Few get to choose when they sign off on an international career; even fewer get to sign off with a fairytale ending.
After 17 years with England and GB, four Olympic Games, 14 elite level medals but never a gold, and the guts of 13 years of captaincy, the promised land finally came in a 375th and final cap for Kate Richardson-Walsh. She might have signed off after a blood and guts run to Olympic bronze in front of an adoring home public in London 2012 – an iconic moment for an iconic player. Retirement was dallied with after the 2014 World Cup but there was still a drive, a compunction to make one final run for the Holy Grail.
Gold at the 2015 European Championship fuelled the belief. Twelve months later, BBC news was put on hold as the Great Britain women gripped their nation as Richardson-Walsh wrote herself – and her team mates – into history, transcending hockey to become a sporting icon.
Rio gold capped a story that almost never began. Initially, the young Kate did not want to play, trying out plenty of other sports before being coaxed to play hockey at age 11 at the Didsbury Greys club.“It wasn’t really until the 92 Olympics , watching the GB women win the bronze medal. That was the first international hockey I remember watching on the tv. Other than that, it was watching my mum play.” The flames of passion had been fanned enough to throw herself into her early years, rising through trials in her Stockport locality and then the Greater Manchester area into the county and north of England system and on to the national stage by 14.
“My first year at Under-16s was relatively smooth and then I got dropped the next year. It was a big moment for me and a turning point. I had to ask myself some quite big questions. At 15, there’s lots of changes going on in your life and your friends are doing other things. I had to make some big choices.”
She moved from her local club Didsbury Greys to Hightown, the nearest national league club, an hour and 45 minutes away and also changed schools after her GCSE exams to Aquinas College which afforded her greater support to play hockey.“At Hightown, I learned to love the discipline of training. I got to play with so many ex-internationals and be coached by Maggie Souyave who was the English coach at the time. She taught me all the discipline I was able to have all the way through my career.”
It paid dividends and, within four years, she was soon training with the national side, making her debut in 1999, making the European championships in Köln.“It was my first taste of international hockey and we won bronze so I obviously enjoyed it, playing with legends of the British game like Karen Brown, Jane Sixsmith and Mandy Nicholson. Myself and Helen [Richardson, whom she would later marry in 2013] were the youngsters on the team and it was nice to have someone young to share the experience with.”
It was to be the first of 34 international tournaments; the second was a “bittersweet” first Olympic experience at Sydney 2000, enjoying the environs of the event but an eighth place finish was a low-key outcome.“Looking back, we wished we could have known and done better. I don’t think we really knew what the problems were and how we could have helped to solve them.”
Little did she know the value of the lessons learned until much later while the tools for success were nowhere near what was in place 15 years later.“Every player I played with was competitive and wanted to win. The difference is do we just want to win or do we believe deep down, with every part of us, that we can win? Winning is infectious, it’s contagious. You learn to win. There was a group of players in the first part of my career where we weren’t that prolific, we didn’t win much. That’s why the belief wasn’t there to be fostered. People also had to work to live; lottery money was there but it wasn’t enough to go full-time. It was interesting psychologically when you compare to the end of my career.”
Despite her tender years, she was voted into the captaincy in 2003, a role she would hold for the majority of the next 13 years.
“At the beginning, I thought it was about the big speeches, the big quotes, saying the right thing in the huddle. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t about that. When I look back, I don’t think I got to grips with it until the London cycle and then in Rio. Prior to that, I was still finding my way. Finding the balancing point [between the players and the coach] was the bit I found the most comfortable. I had most of my captaincy under Danny [Kerry] who I hugely respected.We would talk regularly and I really did feel in the middle. At times, that meant conflict with players and sometimes with Danny. You learn to be comfortable being in that position of conflict which isn’t always that nice. When I did a good job was when we used a leadership group to the best of its ability because it wasn’t just me. For London, it was Alex Danson, Helen, Beth Storry. For Rio, Ashleigh Ball, Emily Maguire, Alex and Helen. When we worked collectively, the group was led the best. That collaboration. I’m good at it but it’s not first nature – I’m a bit of a control freak!”
Along the way, plenty of medals were landed, including a series of six bronzes between the European Championships, Champions Trophy and Commonwealth Games along with a hugely formative third place at the 2010 World Cup in Argentina.
But it was the 2012 Olympics in London where she became a household name after a tumultuous campaign, entering a special place in the British sporting conscience – a symbol of national spirit in the face of adversity in the form of a fractured jaw.
It started with horrifying pain against Japan, attempting to nick a ball away from the “wrong side”. “I immediately knew it was something really bad because I could feel all my teeth on the left side pop up into the middle of my mouth. I remember everything about it clearly, the noise of the crowd, the big gasp, and then getting a random cramp in my foot. When the physio and doctor came out, there was blood pouring out of my mouth but my first concern was the cramp!”
In the immediate aftermath, she said there was a calmness, believing her tournament was pretty much over.“The next morning, my mum and dad came. The surgeon came in and said ‘we’ll try and patch you up and get you back out there’. I thought he was joking but he was amazing!”
Surgery the next day gave her a chance of a return and coach Kerry allowed her the time to battle her way back. In her absence, Great Britain picked up wins over Korea and Belgium to put them in the semi-final frame. With a makeshift protective mask and nerve-blocking injections to numb the pain for each game, her bravery becoming one of the images of the Games as she got back in the side for the back end of the group stages.
“If you are given a once in a lifetime opportunity, in front of a home crowd, you are medal contenders, of course you would take it. The team were amazing at supporting but also getting on with their job. Helen was in a really difficult position and wasn’t told a whole lot about my situation but stepped up as captain.”
Gold was taken off the table by Argentina in the semi-final but Kate and the GB side were not letting the opportunity slip.
“Having done the centralised programme and challenging the status quo, having people mock us a little for doing it. We put ourselves out there and we wanted to prove ourselves. In 2010 as England, we won bronze and got a Champions Trophy medal. It started to build and we thought we could challenge for the gold medal. The 24 hours after that semi-final was very dark. We’d pinned our dreams on that gold and it was gone. It was a real moment of trust to get ourselves back for that bronze medal game. When we pushed back, I knew there was no way we were going to lose that game. There’s a brilliant picture from before that game where you see the Blacksticks are against the side, by themselves and looking at the floor. They don’t look in a good place while we are all shoulders up, chest out, looking each other in the eye. That absolutely highlighted our mental state and is the reason we won that game.”
It might have been the perfect time to step down, a first Olympic medal on home turf. She continued on but was “pretty sure” the 2014 World Cup would be her last event.
It proved a frustrating time with Helen undergoing excruciating back surgeries and Kate struggling with the side mentally and the transition to a new coach – Jason Lee – not working out. She took a few months out but the return of Kerry to the coaching role and the sentiment that she “absolutely felt like there was unfinished business” coaxed her back into the fold.
The 2015 Euros finally brought a top-line gold medal, a crucial breakthrough, beating the Netherlands in the final in a shoot-out, writing the England team into the record books with a first gold at this level since 1991 and en route to iconic status.
“It was huge. It’s important to have that belief you have to conquer. The Dutch have been so prolific, particularly in that middle phase of my career. In the last few years, we just started to get the better of them – the semi-final in Boom in 2013 was a huge turning point and then London. It gave everyone the absolute belief that ‘we can do this’.
And they carried that through to Rio a year later, winning five from five in the group stages, backed up by sweeping victories over Spain and New Zealand in the knock-out stages. As in London in 2015, standing in the way were the Dutch.
“You know you are facing the best team in the world; they are going to have a lot of ball, a fair number of chances and some of the world’s best players. But when Maartje Paumen had the penalty stroke saved, it galvanised us. We were able to take all the small positives and never thought this was not going to happen. We knew the 2015 shoot-out would be playing on their minds. When we got the game to 3-3, we knew it was a good chance for us. They had so much pressure and shots, regardless of that history, you are naturally going to feel despondent compared to the opposition who has four shots and scores three. We celebrated the final whistle while they were, having gone through a semi-final shoot-out, thinking ‘not again’. They didn’t seem like a collective while this was something we worked so hard on. All the players were together, the reserves and all the staff in the dug-out.”
And so the fairytale had its perfect conclusion, the 17 years of blood, sweat and tears leading to the perfect, golden moment, Hollie Webb slotting the winning shoot-out.
It allowed Richardson-Walsh an indelible moment, crowning one of world hockey’s most enduring careers.
“I still get very emotional; I play a highlight video at the start [of team-culture presentations she makes for schools and companies] and I well up every time. It doesn’t get easier. It still feels very raw. While I feel very fortunate to choose the time I got to stop playing hockey and the control over that, it’s still hard. Talking to my friends who have retired, they say it does take a couple of years for it to really sink in, coming to terms with what you’ve been through and where you are going now. And to be ok with that. The London squad and the Rio squad, because we spent so much time together, more than ever before, we really saw each other at our best and our absolute worst. We have something special. The team ethic is the thing I’ll miss the most, proudly representing my country, working hard alongside a group of amazing players and staff, towards our collective goal.”