Olympics: Field hockey tournament will feature UMass flavor

  • UMass field hockey goalie Marlise van Tonder will represent her home country of South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics as a traveling reserve. Gill Doig/South Africa Hockey

  • UMass graduate Sarah Hawkshaw has played field hockey for Ireland’s national team since 2019. She was part of the squad that helped Ireland qualify for its first Olympics. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

  • Ireland's Sarah Hawkshaw, a UMass graduate, and Chloe Watkins celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Hawkshaw has represented her home country at the international level since 2019. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

  • UMass goalkeeper Marlise van Tonder couldn’t join her team for the spring season because she was stuck at home in South Africa due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but she’s representing her home nation at the O Thomas Kendall/UMass Athletics

  • Sarah Hawkshaw was an All-American for the UMass field hockey program and scored 40 goals. She brings the same talent and leadership acumen for the Irish national team, which she’ll play for at the Olympics in Tokyo. Thomas Kendall/UMass athletics

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2021 8:15:48 PM
Modified: 7/22/2021 8:15:55 PM

Sarah Hawkshaw spent much of the last year alone on field hockey pitches.

In her home country of Ireland, national lockdowns prevented people from roaming more than two kilometers from their houses. Hawkshaw, a 2018 UMass graduate, knew the Irish women’s field hockey team had a place at the Tokyo Olympics. She was on the field at Dublin’s Energia Park on March 13, 2019, when Ireland qualified for its first Olympics after a stomach-churning shootout. They trailed 3-1 before rallying to qualify.

“We did it in the most difficult way possible,” Hawkshaw said. “May as well make it an occasion, I suppose. It wasn’t exactly fun when you were standing there.”

A week and a half later, the 2020 Olympics were postponed a year. In between, the COVID-19 pandemic altered life around the world. Most sports stopped altogether. Hawkshaw couldn’t be with her teammates, so she trained alone.

“I took control of what I could do. So I was like ‘right, I can be the fittest person on this pitch, I can be the fittest person on any pitch,’” she said. “I spent hours on pitches by myself in the first lockdown. It’s now when I look back on it, I can see how worth it it all was because it really did improve my game.”

Even though she’d played on the Irish national team for three months at that point, she didn’t feel secure in the team or certain she’d go to Tokyo when the Olympics eventually happened.

“You can only be good as your last performance, and that’s what makes it so special,” Hawkshaw said.

She and her teammates never wavered in their belief that the games would go on, that they would be the squad that made Ireland’s Olympic field hockey debut. There was no other option for them.

“I don’t think we ever believed it could be canceled, and I don’t think we could. We had to absolutely believe it was going ahead whether this year, last year – whenever it was,” Hawkshaw said.

Her work and faith was rewarded when she was named to Ireland’s first women’s field hockey team in late June.

“It was very nervy and sweaty. In elite sport, your place should never be completely set. You’re only as good as your last game, your last tournament,” Hawkshaw said. “Our Irish team for this Olympic Games really showed that. There were some big names that got left at 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 schedule at 8:15 a.m. Saturday against South Africa, which features current UMass goalkeeper Marlise van Tonder as a traveling reserve. They’re the 10th and 11th Minutewomen to represent their countries at the Olympics.

“There’s no doubt of not only their talent but their work ethic and their drive, their passion for the game was going to propel them to achieve anything they wanted to in this sport,” UMass coach Barb Weinberg said. “I’m super proud of them. I’m not surprised. I knew they were going to be able to accomplish their goals by nature of their character.”

Weinberg only coached Hawkshaw for her senior year after joining the Minutewomen in 2017 but would have happily kept her around 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 that led by actions but also because of her demeanor and her talent she was a natural leader and everyone wanted to follow her.”

UMass hosted the Atlantic 10 championship game Hawkshaw’s senior year and went down 2-0 to Saint Joseph’s in the first hour. Hawkshaw powered a rally with an assist, as the Minutewomen forced overtime. Though UMass fell on a sudden-death goal, Hawkshaw played nearly every second, her legs shaking as she walked off the Gladchuk Field Hockey Complex field for the final time.

“Her grit and her ability to even under times of extreme fatigue to push though, that’s the kind of athlete she is,” Weinberg said.

She’s now starting to display some of those same leadership qualities with Ireland. Hawkshaw – who plays semi-professionally for the Railway Union club – benefited from the extra year to develop both her stick and her mindset.

“It gave me an extra year to get involved in international hockey, to understand international hockey. I need to have a bit more impact, and to get up to speed with it,” Hawkshaw said. “I can now speak up confidently knowing my role and knowing what we are trying to do and what the aims of the team are.”

Ireland is the ninth-ranked team in the world and made the World Cup final in 2018.

“We’re looking at this tournament game by game. We had a European tournament we weren’t completely happy with. We felt like we left things unfinished,” Hawkshaw said. “It’s the first time we were back in tournament so I suppose you can understand why things happen. We are hoping to get out of our great group. In these big tournaments if you get our of your group anything can happen.”

That starts against South Africa, which is also in Pool A with the defending world champions the Netherlands, India, Great Britain and Germany. Van Tonder likely won’t be on the pitch trying to keep Hawkshaw out of the goal. As a traveling reserve, she’ll watch from the stands rather than the bench.

“I’ve tried to adopt a service mentality — well, I always try to have a service mentality on a team but also now because my focus can be completely on serving the team,” van Tonder said. “I have to be ready to play at any moment so I have to stay engaged in team talks. My focus has to be on training always regardless of my position and making sure the first team keeps has everything she needs.”

It’s a unique role that can feel simultaneously fulfilling and frustrating. Thankfully she’s been able to lean on Weinberg for advice. Weinberg was an alternate for the USA’s 2008 bronze-medal winning squad in Beijing.

“It’s interesting you’re so excited to be there but in the back of your mind there’s a feeling like you want more like you train just like everyone else on the team,” Weinberg said. “Being able to mentor her through that I’m incredibly proud of the position that she’s in and she should be incredibly proud of that as well.”

Van Tonder had a lengthy conversation with Weinberg shortly after she was named one of the traveling reserves near the end of May.

“I’m really grateful for her support because she knows what it’s like and what you go through,” van Tonder said.

Weinberg and the rest of the UMass program have kept in contact while she’s been at home in South Africa during the pandemic. There are bi-weekly FaceTime calls, regular text messages and a team SnapChat.

“She’s the glue that holds the team together. She’s such a positive person, she’s very inclusive. She always comes to training with a simple on her face. Our players thrive off of that,” Weinberg said. “There’s no doubt we were missing her this spring and missing her presence on and off the field.”

Van Tonder thought she would be able to rejoin UMass for the spring season, but travel restrictions from South Africa were airtight due to the COVID-19 variant from there.

“I definitely missed my UMass teammates a lot,” van Tonder said. “It’s nice to stay connected but it’s not the same as waking up at six and having early morning training sessions and the game day routine and all those things.”

She still has another year of eligibility with UMass and will return to Amherst after the Games.

“I’ll be able to bring in my experience in this environment surrounded by great people,” Van Tonder said. “I think that’s something valuable to bring into the team.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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