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'I never would have seen myself last year in the position that I am'

Hannah McLoughlin has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past few years, from adoring fan to Irish hockey star and Olympian.

THAT MAGICAL SUMMER in London, Hannah McLoughlin was but a supporter, watching from afar.

From her home in Blackrock, to be precise, before gathering with clubmates for a World Cup final screening. She knew a lot of Ireland’s silver medal-winning heroes and followed their journey all along, but like most others across the country, she was merely an adoring fan in 2018.

hannah-mcloughlin-announced-as-davy-brand-ambassador Hannah McLoughlin at the National Hockey Stadium, UCD, Dublin at the announcement of her role as a Davy brand ambassador. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

She assumed a similar spectator role the following Autumn, firmly rooted in the Donnybrook crowd as the Green Army qualified for their first-ever Olympic Games.

Fast forward to Tokyo 2020 — albeit a year later in 2021 — where McLoughlin was a player, and a central one at that.

She can now call herself an Olympian after an impressive individual summer where she made a real breakthrough on the world stage. She’s a fully-fledged international with 24 caps to her name at 21, with World Cup the next dream as the focus switches to next weeks’ qualifying competition in Pisa.

“I still don’t think I’ve come to terms with that transition of seeing them do something and then working to actually being a part of it now,” she tells The42.

“Back in 2018, I watched the whole thing from home. Now, it’s knowing you have big boots to fill with a silver medal, but trying to approach it as any other tournament and have that consistency and not think too much about, ‘This is what they did in 2018, so we have to replicate that’.

“It’s just focusing on ourselves, what we’re good at, and hopefully allowing that magic to happen as a byproduct and not being outcome focused.”

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A few moments from down through the years jump out, as McLoughlin traces her journey to this point.

She remembers her mother, who also played in her day, putting a hockey stick in her hand one day as a child. “I’ve signed you up for hockey around the corner where all your friends are, off you go,” McLoughlin was told. Off she went, without thinking twice.

She recalls going to watch her first international hockey games in UCD in second or third year of secondary school. Ireland v India. “From what my Mum says to me, that’s when that seed kind of started to grow. After seeing them play, that’s when I really got hungry and said, ‘I want to be on that pitch and I want to I want to wear a green jersey.’”

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McLoughlin was always sports-mad. She “tried every sport under the sun” throughout primary school, enjoying whatever it was she played. A real people person, she was always happiest in a team environment, gravitating towards that side of things.

Hockey soon took hold. “I just absolutely loved it,” she beams. “For probably the first year, I never thought of it as something that I was really competitive about, or would have really been driven. I just loved being outside playing with my friends, very much a social thing to do the weekends.”

hannah-mcloughlin Facing the Netherlands at the Euros. Source: Frank Uijlenbroek/INPHO

But it all went up a few notches when she started secondary school in Loreto Foxrock, a real hockey stronghold.

“That’s when I realised, ‘Oh, I actually have have a knack for this’ and was quite good naturally at it. I suppose that’s when the competitive side came out in me, and I really wanted to do well and really wanted to be the best player in my year, the best player to come out of my school.”

McLoughlin’s star rose and rose from there, impressing each and every time she took to the pitch. She remembers heading to Leinster U16 trials; the opportunity to play for her province, and then potentially country, “a foreign concept to me”.

She took it all in her stride and enjoyed every minute, without any real expectations or awareness. That ultimately worked a treat; a seed planted after her first inter-provincial tournament — “This is an avenue that I really, really enjoy, and I really want to pursue and commit to,” she realised —- and grown after watching Ireland play in UCD; where she is now in her final year of Economics and Finance.

At the time, she swam and played polo cross as well, but her infatuation with hockey meant there was no big decision.

“To be honest, I haven’t really looked back since between that and, and secondary school and then going into college, that’s all I’ve really ever done,” she smiles. “It’s all I know.

“I worked my way up through Leinster and Irish underage teams, and then got into an U21 Irish panel when I was 17. I got my first Irish senior cap when I was 17 as well. I suppose I got that taste for high performance and the top level quite young. That kind of increased that hunger and motivation to really want to get to the top of my sport in Ireland.

“I suppose it just comes down to the fact that I love the sport and I love doing it, it’s great that I just happened to be good at it.”

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In January 2021, McLoughlin made a promise to herself.

A pretty simple one: just go out, play, not think about selection or tournaments or anything like that, just take it week by week, enjoy it and she would play her best hockey then.

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She honoured that, staying true to her word, and laughs that it has worked.

The Covid-19 pandemic perhaps delayed her breakthrough, but when Sean Dancer’s side regrouped last August, she really put her foot on the gas, grabbing each and every opportunity and minute in green that came her way thereafter.

It earned her a seat on the plane to June’s Euro Hockey Championships in Amsterdam, and a ticket to Tokyo in July. While the latter ultimately ended in disappointment, she can now call herself an Olympian and a history-maker — something that still doesn’t resonate with her, as she focuses on the next challenge in next week’s last-ditch World Cup qualifier.

hannah-mcloughlin-celebrates-after-scoring-a-goal Celebrating a goal at the Olympics. Source: Frank Uijlenbroek/INPHO

The big question to finish off.

An all-consuming breakthrough year, has she had the chance to let it sink in yet?

“No. Honest answer is really not at all. Even when I came home from the Europeans and came home from Tokyo, and was catching up with people, it’s still quite a surreal experience.

“I’ve only really broken in I think myself the last year-and-a-half to two years. In a way, that mindset of not having expectations and just going for something, I think has really stood to me.

“It’s probably going to be after October –November, December, in the New Year when you can actually sit down and and digest the summer in its own right and actually let it sink in.

“But it’s been a whirlwind of a year for me in so many positive ways. I’m trying to take as much of it in as possible but yeah, I still have to pinch myself and realise that I actually went over the summer and I was actually physically over in Tokyo. It’s such a no man’s land feeling in a lot of positive ways.

“Obviously I’m delighted with how the year has gone but I think I never would have seen myself last year in the position that I am. It’s really really exciting.”

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Hannah McLoughlin was speaking at the announcement of her role as a Davy brand ambassador. Davy is proud to support young Irish athletes.. Davy is proud to support young Irish athletes.

Originally published at 07.15

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Emma Duffy

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