Sarah Hawkshaw spent much of the past year alone on hockey fields.
In her home country of Ireland, national lockdowns kept people from roaming no more than two kilometers from their homes. Hawkshaw, a 2018 UMass graduate, knew that the Irish women’s hockey team had a place in the Tokyo Olympics. She was on the pitch at Dublin’sEnergia Park on March 13, 2019, as Ireland qualified for the first Olympics after a heart-pounding shootout. They trailed 3-1 before qualifying.
We did it the hardest way possible, Hawkshaw said. Might as well make it an occasion, I think. It wasn’t exactly fun standing there.
A week and a half later, the 2020 Olympics were postponed for a year. In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic changed life around the world. Most sports have stopped altogether. Hawkshaw couldn’t be with her teammates, so she trained alone.
I took control of what I could do. So I was right, I can be the strongest person on this field, I can be the strongest person on any field, she said. In the first lockdown I spent hours on my own on pitches. Looking back on it now, I can see how worth it all was because it really improved my game.
Although she played in the Irish national team for three months at the time, she did not feel safe on the team or a particular shed went to Tokyo when the Olympics finally took place.
You can only be good when your last performance is, and that’s what makes it so special, Hawkshaw said.
She and her teammates never wavered in their belief that the games would go on, that they would be the squad that made Ireland’s Olympic hockey debut. There was no other option for them.
I don’t think we ever believed it could be canceled, and I don’t think we could. We absolutely had to believe that this year, last year whenever it was, Hawkshaw said.
Her work and faith were rewarded when she was named to Ireland’s first hockey team at the end of June.
It was very jittery and sweaty. In top sport, your place should never be completely determined. You’re only as good as your last game, your last tournament, Hawkshaw said. Our Irish team for these Olympics really showed that. There were some big names who stayed at home. It was definitely a shock.
Hawkshaw and Ireland arrived in Japan last week and spent several days in Iwate, a seven-hour drive north of Tokyo. They open their Olympic program on Saturday at 8:15 a.m. against South Africa, where current UMass goalkeeper Marlisevan Tonderas has a traveling reserve. They are the 10th and 11th minute women to represent their country at the Olympics.
There is no doubt not only their talent, but also their work ethic and their drive, their passion for the game would drive them to achieve everything they wanted in this sport, said UMass coach Barb Weinberg. I am super proud of them. I’m not surprised. I knew that their character would allow them to achieve their goals.
Weinberg only coached Hawkshaw for her senior year after joining the Minutewomen in 2017, but would have loved to have kept her longer if she could.
Players like that make you wish you could coach them for 10 years and there was no such thing as aptitude, Weinberg said. She was someone who led by actions, but also by her attitude and talent, she was a natural leader and everyone wanted to follow her.
UMass hosted the Atlantic 10 Championship game Hawkshaws senior year, going 2-0 to Saint Josephs in the opening hour. Hawkshaw rallied with an assist, while the Minutewomen forced overtime. Though UMass fell to a sudden death goal, Hawkshaw played nearly every second, her legs shaking as she walked off the Gladchuk Field Hockey Complex field for the last time.
Her grit and her ability to push even in times of extreme fatigue is the kind of athlete she is, Weinberg said.
She is now starting to show some of those same leadership qualities with Ireland. Hawkshaw, who plays semi-professionally for the Railway Union club, took advantage of the extra year to develop both her stick and mindset.
It gave me an extra year to deal with international hockey, to understand international hockey. I need to have a little more impact, and to get it up to speed, Hawkshaw said. I can now speak with confidence, knowing what my role is and what we are trying to do and what the team’s goals are.
Ireland is the ninth team in the world to reach the World Cup final in 2018.
We watched this tournament match by match. We had a European tournament that we weren’t quite happy with. We felt like we had left things unfinished, Hawkshaw said. It’s the first time we’ve been back in a tournament, so I suppose you can understand why things happen. We hope to get out of our large group. In these big tournaments, anything can happen if you take us off your group.
That starts against South Africa, which is also in Group A with the defending champions Netherlands, India, Great Britain and Germany. Van Tonder probably won’t be on the field to keep Hawkshaw out of goal. As a traveling reserve, shells watch from the stands rather than the bench.
I’ve tried to adopt a service mentality well, I always try to have a service mentality in a team but also now because my focus can be completely on serving the team, said Van Tonder. I have to be ready to play at any time, so I have to stay involved in team discussions. My focus should always be on training regardless of my position and making sure the first team has everything they need.
It’s a unique role that can be satisfying and frustrating at the same time. Fortunately, she could lean on Weinberg for advice. Weinberg was an alternate for the US 2008 bronze medal winning squad in Beijing.
It’s interesting that you’re so excited to be there, but in the back of your mind you feel like you want more, like you’re training just like everyone else on the team, Weinberg said. Being able to guide her through that makes me incredibly proud of the position she is in and she should be incredibly proud of that.
Van Tonder had a long chat with Weinberg shortly after she was named one of the traveling reserves in late May.
I’m really grateful for her support because she knows what it is and what you’re going through, said Van Tonder.
Weinberg and the rest of the UMass program kept in touch while she was at home in South Africa during the pandemic. There are biweekly FaceTime calls, regular text messages, and a team SnapChat.
She is the glue that holds the team together. She is such a positive person, she is very inclusive. She always comes to training with a simple one on her face. Our players thrive on that, Weinberg said. There is no doubt that we missed her this spring and missed her presence on and off the field.
Van Tonder thought she would be able to rejoin UMass before spring, but travel restrictions from South Africa were airtight due to the COVID-19 variant from there.
I certainly missed my UMass teammates very much, said Van Tonder. It’s nice to stay connected, but it’s not the same as waking up at six and having early morning workouts and the game day routine and all that stuff.
She has one year left to qualify at UMass and will return to Amherst after the Games.
I will be able to contribute my experience in this environment, surrounded by great people, said Van Tonder. I think that’s something valuable to bring to the team.
Kyle Grabowski can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.