Road to Tokyo: How hockey star Maddie Hinch is preparing for her Olympic title defence

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Five years on, it’s still hard not to get goosebumps watching the footage of the British women’s hockey team clinch gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The side triumphed against the Netherlands in dramatic fashion, winning a penalty shoot-out after the final finished 3-3 in normal time.

Star of the show was goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, who pulled off a number of incredible saves to stop the Dutch from scoring even once in the shoot-out. With Hinch set to return to the Olympic stage this summer, GiveMeSport Women sits down with the 32-year-old for our Road to Tokyo series.

Hinch admits preparing for Tokyo 2020 has been “pretty difficult” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The longevity of how long it's been going on for has made it incredibly difficult for us to travel and prepare like we normally would,” she explains. “Say in comparison to 2015 leading into 2016, it couldn’t be any more different in terms of preparation.

“We haven't been able to get away to anywhere hot to get ready to the conditions, we've played very, very few opposition, we essentially just play against ourselves. We get so far as being told we're going on a trip, and then within hours, we've put our bags packed, but we're not flying. It's just constantly up and down.”

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Despite the struggles, Hinch reveals the elite dispensation granted to the Team GB hockey teams has offered some relief, allowing the squads to train together during the pandemic. She is also looking forward to a number of Hockey Pro League matches lined up this month. Britain are set to play Germany and the United States in the coming weeks.

"Obviously nothing’s guaranteed, but we should have plenty of hockey between now and the Games,” Hinch says. “I'm looking forward to having that kind of preparation, like go go go, loads of matches.

“The Europeans [EuroHockey Championships] just before the Olympics is a major event for us that we want to do well in. It's very important to have those competitive games to see where we’re at, and see whether this past year has had an effect on us in either a positive or negative way.”

Hinch, who plays her club hockey for Dutch side SCHC, has missed slightly more international competition than her teammates in recent years. She announced in September 2018 she would be taking a step back from the England and British set-ups, citing a need for a break after the exhilarating ride of winning Olympic gold.

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Hinch came back to international hockey in June 2019, but sport then ground to a halt less than a year later. How did she feel about this unexpected disruption to her return?

“I’d been playing a lot of hockey, and I’d been playing at a really good standard, but when I stepped away from the environment that I’d been in for 10 years, and been very comfortable with, it took me a little while to feel that comfort again,” she says. “Even though I was very much back in the number one shirt, I felt like I needed to prove to myself and to the rest of the world that I deserved to be back in that shirt.

“So, I was actually quite grateful for that extra year, just another year for me to settle with the group. A lot had changed – new coaching team, new players. So it's just more of a chance for me to get to know them and feel settled.

I think that was the feeling across the whole squad. I think the extra year has given us the chance to bed in our processes and our values as a team, and we continue to grow, so I think it's not done us any harm to be honest.

Britain will go into the women’s hockey contest at Tokyo 2020 as defending champions, a status Hinch says the team is now accustomed to.

“Even though the squad couldn't feel or look any more different, it's still something we’re incredibly proud of, and we have used that fact that people want to beat us a little bit more, that we have a target on our back,” she explains. “It’s something we have to take into our games to make us even tougher to beat.

“The fact that we have an opportunity to go out and defend the title, people never go through their careers with that chance, so we're proud to do so and we look forward to doing it.”

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Hinch will not only go into the Olympics as a reigning champion, but also as the stand-out performer of the previous Games. Her heroics drew praise from all quarters, with cricket legend Michael Vaughan even jokingly calling for Hinch to become Prime Minister. Does she think Tokyo will be able to live up to the highs of Rio?

“I think it’s really important that I don't focus on Rio,” Hinch answers. “I’m really proud of what we did there and what I did there, but at the same time it’s five years on and it's a very different group. I just want to go out and get a good account for myself, and as a team we want to do that as a group as well.

“I think if you can come home and say ‘you know what, that was us at our best’, and if that gives us a medal then great, but if it doesn’t then there’s nothing to be disappointed with.

“I think for me personally, that’s what I’ll focus on. I can’t go out there and try to relive Rio all over again, because I'll just do terribly. It’s so obvious if you put that pressure on yourself, how it will go.”

Hinch also refers to her new status as a senior member of the British team. She was 27 at the last Olympics, but is now five years more experienced, with a Games already under her belt.

“I'm a different member of the team now, now I'm a senior athlete,” she explains. “It’s very important that I am someone the group can lean on and I resemble that in every game that we play. That's what I'll focus on more than necessarily stopping shots. At Rio I just had to stop the ball, that was my job, I didn't really have to think about anything else.

“Whereas now I have teammates I need to focus on, and encourage, and be there for them. It's just a different role, but I'm looking forward to that challenge.”

For more information on Maddie please visit redbull.com.

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