The Ireland women’s hockey team were set to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games this summer before its postponement in March. In the past few years, they have become one of the most recognised teams in Ireland, and that support had a large impact on their qualification. Roisin Upton, a pivotal figure in the Irish midfield, continues to stay optimistic through the set-back and is training hard despite the quarantine restrictions.
One of Upton's greatest career highlights while playing for the national team was in 2018 after they secured a silver medal at the Women's Hockey World Cup in London, England. This was a true underdog story, as the Girls in Green were the second lowest ranked team at the start of the tournament. Ireland made history the day they defeated Spain in a tense shoot-out in the semi-finals, which sent them to the World Cup final against the Netherlands. In doing so, the Irish hockey team became the first ever Irish team, male or female, to reach a World Cup final, in a team field sport.
There was a burst of support from their country during the World Cup. Fans followed their road to victory on social media and watched the games live on TV. A true bond with the public was built, even being voted 2018 Team of the Year at the RTÉ Sports awards. This support has pushed the team to new heights and they have become stronger than ever before.
“We didn't realise how big it was at home,” Upton said, “Even when it's on television you are not guaranteed that people are going to watch.”
Before the World Cup, the team was used to training only three to four times a month together. Two companies, SoftCo and Park Developments, stepped up to sponsor the team following their debut in the championship. This allowed them to start practicing three to four times a week in Dublin. The team has new talent and Upton believes they are the most competitive they have been in the past 10 to 12 years.
Although 2018 might have seemed like the team’s greatest accomplishment, 2019 turned into a year that surpassed it. During the Women’s FIH Olympic Qualifiers, Ireland grasped a dramatic victory against Canada, in another shootout, to secure a place at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
In 2015, Ireland were left devastated as they failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. After coming within touching distance, Ireland were defeated 4-3 in sudden death, against China. Heartbreak. The Olympic dream was shattered. And so were the players. Fast forward four years and the emotions couldn’t be more contrasting.
Heading into qualifiers, Ireland knew Canada was a team to be feared. Upton said that many players from Canada’s team join clubs in Europe to develop their skill. The team was aware of their talent and expected a hard fight to victory.
“We had so much respect for them and knew how good they were. But from the outside there was a lot of pressure from what we had achieved from the World Cup,” Upton said.
Canada and Ireland battled for a ticket to Tokyo during a two-match, aggregate score series. Both teams failed to score in the first match and started the second leg with a 0-0 tie. After 120 minutes of scoreless play, the teams entered a shootout. The pressures were high after Ireland missed two of their first three efforts but goalkeeper Ayeisha McFarran saved two shots, forcing the match into a sudden death. After missing her first attempt, Upton shot the ball to the back of the net giving Ireland a 4-3 lead and securing the hard-fought victory over Canada.
Upton later revealed that she had broken a bone in her wrist during the third quarter of the second match. She attributes adrenaline to the reason why she was able to fight to the finish.
“The atmosphere was sensational and all we were focused on was the game for a golden ticket to the Olympics,” she said, “Any extra pain didn't matter.”
Ireland were granted use of Energia Park in Donnybrook where a drop-in pitch was installed. The opening day crowd of 6,086 was the biggest for women’s international sport in Ireland and that was broken the next day when 6,137 fans turned up to witness history.
With the qualification to the Olympics secured, the team began to draft plans for their training leading up to summer 2020. They were set to attend training camps around the world to adapt to the humidity in Tokyo before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to pause.
“When we went into lockdown here, we were training as if the Olympics were still going to happen. We knew in the back of our heads that it was inevitable that they would either be delayed or cancelled,” Upton said.
The team received devastating news about the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in March. They were disappointed and know they would be challenged by the uncertainty of their fate in the Games. Although this has caused a set-back, the team continues to stay hopeful and views it as a way to train for an extra year.
Throughout quarantine, each member of the team has been on various regional programs dependent on their access to equipment. In the past few weeks, some of Ireland’s restrictions had been lifted which allows some Dublin based athletes to use the Sport Ireland Campus gym to train. They have not been back on a pitch together yet, but Upton hopes that within the next few months they can get some of the team together regionally to train as a unit again.
“It is gruelling training and we sacrifice a lot,” she said, “But at the same time, we realise that it's only a tiny thing of what's going on in the world right now so fingers crossed it will go ahead next year.”
As the team continues to prepare on their own, it is important for Upton to keep up her skill to ensure she is offered a spot on the pitch in Tokyo. At the World Cup, the teams consisted of 18 players with two reserves, but it is tighter at the Olympics allowing for only 16 with two reserves. The team will be competing in a tough pool and Upton said that they will need to target lower ranked teams and prepare for those ranked above them.
“We’ll have our sights set high and see what we can do,” she said.
Upton has pushed her job search back another year to train. She still has the Olympics in her sights and is excited to finally be considered an olympic athlete.
“Times like these make me realize how fortunate I am, and how much I have experienced,” she said, “I am sure when I get to put on the green jersey again, I won't take it for granted.”