Double Olympic-gold; double World champion; triple European champion; an 11-time Dutch Hoofdklasse champion; 10-times EuroHockey Club Champion and a string of goalscoring records. It’s safe to say few hockey players will ever have as full a medal cabinet as the Netherlands’ Maartje Paumen, a goalscoring machine, a midfield dynamo, and fully deserving new entrant into the EHF Hall of Fame.
She joined the illustrious group in August in Amsterdam in front of a packed house, savouring a special moment from the home crowd that she delighted during a 235-cap career in which she won everything in the game. “It’s a big honour, especially being able to celebrate in my home country and so many people during the European Cup, to see my name being read out with other big players [like Moritz Fuerste and Kate Richardson-Walsh],” she said of the moment.
Her first beginnings in hockey came at Geleen hockey club in the Netherlands southern-most province of Limburg, nestled in a small pocket of land between Belgium and Germany. The youngest of four siblings, she started following her two older brothers and one elder sister to the local club at three years old. Both her parents were coaches and trainers at Geleen and she, too, soon caught the hockey bug. “When I was just three years old and I love it already,” she said. “Geleen is a small family club with just 400 or so members. Everybody knows each other really well.”
Her “dream” was already forming at this stage, saying: “I knew already when I was 9 or 10-years-old that I wanted to be an international player.” That ambition took a big boost when – aged just 13 – she was selected for the Dutch Under-16 team.
“It was my big dream so that was the first step to move closer to that. That was awesome to play the first game in Orange. We played Belgium in Antwerp; it was a friendly game but I was so happy.”
She adds that her family gave her the perfect support to excel during this key learning phase of her development. “Both my parents were really important. They always stimulated me but were never pushing for me, there for me, bringing me to trainings and so on. We live in the furthest south part of Holland while the national Under-16 team trained in Wassenaar [in the west near The Hague] which was almost three hours drive away. My parents always gave me the opportunity to travel everywhere and gave me the support to reach my dream.”
Her quick rise did mean she outgrew her local club and she would move on to Oranje-Zwart in Eindhoven at the age of 15 where she made her Hoofdklasse debut.
After three productive seasons, she was on the brink of the Dutch national team but her move a little bit further north to Den Bosch took her into a new stratosphere.“I was 18 [when I moved] and Den Bosch were already a really successful team, full of international players. I was thinking about my dream, training with better players and more experienced players. I was also curious about why they were always winning? I wanted to play in that team, the best in Europe. I was really from the first moment I joined them, playing with those experienced players and I love that, in my last years, to give my experience back to the young ones. It’s a real culture, different from any other women’s team.
For me, it was always important to train and play to win. Every player at Den Bosch, that was their mindset, always being better at every training, giving everything they got.
When you have that throughout your team, that becomes the most important thing to make you win games. We maybe didn’t always have the best players but we also had the best team. That was crucial.”
Paumen says that she always had an inate desire and motivation to push her own levels, looking to raise her game to outdo her peers and hit new standards.
“I always that in me. I always wanted to be the best version of myself, to be better every training, every day. It comes from inside myself and I always had that from a young age.
Of course, you know you want to be the best on the pitch when you are young but the realisation comes later when you get older, more experienced when you realise why you are doing these things.”
Her international breakthrough came with a first tournament in 2004, winning the Champions Trophy gold in Rosario, Argentina. It started an almost flawless run of success between then and 2008, culminating in the Olympic gold medal in Beijing.
In 2006, she fired home two goals in the World Cup final to bring the Dutch this title for the first time since 1990. In the run to gold in Beijing, she netted 11 goals en route to ultimate glory, a record for a single Olympic Games tournament.
It was one of a seemingly endless list of records. She ended her career with 195 international goals and has the most ever Olympic goals in total.
At club level, she is the all-time Hoofdklasse top-scorer, netting 404 goals – including 36 in playoff games – at an average of 25 goals per season since making her top level debut at the age of 15. But she was never one for counting the numbers
“It was always nice to be doing it for the team. I never looked to my statistics or things like that! Sometimes you get reminded by people that you have 150 goals but I never watched for that, not at all!”
One goal, though, does stand out in her mind above all others. With the perfect injection from Naomi van As and stop from Maartje Goderie, Paumen provided an emphatic 54th minute strike to settle the 2012 Olympic final against Argentina.
“We were better than them the whole game and, 15 minutes from the end of the game, I scored for 2-0. From that moment, you know you are Olympic champion. It was the most perfect drag-flick of my career, hitting the top stanchion of the right corner. From the moment the ball left my stick, I already knew it. It was an amazing feeling!”
Initially, she dabbled in drag-flicking with her older brothers but she began to train it more rigourously once in her teens, particularly after Under-16 level.
“I always loved training it; I always was thinking about how I could improve it, being stronger in my upper-body or honing my technical skills, either with my coach or myself.”
Her obsession for perfection certainly paid dividends with gold after gold coming her way. It was not just her corners, though, that were invaluable as she developed from a defensive role into a central midfield presence as her career went on and was named the FIH World Player of the Year in both 2011 and 2012.
Team prizes, however, were always far more coveted than such individual honours.
“Prizes like the best player in the world was a big honour but I am more proud of the medals we won as a team. If I wanted to win on my own, I would have played tennis or something like that. It is a big honour but it’s not part of what I played the game. I definitely played really well those years but, in my opinion, there’s normally far more than one player of the year. It’s a big difference between defenders, midfielders and so on. It’s a crazy prize within a team sport but they were definitely my best years.”
And of all her medals, what does she view as the ultimate highlights?
“The three Olympics were really special. It’s the highest level and being with every different sport adds to it. The World Cup in The Hague in 2014 was a special tournament; the atmosphere was amazing, crazy, like every stadium was just orange with 17,000. It was really good for the sport in our country and the most beautiful tournament.”
She concluded by paying homage to everyone who helped her throughout her sparkling career. “I’d like to thank all the coaches and players I played with. I learned a lot from all of them. It was always nice to play in different teams and coaches and improve every year.”
Interview: Stephen Findlater