Exclusive: Maddie Hinch on Olympic gold, taking a break and the road to Tokyo 2020

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At the 2016 Olympics, the sporting world learnt that when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, it's the latter that emerges victorious. 

A Netherlands hockey team that had hoovered up Olympic gold medals for nearly a decade came unstuck when, staring down the field at them, stood the imposing figure of Maddie Hinch. The collision of wits from that climatic penalty shootout have reverberated for the three years since, never failing to rouse goosebumps whenever the footage is run back.

Hinch's clearance of that final stroke was sport's answer to Sir Ian McKellen exclaiming 'You Shall Not Pass' and the crowning moment of a career that had already been littered with glorious moments. It certainly wouldn't be cliché to say that it changed Hinch's life and taking her seat in Red Bull's London studios, you got the impression that it remained at the forefront of her mind.

Speaking to GiveMeSport as the Olympics' quadrennial cycle whips towards Tokyo, the British hero looked back on that summer in Brazil with an unabashed nostalgia. "It was like: what on earth has just happened?" Hinch reflected through a smile. "We'd actually turned our phones off, so we didn't even know anyone was watching at home, never mind nine million and the news was moved.

"So, when we all turned our phones back on in the changing rooms, they were melting and we were all like: 'quick turn them off again' because we'd been in a bubble for so long that it was nice to just enjoy it together. I don't think the impact we had truly set in until we landed at Heathrow. It was all about the hockey. People were just talking about the hockey because the story was so impressive.

Life after Rio 2016

"I remember going to see the Red Bull guys on the train a few days later and a man had a newspaper wide open with a ginormous picture of my face on it. I was sat there like: 'please don't notice me', then eventually he clicked and everybody on the carriage was talking about it. It was mad! I got stopped multiple times on the way here and I wear a helmet!"

Sadly, the four-year gap between Olympics makes for an inevitable lull between competitions, even if you reach sports' zenith at every attempt. While Hinch has mixed feelings about her experience of the so-called 'post-Olympic blues', wearing protective gear from head-to-toe doesn't stop self-doubt as well as it does hockey balls. 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the GB uniform was some sort of full-body tattoo for Hinch, such has been her omnipresence between the sticks in recent years. However, the 30-year-old took the brave decision to lay down her pads in late 2018, shedding her international colours and travelling the world to accumulate some much needed 'me-time.'

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Deciding to take a break

The West Sussex-born athlete went on to admit: "In many ways, the Olympics have been a huge challenge for me to try and not replicate that final. So many new people and eyes saw it, that it was almost like: 'this must be how Maddie plays all the time.' I was painted like a superhuman and I absolutely am not, I've made mistakes before but nobody was watching then.

"So, post-Rio, I was like: 'I've got to play like that all the time' and I found myself trying too hard, too often. I was trying to play for the people watching, I wasn't playing for the team and because I like goalkeeping. I found myself doing ok, but it was exhausting mentally. Then, we had a home World Cup with 10,000-12,000 fans at each game and people wanting to see Rio all over again.

"We finished sixth and it was incredibly disappointing. After that, I was like: 'I need to step away because at this rate, I won't even make it to Japan.' I carried on playing in Holland, then I came back and now I feel like I can go back to day one and play because I enjoy it. We only get to do what we do for so long, so I'd hate to think I'd leave because of mental heath, rather than on my own terms."

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Red Bull and Tokyo preparations 

In many ways, the courage that sees Hinch fly across her goal-line was present in her decision to acknowledge the need for a break. Regardless of the reaction from her teammates, fans or the media, she made the right call in order to maintain a healthy mind and return to the sport with the very drive that made her a champion in the first place.

It's a determination that will see the mile-count to Tokyo dissolve quicker than ever and all the signposts point towards Great Britain fighting to retain their title. The preparations for next summer are already in full swing and Red Bull will play an important role for Hinch on the road to the Land Of The Rising Sun.

"Red Bull has been a part of my routine for years," Hinch explained. "I think that's how they got in touch with me, because I was spotted drinking it before a game! I've always had a consistent routine to my game: the same song that I listen to on repeat, half a can of Red Bull about 40 minutes before the game and the other half at half-time. 

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Responsibility as a role model

"I do the same physical warm-up, the same in-pad warm-up and three tuck-jumps at the front of the circle before the game starts. I have done that now for about 15 years and that will not change. That allows me to feel so much better, it either goes well or it doesn't but you know your preparation is consistent every time. Red Bull will continue to do that, because it's not done bad for me so far!"

You can't achieve as much as Hinch and not become a role model in turn. The achievement of Rio made it more popular than ever to pull on the leg-guards, step between the sticks and seek to replicate the impenetrability of Hinch's defence. Her status as a role model is integral to inspiring the next generation and young girls, who may never have considered hockey, in particular.

That very demographic will likely relate to Hinch's story, too, as she admitted to being teased for being a self-proclaimed tomboy. "I'd rather go and kick a football than go and pick daisies in the field," Hinch described while reflecting on her school days. "But I don't think I have any negative memories, it was more that I was a little bit different, but I didn't really care. 

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Changing perceptions

"That was what I loved and I'd rather do that than go and do ballet. I hear some horrific stories, one of the girls at the weekend was saying that the boys still take the mickey out of her because she's a goalie. So, unfortunately it does still happen and I think that will continue to happen, but I don't think you would have had so many girls in the goalkeeping kit four years ago.

"To have had that impact and to know that that was partly down to just a 60-minute game, it gives kids to have the chance to say: 'goalkeeping is dead cool! I want to be the hero!' You can be a hero for a day and what kid doesn't want to be a hero?" The Brit might not wear a cape and a massive H on her chest, but she is every bit as worthy of the heroine title to which she refers.

Whatever Hinch goes to on to achieve in her career, there will always be Rio and everybody in the sporting community is indebted to her for that fact alone. In a scenario so pressurising that you can feel nerves fraying, the British goalkeeper put on a performance that had everybody talking about the grossly under-appreciated world of hockey.

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It was the encapsulation of bravery which is at the heart of any successful goalkeeper. Behind the pads and helmet, were the gritted teeth of one inspiring athlete that lay down the example for tackling both mental and physical obstacles with everything she has. Set a goal for Hinch and she'll reach for it with one hockey-stick-length further than anyone else.

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