Tokyo (2020) 2021: How COVID-19 Disrupted Olympic Preparation for the Irish Women’s Hockey Team
When then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stepped in front of the nation on the 17th of March 2020, everyday life was suddenly thrown into chaos and uncertainty. Businesses, schools and almost everything else closed on the COVID-19 pandemic began its long and ongoing process.
The questions on most people’s lips were things like do I have school tomorrow? When will the office be open again? And of course, why isn't there bread or toilet paper left in the shop?
But for Katie Mullan, and the rest of the Irish women’s hockey team, there was a much deeper question. Will the past few months of intense and rigorous training as well as years of effort all be for nothing?
You see, in November 2019, shortly before COVID-19 became known to its now global audience, Katie and her teammates achieved something that none of their predecessors had managed before them. Qualification for the Olympic Games.
Preparation was well underway, which included a January trip to South Africa and the girls were preparing for the tournament that had once dreamed of participating in since they took up the sport.
And for a while, despite the looming threat of COVID-19, Katie says that postponement was not being considered by the team.
“Definitely not. When COVID started to spread we were still very much travelling to Dublin to train together two or three times a week. We were based there Mondays and Tuesdays and then we were in our regions later in the week.
“Then the club games ended because of COVID so we then replaced our clubs matches with more training sessions together in Dublin because we were fully prepared for the Olympics to go ahead in 2020.
“It wasn’t until March when it was announced that really things changed for us.”
And there was indeed resistance to postponement from the powers at be. The organizing committee for Tokyo 2020 was still optimistic for the games to go ahead as late as the 2nd March. However, under increased pressure from nations such as Canada and Australia, the committee announced on 23rd March that the games would be postponed to the following year.
It came as quite an understandable shock and disappointment to Katie, who was excited at the prospect of her Olympic debut with the chance to build on a fantastic run in 2018 that saw the hockey team go all the way to the final of the World Cup, despite being the 15th ranked team of 16 in the whole tournament. When the call eventually came down the line, it was a blow.
“We just never expected the magnitude of COVID to be big enough to stop the Olympic games because obviously it only happens once every four years. So I suppose when the initial announcement came, it hit us really hard
“For us as a team that had only just qualified for our first Olympics, it wasn’t granted that, if they didn’t go ahead, we would qualify for the next one. So there was a huge amount of uncertainty and devastation.”
It was a tough time for a team that is very close-knit. Going from training twice a week together minimum to home training, without the absolute certainty the training would be rewarded with a trip to Tokyo, it was a difficult transition.
“We’re so used to being together. Anytime we have a huge win or a huge defeat, we’re all used to leaning on each other.
“Getting the news that the Olympics was postponed, we were all in somewhat lockdown with our respective families and we were so far from one and another.
“The only people who knew exactly how we were feeling were your teammates. For once we were further apart than ever, geographically. That made it really hard. It was a tough couple weeks.”
And when the team were finally reunited in being able to train together, it was under much different circumstances than they had previously been accustomed to.
“We came back together in September for the first time with a restricted regime.
“We all had to drive separate cars. We had to produce documents to cross the border saying we were allowed to travel. We would arrive in Abbottstown for a session, for the first few weeks they were totally socially distanced. No contact drills. We couldn't pick up the balls. Only the coach could touch the ball. We couldn’t have any sort of a changing room.
“After training, we couldn’t stand together and have a chat on the pitch. It was very much arrive late, leave early kind of environment,
“But at that point, the whole country was still in lockdown so, as athletes, we were extremely grateful to be able to get together and train.”
Restrictions on the team’s training schedule, both the enforced individual training and the socially distanced training thereafter, was definitely not an ideal preparatory scenario for an Olympic games. But reflecting back on it, Katie admits a feeling of luck when comparing her own experience to those of her international counterparts.
“When I reflect on it now, a lot of countries ended up having their period of lockdown where they couldn’t train, just at a different time than we did.
“I think we were quite lucky that ours happened early on. Some of the nations like New Zealand and Australia had far tougher restrictions in the last couple of months before the games this year, which I think would have been a lot more difficult.
“Every country we played against had their period of time in tight restrictions where they couldn’t train.”
Trying to quantify the impact COVID-19 had on Katie and co.’s preparation is a somewhat difficult task. And for Katie herself, there are many layers to the impact she and the team felt in the build-up to and during the games themselves.
“I think there are loads of elements to that.
“Some of the key ones would be we ended up with three serious injuries between November and February that ruled girls out completely of the Olympics. That was definitely a knock-on effect of COVID and the period of time that we had to take away from the pitch
“Another factor was the pressure on us not to get COVID. In the six months building up to the Olympics, you have loads of factors like competition for spots in the squad, fear of long covid. Really in the six months in the buildup to the games, we were isolating ourselves from everybody. I know I didn’t see my family indoors for that period.”
It was a tough group for the team to compete. The Netherlands is currently ranked no.1 in the world and the Team GB team is comprised heavily of no.2 ranked England. Germany also currently lies in the top five. Despite this, the ladies only narrowly missed out on advancing to the quarter-final stage. However, Katie does not believe COVID-19 had any factor in the on-field play, believing that “it was a level playing field in that regard”. But one thing she does admit the team missed was the support of friends, family and all the Irish fans that would have made the trip in different circumstances.
“What I will say on that is that it’s been proven for us as a team in London at the World Cup and then again in Donnybrook at the Olympic qualifier that we’re a group of girls that feed off a crowd and an atmosphere. That’s what the Irish are so good at is the supporting side of things. We really missed that as part of our Olympic experience.”
So, what is next for the women’s hockey team? Well, it was no rest for the wicked upon their return from Japan.
“It wouldn’t normally happen but because of the delayed Olympics, we ended up having to play our World Cup qualifier a few weeks ago in Pisa.
“We didn’t really get much rest when we got home from Tokyo. We were straight into training for the World Cup qualifier.
“We qualified for next year’s World Cup in that tournament in Pisa a few weeks ago which was fantastic. Now we’re going to our second consecutive World Cup next summer in Spain.
“We’re taking that little bit of downtime we missed out on after the Olympics between now and Christmas. Then our rigorous training schedule is back in place in January to make sure we’re best prepared for our next World Cup.
“We have very fond memories from the last World Cup in 2018. It’s hard to believe that’ll be four years ago come next summer. So, we’re just looking forward to that with a very fresh squad after a few retirements post-Olympics.”
You can keep up to date on all the goings-on to do with Katie and the rest of the team below: