While many other elite athletes meticulously plot their course to the top, laying out their targets year on year. For Julia, however, her path always took a more laid back, unplanned route.
Indeed, there was a large amount of serendipity to her introduction to hockey. Her parents never played but her grandparents owned the clubhouse as Hamburg’s Harvestehuder THC.
“That is why we all, as a family, were there a lot!” she said. My brothers started to play and it just came naturally. When they were there, I was just there with a stick and a ball.”
There, she was formally introduced to Greta Blunck, a living legend in her own right, known as the “grande dame of hockey”. After 26 international caps, she became the first woman to hold a coaching license and led the national team in 1979.
Around this time, she finished her “first studies” and moved, briefly, to Junior FC in Spain, a move that would kick-start her journey to the Netherlands.
“That was more for fun and to learn Spanish! There, I met someone who asked me if I wanted to go to Holland and that’s when the whole Dutch thing started. I was only 21, thought I would do it for a year… now, 12 years later, I’m still living here!”
She would go on to spend five years with Laren, a couple with SV Kampong before settling in AH&BC Amsterdam with her boyfriend and father to her daughter, Scottish international Kenny Bain.
It coincided with her rise to the German senior team, making her debut in January 2007 at the Champions Trophy in Quilmes, the first of 268 games for her country. It was a smooth trajectory, kick-starting a journey that kind of surprised her.
“I just always really enjoyed it. It was not like I thought ‘I need to be captain of Die Danas’ or anything like that. When I got captain, I was really surprised – I never set those kinds of goals, I just enjoyed the game from the first day until the end.”
“I remember it well because the girls won gold in 2004 and I was following everything. It was nice to be with them; your eyes got bigger and bigger – ‘look, there’s Natascha Keller. You have to pass her the ball!’, I remember watching Luciana Aymar walking around and I was there on the same pitch, not only watching them! It was more excitement than being nervous. There was an overload of Los Leonas fans which was something different!”
Just three weeks later, deployed as a striker, she was named top scorer and player of the tournament at the Indoor World Cup in Vienna.
As for the shorter version of the sport, she says it was “not a priority; just a normal German thing, everyone plays. I always liked it and I was good at it. I just played without thinking!”
Soon after, she was celebrating European outdoor gold in Manchester, a special moment she is reminded of every time she returns home.
“It was my first Euros; five or six family members flew out – I still have a picture on my mantlepiece from then. It seems so long ago but is still awesome. We had a great night out at the end and my family still talk about it. They enjoyed the hockey but mainly the night out with all the other parents! It was an awesome experience – and we beat the Dutch!”
She got to repeat the feat in 2013 as captain in Boom.
“It was always just fun”
From day one to her international retirement, from her earliest days hanging around Harvestehuder THC with her family, to winning bronze at the Rio Olympics, it was all about fun and enjoyment for Julia Müller.
She became the latest inductee to the European Hockey Federation in August 2019 in Antwerp following an outstanding career. It featured, among many other successes, two European golds, three Olympic Games, player of the tournament honours at the indoor World Cup while her tenure as Die Danas captain culminated with that medal in 2016.
At HTHC, Blunck introduced thousands of youngsters to hockey and, aged 81, is still active in the club’s coaching team. Julia was one of her favourite protégés.
“She is someone I will never forget,” Julia says of her mentor. “She was my coach from when I was 5 and is still going. It was amazing what she did for hockey and for the kids. “Everyone who started at Harvestehuder would have started with her. When you start, you kind of start with her! She is kind of know as the ‘mother of the club’.”
With her club team, she quickly came to national prominence as part of a national indoor and outdoor championship winning side. It led to call-ups for the national underage teams when she was around 13 or 14 and Julia reckons she probably has over 100 caps at youth level. That culminated in the Under-21 Junior World Cup in 2005, a silver medal, the defender scoring four goals and earning the player of the tournament award.
“Maybe that’s why [I went so far] because I was so laid back. I worked hard but didn’t put too much pressure on myself. By then, I was involved in various camps but you never know about selection but they started to pick me which was really nice! The coaches liked what I did!”
That first Champions Trophy was an event to savour, lining out with some of her heroes from the 2004 Olympic gold medal winning side and against Los Leonas in front of a fervent home crowd.
“That was amazing. I flung the trophy around and didn’t really know what I was doing! That’s the only thing you want – leading your team to gold, laugh and smile. It’s why you do it and it was a big honour.”
The Olympics, though, was one that did not come quite so easy for Julia and her teammates. In Beijing, it was all rolling along until a semi-final speed-bump knocked everything off course.
“It was Janne Müller-Wieland and me – she is 10 months younger than me – everything was new and nice and we went with the flow. It meant we could just play, both more excited than nervous and, in the end, we were in the Olympic semis which was amazing already. But it just hit us in the semis. It is hard to say why – China were good and we just lost it in a couple of minutes. We never got back the next day to focus on the bronze match. Now I know how big an Olympic medal is, no matter what colour. But, as a youngster, you just go with the flow even after a loss. I don’t even know what I was thinking after the game, whether I was crying or whatever.”
It was a setback but, given her youth, one she knew there were chances to make right.
“It was a very long road back from there. But I was still young when we started the next four-year cycle and I did like it. I never minded training – some people didn’t like that or going into camps – but I enjoyed it. If you don’t enjoy that, then it is really hard. It was never a doubt [I would keep going] but nearer the end of the Rio cycle, I knew it would be my last one.”
And so she made the most of it when the opportunity came along in 2015 to play hockey on a full-time basis with additional sponsor support.
“Before, we always studied and worked. You can’t compete if you do that so most of us went full-time and it worked out. It was awesome! I really enjoyed it; I don’t know how many sessions we had each week but it was great, Sunday game, Monday morning hill sprint, Monday night recover and so on. Getting paid for that, it’s not so bad! And now I realise how good it was – I am not rich – it’s not football – but, for what you do, it was nice.”
It had her in the best possible shape and mindset for the challenge in Rio. At the time, they were outsiders, sitting ninth in the world rankings.
But captain Julia and coach Jamillon Mülders were forging something special with a team half of whom were Under-21. They came within a shoot-out defeat to the Dutch of an Olympic final but recovered this time to beat New Zealand to bronze.
“It was good to be an underdog and the one that ‘had to perform’. With the Under-21s, you never know how well they will work but they went really well. It was just an amazing experience. I realised I was one of the older ones and it was nice on one hand but you also have to take care of more than just your hockey. This was hard because you do just want to make the team first of all and then taking care and helping other people. It’s hard to perform like that 365 days a year so my last year was also my hardest!. It was funny to see their eyes at their first Olympics and then you realise how much it means in a different way!”
After Rio, there were moves to ask her to continue on but she was “pretty sure” it was the right time to hang up her international stick.
“You can always keep going on and it will be fun,” she reflects. “But 90% of my friends had moved on and the team was getting younger. It was a good end and I will keep following them all. It was not an easy decision after such a long time. Maybe if we didn’t win bronze, then it might have been different!”
She did continue for a couple of years at club level with Amsterdam before the arrival of her daughter, Romy. As for a comeback, she is tempted. “Indoor has also got me again. It looks like a lot of fun.”
Photographs: World Sport Pics. com
Interview: Stephen Findlater