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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'My faith is the biggest part of my life, it's more important than Tokyo or World Cups'

Still only 21, Elena Tice is fast approaching a century of caps for the Ireland women’s hockey team. She has made sacrifices and brave decisions, but is now closer than ever to achieving her sporting dreams.

‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ 

– Philippians 4:13.

FAITH TAKES MANY forms. It can be difficult to define, and viewed in different ways, through different eyes. But faith, in any form, in any language, can be simplified. It can, ultimately, be described as having a deep belief in something — anything — greater than ourselves. In family, in friends, in values, in spirituality, in team-mates. In chasing a dream and never letting go.

Elena Tice, for as long as she can remember, has always been driven by the very highest level of achievement, across all aspects of life, but in particular in sport. A pursuit of perfection, of a childhood ambition. The goal, the motivation, the devotion has never changed. It never will, not until she gets there. To the Olympics. And it has never been a secret. 

D3y3lodWwAARWRi Ireland hockey international Elena Tice. Source: Ramsey Cardey/Sportsfile

Her journey started, as she recalls, as soon as she could walk. By the age of five, Tice was out the back with her father and older brothers hitting, kicking and playing. Cricket, soccer and then hockey. At 13, she became the second youngest player in the history of cricket, male or female, to play in a One-Day International match. Four years later, in fifth year, Tice made her senior international debut for the Ireland women’s hockey team.

Now, at 21, she has won over 100 caps for her country across both sports and, after helping Ireland to a truly indelible World Cup silver medal last summer, is approaching a century of senior international hockey appearances. At 21. But this is only the start.

Tice had to make the undeniably tough decision to choose which path she wanted to go down before sitting her Leaving Certificate in St Gerard’s, Wicklow. Cricket or hockey? Hockey or cricket? Her talents were such that, having already represented her country at both codes as the ultimate all-rounder, the decision would have ramifications for both sports. One, however, offered the chance to chase the Olympic dream. The other didn’t. Irish hockey’s gain, was, unfortunately, Irish cricket’s loss. 

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” she tells The42. “I can’t describe how tough that period was. I had such good and wonderful friends in both sports.” 

As difficult as that was, Tice has always been prepared to make the sacrifices demanded by greatness. Or demanded by her unwavering pursuit of that goal. From her early teenage years, she has lived and trained as an international athlete. Through school, through exams, through college. Through summers when her friends were on Leaving Cert holidays and J1s in America. Through every step of her life as she’s known it. 

“You don’t just miss out on weddings or holidays with your best friends without even thinking about it,” she says. “They’re sacrifices. I have been doing this a long time and thinking about the 13 years I’ve played international sport, it does make me feel tired.

But I wouldn’t change it — missing out on stuff — because I know every single one of those sacrifices, when I was training or in the gym and wasn’t on holiday or doing whatever everyone else my age was doing, have led me to where I am today. I wouldn’t change it, I don’t deny it’s difficult, but no way would I change it because it’s what I’ve chosen to do. It’s what I’ve wanted to do.

Tice, as naturally gifted as she is, knows talent only gets you so far. Those who know her, and coach her, speak of a supremely committed and hard-working individual, not just in hockey, but in her academics too. The same word — driven — is consistently repeated. Driven by the very highest level of achievement for her and the team.

It is for those reasons, for those sacrifices, for those highs and lows, that made a magical summer in London as emotionally charged as it was for Tice, her family and every single member of Graham Shaw’s history-making squad, each with their own story, with their own motivation, all united by one common goal.

There’s one moment, in particular, she recalls and cherishes. When the dam broke.

“After the semi-final,” Tice begins. “We had beaten Spain in a shootout to get to a World Cup final. I came out to my parents afterwards and I just broke down. Inconsolable, as if we had lost. They were a bit shocked but everything just came out at that moment because you give up so much, and it’s actually so hard so much of the time. 

Elena Tice Tice in action at last summer's World Cup in London. Source: Joe Toth/INPHO

“And then finally you just achieve something that is beyond everything you’ve ever dreamt of. Everything, in that moment, seems worth it. It kind of justifies it. I’ll never forget that moment. I was just hugging my Mum and Dad and crying inconsolably. It was just such a blessing and I have to be thankful to the Lord I got to experience that. So many people worked hard to make that happen and I was just fortunate to be there.”

Two hours earlier, Tice had been talismanic in helping Ireland past Spain on that memorable Saturday afternoon in August. Defying her tender years, a totemic presence in defence. Marshalling, ordering, leading. 

“All the 5:30 alarms, all the freezing nights, all the blood, sweat and tears. All of it. And now, tomorrow, we will play in the World Cup final #GreenArmy #Phillipians4:13,” she tweeted after helping Ireland — the second-lowest ranked team in the competition — to make the impossible possible. 

Tice’s performances at the tournament earned the UCD student a nomination for the FIH’s Rising Star award, and brought her to the attention of a global audience, but through it all — the spotlight, the success — she has remained true to her roots and done so without losing any of the core values that mean so much to her and her family.

On the morning of each game, Tice would draw a cross on her left forearm and, for the World Cup final against Netherlands, she wore a white wristband with a black cross as a representation of her faith, a reminder of her biggest motivator and a source of reassurance in the biggest game of her young career.

“My faith is a massive part of my life,” she explains. “It’s the biggest part of my life, it’s more important than hockey and it’s more important than Tokyo or World Cups. It’s lasting and it doesn’t change, God’s love for me doesn’t change if I do well or I don’t do well and that’s what’s amazing about it.

“It gives you a different perspective, I suppose. I try and think about how I can honour God in the way I can play as opposed to just thinking about competing with people around me. It’s the biggest motivator to work hard. I feel like I’ve been given these gifts to be able to play sport and it’s a blessing to have all the opportunities to play and therefore I want to work as hard as I can to use these gifts to glorify him.

It’s a huge part of my life and, unlike hockey which will come and go, my faith will sustain me and is very much lasting.

Through the tough days, through the peaks and troughs, through the moments of self-doubt, she can lean on her faith. Tice, she explains, feels connected to something larger than herself, not just through her Christianity, but being part of a dressing room with an enviable bond. 

“I spend a lot of time praying before games and not just for myself but praying for my team-mates as well,” she continues. “It’s a reassurance that you’re not alone out there on the field and the Lord has you in his hands and he’s guiding you too. I don’t know if I call it an edge but it gives you a sense of peace and takes a bit of the anxiety away. I get quite nervous around games so I have to lean on my faith at those times. 

gettyimages-1011305846-594x594 The 21-year-old's faith is a massive part of her life. Source: Action Foto Sport

“It allows you to have joy even when it’s not going so well. My family are all really strong Christians and they give me a lot of guidance and support through everything. When I say really difficult times, it’s still enjoyable, it’s hard. We obviously love what we do, but I always have my faith and can always just lean on the Lord and turn to him and turn to my Bible when times are really difficult.” 

In more ways than one, Tice’s parents — and wider family — have had a profound effect on her character and career. Those cherished moments outside London’s Lee Valley Stadium just one recent example, a framed picture for the mantelpiece if ever there was one, but they have been there every step of the way. Encouraging, supporting, consoling, cheering. On the good days, but, more importantly, on the bad days. A World Cup silver medal was not solely hers, Tice insists, but a reward for the whole family. Theirs. 

“I was fortunate as well because my Dad just treated me like one of the boys, like one of my brothers. He put so much time into my sport and not in a pushy way, but just incredibly attentive and committed. My brothers, as well. They are as big a part of it as anyone. We just spent hours and hours and hours outside playing. I have an amazingly supportive family.

“They feel every high and low with you, especially my Mum. She goes through all the emotions with me because she would be the first person I call when it’s tough and probably the first person I call when it’s great as well. That’s amazing and they’ve taught me a lot and ultimately just say, whatever happens, they don’t actually care about success or what happens on the pitch. They’re more concerned about my character and that’s obviously a wonderful encouragement.”

Back home in Glenealy, a beautifully picturesque village in County Wicklow, Tice has just completed her third-year summer exams in UCD, where she is studying Economics and, on the pitch, has been an integral part of the college’s recent success at national and European level under head coach Miles Warren. 

With the start of Ireland’s crucial FIH Final Series campaign now just two weekends away, the defender has had little time to catch her breath, as she jumps between studies and hockey and back again — but it has never been any other way.

Tice has another year-and-a-half left of her degree after she delayed her return to college last September to take up an opportunity to further develop her hockey education, and add another layer of valuable experience to her burgeoning career, by playing for North Harbour Hawks in Auckland.

Just 10 days after the World Cup, Tice was playing alongside, and competing against, the best players in the southern hemisphere as she helped North Harbour to a first New Zealand National Hockey League title in eight years. 

And then, on the back of her towering performances in the green of Ireland and in New Zealand, Tice was picked up as an overseas player by the Canberra Strikers for their Australian Hockey League campaign, in which they finished third and, as a measure of her immediate impact and contribution, Tice was named player of the tournament. 

It meant she finished the 2018 season by winning four separate medals; an EYHL and Irish Senior Cup double with UCD, a historic World Cup silver with Ireland and the New Zealand Hockey League title with North Harbour, in addition to her FIH Rising Star nomination award and player of the tournament accolade from Down Under. 

Elena Tice Tice enjoyed a memorable year in 2018. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It was a bit of a whirlwind and I didn’t really stop until I came home and it was only then in November, I could sit down and process everything,” she says. “It taught me a lot. Obviously, it’s a massive part of sport, the social aspect of going into a team and settling in when you don’t know anyway. And to be confident in yourself to bring that out on the field. I didn’t know anyone, I was thrown in the deep end with two new teams in two months. But it gives you confidence in your ability and I loved it.

“The southern hemisphere style of playing suited me and when you are the overseas player there is a little bit more pressure on you so it is important you do perform and you do play well and you make it worth their while bringing you out there. I felt I had a responsibility to do a good job.”

Tice feels that responsibility every time she steps on the field, the weight of expectation she places on her own shoulders heavier than that of the external pressure. Each training session is a window of opportunity to get better, each day a chance to make one small improvement to raise overall standards. Tice is, in many ways, a driving force and, even at 21, a big personality in every dressing room she walks into. Both at home and on the other side of the world.

The wheel keeps turning, no more so than over the coming weeks as Ireland — now under Gareth Grundie and new head coach Sean Dancer following the winter departure of Shaw — begin their Tokyo 2020 qualification campaign up the road in Banbridge. As magical as last summer was, this is it. There is no margin for error, no room for slip-ups. Or else more heartbreak.

“This is the biggest tournament in my life, in our lives,” Tice states, with absolute conviction and no hesitation. “You reach the peak of your dreams, like London was obviously more than we could have ever asked for or imagined, but it does come and go very quickly and you have to move on and all you can think about is the next thing.

Ever since I was tiny, I was probably five years old when I said I wanted to go to an Olympics, and that hasn’t changed. When I was in school and watched the team miss out on Rio qualification on one-v-ones against China, I remember thinking I can’t even imagine what those girls are feeling right now, but that put the fire in my belly. I just thought, I want to be part of that team. That dream.

Tice — through the 5.30am alarm calls for gym, through the unimaginably tough fitness sessions at the Sport Institute, through the endless hours of hard work, and through every sacrifice she makes for this cause — cannot stop thinking about Tokyo.

“Every single day you’re thinking about. I think about it every day. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about Tokyo every day. It’s such a massive goal. We have to make sure we nail this in June and we give ourselves the best possible chance to perform. 

“I’m hungrier than ever. I won’t stop until we get there as a team. That’s my goal and that’s my team-mates’ goal. It’s so incredible to be one small cog in this Irish women’s hockey wheel that is moving towards Tokyo and, to be part of that, I’m hungrier than ever. I won’t stop now, not until we get there.”

India v Ireland - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Pool B - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Tice has become a key figure at the heart of Ireland's defence. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Now, the serious business. Ireland, ranked eighth in the world, begin their home-tournament campaign against Malaysia on 8 June, before facing Czech Republic the following day and then Singapore on 11 June to round off Group A. 

The equation is simple, really. Finish in the top two of this FIH Final Series tournament and progress through to a two-legged Olympic qualifier tie in November, the winner of which on an aggregate score will book their place at the 2020 Games. 

“The World Cup was not the end or the ultimate dream,” Tice repeats, for her own benefit more than anything else. “Tokyo is the ultimate dream and that hasn’t changed. All that has changed is that we have a bit more pressure on us. It’s what we want and we invite it and now we need to make sure we perform under those conditions now. 

“We feel good and we invite the pressure and we know probably from the outside it looks like things haven’t been going well but we’re very much united as a squad and that’s the most important thing. This is the biggest tournament of our lives and we’re ready to go.”

Never stop. Work hard. Aim big.

“I’ve big aspirations with this amazing team I play for,” Tice adds. “One day I’ll have to move on but I have a lot left in me. I wouldn’t change anything that has happened and there’s so much more to come. Hopefully it all, the harder days, the setbacks and the experiences, have made me a bit stronger and a bit tougher. I’d like to think I can push on through the next set of barriers and push on with this team. That’s why we do it.”

To believe is to hope. For something better, for something greater, for something more than we could ever dream of, or imagine. London, now Banbridge. And next, all going well, Tokyo.

Keep the faith. 

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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