Sarah Hawkshaw has spent much of the past year alone on the field hockey pitches.
In his home country of Ireland, national lockdowns prevented people from moving more than two kilometers from their homes. Hawkshaw, a 2018 UMass graduate, knew the Irish women’s field hockey team had a place at the Tokyo Olympics. She was on the grounds of Energia Park in Dublin on March 13, 2019, when Ireland qualified for their first Olympics after a shootout that left her stomach ache. They trailed 3-1 before rallying to qualify.
“We did it in the hardest way possible,” said Hawkshaw. “Might as well make it an occasion, I guess. It wasn’t really fun when you stood there.
A week and a half later, the 2020 Olympics were postponed for a year. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives around the world. Most sports have stopped altogether. Hawkshaw couldn’t be with her teammates, so she trained on her own.
“I took control of what I could do. So I was like ‘it’s true I can be the fittest person on this court, I can be the fittest person on any court,’ ”she said. “I spent hours on the pitches on my own during the first lockdown. It’s now that when I look back on it I can see how much it was worth because it really improved my game.
Even though she had played for the Irish national team for three months by then, she didn’t feel safe on the team or certain that she would be going to Tokyo when the Olympics finally took place.
“You can only be good on your last performance, and that’s what makes it so special,” said Hawkshaw.
She and her teammates never wavered in their belief that the games would continue, that they would be the team that would make Ireland’s Olympic field hockey debut. There was no other option for them.
“I don’t think we ever believed it could be undone, and I don’t think we can. We absolutely had to believe it was moving forward, whether it’s this year, last year – anytime, ”said Hawkshaw.
Her hard work and faith paid off when she was named to Ireland’s first women’s field hockey team at the end of June.
“It was very nervous and sweaty. In elite sport, your place should never be completely defined. You are only as good as your last game, your last tournament, ”said Hawkshaw. “Our Irish team for these Olympic Games really showed it. There were a few big names who stayed home. It was absolutely a shock. “
Hawkshaw and Ireland arrived in Japan last week and spent several days in Iwate, a seven hour drive north of Tokyo. They open their Olympic calendar at 8.15am on Saturday against South Africa, which includes current UMass goalkeeper Marlise van Tonder as a traveling reserve. These are the 10th and 11th Minutewomen to represent their country at the Olympics.
“There is no doubt that not only their talent, but also their work ethic and their drive, their passion for the game would propel them to achieve whatever they wanted in this sport,” said the coach of the ‘UMass Barb Weinberg. “I’m super proud of them. I’m not surprised. I knew they were going to be able to achieve their goals by the nature of their character.
Weinberg only coached Hawkshaw for her final year after joining the Minutewomen in 2017, but thankfully would have kept her longer if she could.
“Players like that, you wish you could coach them for 10 years and there was no such thing as eligibility,” Weinberg said. “She was someone who led by actions but also because of her behavior and her talent, she was a natural leader and everyone wanted to follow her.”
UMass hosted Hawkshaw’s 10 year senior Atlantic Championship game and lost 2-0 to Saint Joseph’s in the first hour. Hawkshaw propelled a rally with an assist, as the Minutewomen forced overtime. Although UMass fell on a sudden death goal, Hawkshaw played almost every second, her legs shaking as she left the field at the Gladchuk field hockey complex for the last time.
“Her courage and ability to push even in times of extreme fatigue is the kind of athlete she is,” Weinberg said.
She is now starting to display some of those same leadership qualities with Ireland. Hawkshaw – who plays semi-pro for the Railway Union Club – used the extra year to develop both his stick and his mindset.
“It gave me an extra year to get involved in international hockey, to understand international hockey. I need to have a little more impact and be up to the task, ”said Hawkshaw. “I can now speak with confidence knowing my role and knowing what we are trying to do and what the team’s goals are. “
Ireland are the ninth team in the world and reached the World Cup final in 2018.
“We are looking at this tournament game by game. We had a European tournament that we weren’t completely happy with. We felt like we left things unfinished, ”said Hawkshaw. “It’s the first time we’ve been back to the tournament, so I guess you can understand why things are happening. We hope to get out of our large group. In these big tournaments, if you are part of your group, anything can happen.
It starts against South Africa, which is also in Pool A with reigning world champions Holland, India, Great Britain and Germany. Van Tonder likely won’t be on the pitch trying to keep Hawkshaw off goal. As a traveling reserve, it will watch from the stands rather than from the bench.
“I tried to adopt a service mentality – well, I always try to have a service mentality in a team, but also now because I can focus entirely on serving the team,” said van Tonder. “I have to be ready to play at all times, so I have to stay engaged in team discussions. My goal should be to always train, regardless of my position, and to make sure the first team has everything they need. “
It’s a unique role that can be both fulfilling and frustrating. Fortunately, she was able to rely on Weinberg for advice. Weinberg was a replacement for the 2008 bronze medal-winning US team in Beijing.
“It’s interesting that you are so excited to be there, but in the back of your mind you have a feeling that you want more, that you are training like everyone else on the team,” Weinberg said. “To be able to guide her through this, I’m incredibly proud of the position she holds and she should be incredibly proud of that as well.”
Van Tonder had a long conversation with Weinberg shortly after being appointed one of the traveling reserves in late May.
“I’m really grateful for her support because she knows what it is and what you’re going through,” van Tonder said.
Weinberg and the rest of the UMass program kept in touch while she was at her home in South Africa during the pandemic. There are FaceTime calls every two weeks, regular texts, and a team SnapChat.
“She’s the glue that holds the team together. She is such a positive person, she is very inclusive. She always comes to training with a single to the face. Our players benefit, ”Weinberg said. “There was no doubt that we missed her this spring and that she missed her presence on and off the pitch.”
Van Tonder thought she could join UMass for the spring season, but travel restrictions from South Africa were tight due to the COVID-19 variant from there.
“I have definitely missed my UMass team mates,” said van Tonder. “It’s good to stay connected, but it’s not the same as waking up at six and having early morning practice sessions and the game day routine and all that stuff.”
She has yet another year of eligibility with UMass and will return to Amherst after the Games.
“I will be able to bring my experience to this environment surrounded by great people,” said Van Tonder. “I think it’s something valuable to bring to the team.”
Kyle Grabowski can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.