Published on December 5th, 2016 | by Umar Choudhry
‘We had this look in our eyes like this is our day’
“You’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.”
Nicola White is recalling the advice her mother gave her long before she won women’s hockey Olympic gold in Rio de Janiero.
White lives by those words and is honest when discussing the turnaround that led her from failing to make her first England trials at the age of 15 to becoming Great Britain’s hero as her late equaliser to make it 3-3 in the final against reigning Olympic champions the Netherlands forced the game to a shootout decider.
White and the GB hockey squad ensured hockey became compelling viewing in Rio. When it comes to discussing the team’s journey from London in 2012 to Brazil four years later, White’s steely undercurrent and strong motivation becomes apparent.
“My journey wasn’t particularly perfect,” she admits. “I had my first England trials when I was 15 and I didn’t make it. I didn’t get my second England trials until I was 19 and I was quite a latecomer really because under 16’s and under 18’s is crucial for the development. To come in at under 21 level fairly late, I was really lucky.
“One of the things that we worked really hard since London was our culture. There’s 31 of us that train and it was sometimes hard to agree on something and get the best out of ourselves, but we improved our values and we embraced it.”
Her and the team’s success is a result of perseverance and dedication but it is also a tale of competition. “Everyone in the squad had a responsibility to do their best,” she says.
“We wanted to make a difference and it created this massive bond of trust within the team. I think one of the most amazing things was stepping onto the pitch having built this culture. The competition for places was so high and we used to play high-paced games on a Thursday within the squad.
“The coaches would send out the game plan on a Wednesday night so we knew what we had to bring and what we had to do.
“Everyone brought their best games, and it ensured this amazing standard of hockey and brought out the best in us all.
“These little things impact hugely because when you get into an Olympic final, the pressure is massive but you know how to deal with it.”
White is still overwhelmed by the team’s stunning success this summer. When it came to Rio and taking on the Netherlands, who were vying for a third Olympic gold in a row and huge favourites, there was a determination among the GB players.
The game was drifting away at one point, but Britain’s never-say-die attitude led by an indomitable White performance, paid off when she made it 3-3 in the final period.
Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch then pulled off some stunning saves in the shootout as the GB girls achieved history.
White remains refreshingly low-key about her golden moment.
The forward says: “I knew we had eight minutes to go and we were losing against the reigning champions of the world.
“Holland are historically a really good team and I was so glad we played them because they were the elephant [in the room] and people thought we couldn’t beat them when it came to the crunch.
“All I remember is we had a short corner and I was just on red alert, and I’ve never been on red alert like that before and I thought if we can get this level, I knew we would hold on and it would go to penalties.
“The ball just fell and I put it towards the goal and I thought nothing else of it. Everyone’s faces were the same as we had this look in our eyes like this is our day. We just had this confidence about us.”
Looking back on the summer heroics, White admits the feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal has only just recently sunk in.
“It’s a real cliche, but it’s pretty much a dream come true for me and my team-mates. I’ve started to come back down to earth now but at the time it was just so overwhelming.
“I had so many emotions going through my head when we actually won it. It was just sort of flicking from happiness and emotion and I had happy tears, but it was an amazing experience.
“The girls who took the penalties were confident and I knew that if we stuck to what we did, we would win.
“We all knew, as much as we were nervous at the time, that if anyone was going to win it, it would be us. We are so used to that feeling of being under pressure in penalties that we thrived on it.”
The support of her family has been key for White, particularly in picking her up from that England trials rejection aged 15.
“My mum has supported me massively on my journey. I remember she used to tell me a lot when I was young that you’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.
“That’s probably what’s stuck with me the most. Her telling me that if I keep working and don’t give up in the first hurdle, it’ll all pay off, and she was right.”
“We have gained lots of media attention as a team,” she says. “That’s really good for our sport, and I think the biggest thing is how much the sport has grown.
“I guess the legacy started at London 2012, when we won bronze, and has grown since our gold medal.
“When we go around the country, people tell us how they didn’t watch hockey before but now they love it.
“People have warmed to us and that’s probably the biggest change because people are now talking about it.
“When I say ‘I’m Nicola White, I’m one of the hockey girls’, they’re like ‘we love you’! Previously they would have been confused as many people didn’t know about us, so it’s nice to now hear them say that.”
As a seven-year-old in Shaw and Crompton, Greater Manchester, White dreamt of being a hockey player.
“I was lucky that my school played hockey because a lot of schools didn’t,” she explains. “I was lucky to get involved with it at such a young age, and that my teacher was involved in the pathway to internationals.
“She was in the county and regional set-ups, had the best hockey knowledge and knew where to go and how to make it happen. She guided and started me off.
“Skills-wise you’ve got to have a certain talent to be good at any sport. What I’ve realised on my journey is that your mindset is just as important.
“It’s all good and well having the talent but you’ve got to apply yourself. Every day you have to wake up and want to give it your all, and it’s that commitment, that desire and hunger that’s needed to be successful.”
Women in sport
As a youngster, the GB hockey star idolised female athletes such as Kelly Holmes and Tina Cullen, and says she has seen progress in the amount of media attention women in sport receive.
“I think there’s more of an acceptance that women are successful and need to be given as much credit as the men get, and it’s a major thing that’s been highlighted probably in the last decade.
“Women haven’t had as much recognition as they should have had. People are pushing for more equality. Tennis now offers the same wages for men and women, and things are becoming more equal.
“That should be the norm and moving forward, I think it will be. It’s being driven by the successes we have had in football, hockey, rugby union and other sports.
“I love it and I’m so proud because that’s all we ever wanted. We just want people to accept us for what we’ve done and give us the recognition.”
White regularly refers to her competitiveness in her downtime when playing other sports like tennis and golf with her two brothers, but the main objective is to get prepared for another four years of gruelling build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Preparation is well underway, and White says it will be harder to stay at the top of the tree in 2020 because everyone will be aiming to knock GB off their perch.
“We have to not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again”
“It sounds so scary thinking about how we will be back in four years time,” she says. “No doubt we will be looking for a gold medal because you cannot go from this success to not target another gold medal.
“I remember our coach Danny Kerry, after the Olympics we sat in a room in Rio and he was talking about success on success and how much of a difficult challenge it is and that’s what we are accepting.
‘As much as the journey is hard to get to the top, it is much harder to stay there. You’re now at the top and everyone’s chasing you, so it’ll be about rebuilding the culture, replacing the players who have retired with new players.
“There’s nothing holding us back now so we have to relish it. We have to use it and not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again. That’ll be the challenge but we are aiming to go for it again.”