hockey is a full-time job and then you have your studies and everything else has to fade into the background.

“You can’t financially support yourself. You’re kind of relying on your parents to continue to help you out and there comes a point when you think, ‘Wow, actually I need to do real-life things.’

I didn’t start my training contract [with a law firm] last April. Now the Olympics, and we’re on brink of something so special, I’ve parked it again. I’ll be two years behind and my friends are buying apartments and I’m still at home and don’t really have a job. It is a bit difficult and it’s important to have that support system around you to give you the push.

It’ll all be worth it if Ireland can get to Tokyo.

“Yeah, it’s so achievable now and that makes it that bit more nerve-wracking. It’s scary to think about but it gives me butterflies just talking about. It makes me nervous.

“It’s quite far away and a lot to be done, so it’s something I’ve tried to work on. My mindset and just focusing on the next game because if you think that far ahead, you get worried about the ifs and buts and then getting in the squad and you could drive yourself crazy.”

The first assignment is this afternoon against Malaysia, and then Czech Republic tomorrow. Ireland, the World Cup runners-up, are heavy favourites on home soil to get the job done and take the first step towards the holy grail of Olympic qualification.

But as Duke concludes, she smiles.

“As we know… rankings mean nothing.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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