living the dream

Graduation, the Áras and Late Late Show - riding the crest of the World Cup wave

It’s been a busy few weeks for Gillian Pinder and Emily Beatty, as the legacy of Ireland’s success at the Hockey World Cup grows.

OF ALL THE good to come out of Ireland’s preposterous brush with World Cup glory earlier this summer, and the positives have been manifold, it has been most heartening for the players to witness the transformative effect their achievements are having first-hand.

See Irishtown Stadium earlier this week, where Gillian Pinder and Emily Beatty were asked to help launch the inaugural Dublin City Sportsfest, alongside athletes from other codes and hundreds of school kids. 

Gillian Pinder and Emily Beatty Two of Ireland's hockey stars: Gillian Pinder and Emily Beatty. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The very fact two hockey players were involved in such an event is a departure from the norm, when the same faces from the same sports are in demand, but they’re now part of that conversation, of that media landscape.

How a medal changes things. 

So here they were, in inner-city Dublin, swarmed by primary school children seeking selfies to show their friends and a glimpse of the silver to try it on for size. Here they were, two hockey players, not just part of the show, but the stars of it.  

A month on from London, this is the real legacy. The medal is an important representation of what Graham Shaw’s side achieved, a reflection of the hard work and sacrifices demanded by such an achievement, but this is the real legacy.

The additional funding, and auxiliary benefits, are important and necessary rewards, pivotal to the future success of the team and sport, but this is the real legacy. And it has the power to inspire, to grow the game and bring it to new audiences. 

While it burst the heart with pride to watch events unfold in London, and witness a group of 18 amateur athletes, and their friends and families, fulfil lifelong dreams, it is truly inspiring to see how they have embraced everything since, becoming ambassadors and genuine role models for their sport, and for so much more. 

“It still hasn’t become natural for us to do this stuff but we’re just getting used to people coming over and talking to us about it,” Pinder, who was then rushing off for her UCD graduation ceremony, tells The42.

“It’s great, it’s keeping hockey in the limelight which is what we want and I suppose if there’s ever a topic that we’re going to be comfortable talking about, it’s what happened in London.”

Summer camps, school visits and corporate talks have all been par for the course in recent weeks, as Irish hockey continues to ride the crest of the World Cup wave. 

“I probably need to go and get my medal cleaned at this stage,” she laughs. “But it has been brilliant, and just to see the smiles on kids’ faces, but equally their parents. They just want to see the medal, get a photo with it. 

“It’s never something I ever thought I would experience as a hockey player. Just people coming up to you… it’s unfamiliar territory for us but at the same time we’re getting better at it, we’re getting used to it. I don’t think any of us want it to end.”

Scenes like this have been happening all over the country, from Cork to Belfast and everywhere in-between, as interest in the sports swells to unprecedented levels, and the hope is that it trickles down to a rudimentary level, as the club and school seasons begin to recommence. 

The Ireland team pose with their medals 6/8/2018 One month on, Irish hockey continues to ride the crest of the World Cup wave. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

It has been a lot to take in for the players, many of whom have seized opportunities to pursue careers abroad on the back of their new-found fame and elevated stature, but all have embraced the change, recognising this window and platform won’t last forever. 

“It is crazy, this has never happened to us before,” says Beatty, still amazed by what has happened, a smile evermore etched across her face.

“Usually at our matches it’s the hockey supporters, our parents and family but now everyone comes up to you. 

“I started back in college yesterday and I’m in RCSI [Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland] and there would be a lot of foreign students, but so many class-mates were saying they watched our match and they were at home in Pakistan or wherever for the summer.

“Having that much support, and having so many people talk about hockey, still comes as a surprise and coming to events like this, you just see it which is amazing.”

While Beatty has returned to some form of normality with lectures and assignments, and Pinder is settling into a new hockey-orientated role in her alma mater St Andrew’s College, the memories of those magical two weeks in July remain fresh in the mind.

Each player has moved on in their own direction in the intervening period, but all will return to Dublin later today for a special squad gathering at Áras an Uachtaráin for a reception with President Michael D. Higgins.

A distinction reserved for truly momentous sporting achievements and teams, it is a further measure of the impact Shaw’s history-making squad made through their performances and representation of the country that they will follow the Grand Slam-winning Ireland rugby squad in being hosted by the President this year.

“This team has broken new ground for Irish hockey and Irish sport and their momentous achievement will encourage young women and men all around the island of Ireland to take up sport,” he said. 

“For that, and for their success on the pitch, the team and support staff deserve all of our thanks.”

And from afternoon tea in the Phoenix Park, the squad will then head towards Donnybrook for an appearance on the season-opening episode of ‘The Late Late Show’, all the while remaining cognisant of the leverage a national platform brings. 

“We just want hockey to remain relevant,” Pinder continues. “And anything we can do to continue that, we’ll do. We want people to talk about it, to take it up, to watch it or even to go down to their local club and be involved.

“We want people to think now ‘the women’s hockey team are playing at home, let’s go and watch and support them.’ Every day of the last four weeks has given us that chance to promote hockey, and that’s what we’ve always craved.”

Pinder, who scored the winning penalty in the semi-final shootout win over Spain to send Ireland through to the World Cup final, will continue to play a direct role in channelling those added eyes and ears into increased participation numbers at underage level.

Gillian Pinder and Neha Goyal Pinder in action during the pool game against India. Joe Toth / INPHO Joe Toth / INPHO / INPHO

While the temptation to move abroad alongside some of her team-mates was there, the 26-year-old had already accepted a part-time job in St Andrew’s in Booterstown, where she will take charge of girls’ hockey from first to sixth year.

The flexibility of the role means she will be able to dedicate more time to her own training, essentially becoming a semi-professional athlete as Ireland’s focus turns to qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. 

“It’s ideal for the moment,” Pinder explains. “I took the role before the World Cup so it worked out well and it’s the same for the other girls, who have now got to balance things again with their employers. 

“I suppose this side of Christmas there’s not too much on for us so the girls who are staying at home to play can bank their days off for what I’m sure will be a busy 2019.”

Pinder will line out for Pembroke Wanderers in the EY Hockey League this season, the same club Beatty plays for, and while she intends to move abroad next year, many have already made that leap post-World Cup.

Nikki Evans had already agreed a second year with German giants UHC Hamburg but is now joined by Ireland captain Katie Mullan, who was snapped up by reigning champions Club an der Alster.

Megan Frazer has returned to Mannheimer HC for another season, while Deirdre Duke jumped at the chance to further her experience with Dusseldorfer HC having completed her studies in UCD. 

In the Netherlands, Anna O’Flanagan has switched clubs to link-up with Pinoke and, further afield, Lena Tice is spending a period playing in the New Zealand Hockey League.

It means Shaw will have less contact with more players when the national team reconvene later in the Autumn, but the benefits of playing abroad and garnering the experience and exposure in Europe’s professional leagues cannot be understated moving forward.

For Pinder, Beatty and the remaining home-based players, their schedules for the coming months have yet to be finalised, as they await to hear how the additional €500,000 in Sport Ireland funding will directly aid their high performance programme.

“We haven’t been set a programme, as I think we’re just waiting on confirmation on which city and which country we’re going to in order to try and qualify for the Olympics,” Pinder explains.

Deirdre Duke, Elena Tice, Katie Mullan and Emily Beatty with Millie OMahony and her mother Sharon Deirdre Duke, Elena Tice, Katie Mullan and Emily Beatty with Millie OMahony during their visit to Crumlin Children's Hospital. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“Until we find out that information, it’s hard to put a plan in place that’s accurate. We’re excited to see where we get sent, who we’re going to play against and what the preparation is going to look like.”

The hope is that Hockey Ireland can schedule a series of friendly fixtures in November/early December to allow Shaw explore the depth of his playing squad, and get the girls back out on the pitch together again.

“Once you’re on this high afterwards, you just want more, you just want more matches,” Beatty continues. “We’re on a really good roll now, we’re in a good place and we just believe we can do anything now.” 

All of this does, however, bring added pressure, and a new level of expectation. Now ranked eighth in the world, and World Cup silver medallists. No longer the underdog, nor the hard-luck story. That in itself changes things going into the Olympic qualifiers.

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Pinder agrees. “That’s probably the biggest thing that we’ll have to overcome now over the coming months. We don’t have the label of the underdog, go out and give it your all and if it’s not good enough sure that’s where you’re suppose to finish anyway.

“We will have a bigger following now and that does bring pressure and expectation. For us to be able to qualify we have to be on top of that, manage it and learn to deal with the situations we find ourselves in, because we are now coming from a slightly different angle.

“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of meetings to discuss it and how we can manage it. I’m sure we’ll be working closely with our sports psychologist [Gary Longwell] about it. But on the flip side of that, we’re confident now in ourselves, we know the damage we can cause.

“We’re ever more confident that we’re going to qualify for this Olympic Games.”

For now, though, there’s a queue of young fans waiting to see that medal. 

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