CAPE TOWN – It was “absolutely devastating” when both the South African men’s and women’s hockey teams were not allowed to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics, despite winning the African championships.
Sascoc at the time stated that they had to qualify through the Hockey World League instead, and neither team was able to go far enough in that competition.
But both teams are at the Tokyo Olympics this year, and SA women’s team captain Erin Christie says it is “incredible” they are in Japan this time around.
Christie, a 29-year-old physical science teacher at Rand Park High in Johannesburg, fully understands the enormity of the situation.
“We feel like we’ve been given a second chance. And in saying that, we know that it’s not actually just about this team in 2021. We know we are carrying a much larger responsibility than that. Going to Tokyo this year, we know that we are tasked with the responsibility of setting the platform for future South African hockey teams,” she told Independent Media.
“And we can only hope to go over there and fight our hardest, and give our absolute best and make everyone proud.”
Christie was almost born to be a teacher. She remembers her mother telling her that when she was three in nursery school, she had “the other kids sitting on the chair in front of me while I was pretending to teach them”.
But her hockey dream started at the age of eight, and she flourished at the self-same Rand Park High, to the extent that she was earmarked for higher honours by none other than SA legend Pietie Coetzee-Turner, who was her coach in the Southern Gauteng Under-18 team at the time.
Coetzee-Turner has an astonishing record as a striker for SA, scoring 287 goals in 289 international matches, which is the world record in women’s field hockey, and was part of the SA team at the 2000, 2004 and 2012 Olympics.
“I was fortunate enough to have Pietie Coetzee – now Pietie CoetzeeTurner – as our coach, and that for me was absolutely amazing. She was definitely someone that I completely idolised, and an absolute hero of South African hockey,” Christie said.
“So, she coached us throughout the tournament. She was probably the first one that I can say, especially being the player that she is …
She said to me at the end of that tournament, that she thought I was very unlucky not to make the SA Under-18 side.
“And that for me was just like, kind of that drove me so much, because if someone like Pieter Coetzee-Turner thought that I was good enough to make a South African team then, who am I to disagree with her!
“And when I got to Stellenbosch University, I was playing under coach Jenny King, who had also coached the women’s national team. And she also saw something special in me and kind of pushed me, and from first year said to me, ‘Right, by the end of the year, you’re going to play SA Under-21. You will go to the Junior World Cup. And after that, you will make the South African ladies side. You’ve got a big, big future of hockey ahead of you’.
“But along the way, I’ve been surrounded by some amazing teammates – Shelley Russell, Sulette Damons … I got my first cap under Marsha Cox.”
But now, it’s all about getting ready for the opening match against Ireland tomorrow.
Apart from Ireland, Olympic champions Great Britain and world champions the Netherlands, India and Germany are also in Group A along with SA.
“You mentioned that we’ve got quite a group that we’re playing against, but this is the Olympics –
the other group is also very difficult. And we know that it’s going to be tough. It’s something that we’ve accepted, and we are willing to fight and compete in every single game,” Christie said.
“I think for us, our first goal is to compete in every single game and show the rest of the world that the South African women’s hockey team can compete on the international stage and can compete against the best of the best.
“We are the lowest-ranked team there, so we are the underdogs, but we are trying to use this as an advantage rather than a disadvantage, and adopt an underdog mentality, which has a lot of power behind it.
“As South Africans, I think we’re often used to being the underdogs. So, we are used to fighting and giving our all. But as a team, we are very sure of what we want to achieve in Tokyo, and that is making a quarter-final.
“A quarter-final is … anything can happen. So as a team, we are very sure and very set on what we want to achieve in Tokyo and that is finishing in the top eight.
“It would be the highest finish of a South African women’s team at the Olympics. I think ninth is the current highest, but we are pushing for top-eight, making that quarterfinal spot and making our mark on international hockey.”