Susannah Townsend: Rio gold medallist postpones retirement to chase Tokyo place

By Alex HoadBBC Radio Kent
Susannah Townsend
Susannah Townsend also won Commonwealth Games hockey medals in 2014 and 2018

After postponing her retirement, Olympic champion Susannah Townsend says simply lining up for Great Britain at the Olympics in Tokyo would represent the greatest achievement of her career.

Townsend, who turns 31 this summer, has chosen to reverse her decision to retire in August after the 2020 Games was postponed for 12 months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Kent-born midfielder said: "The past few months have been a bit of a rollercoaster. At the beginning we didn't know if the Olympics was going to be cancelled or postponed or quite what was going to happen.

"When you're waiting to find out you train hard, you're optimistic but also a realist - you know it's probably not going to happen.

"I'd always said I was definitely going to retire in August, but my plan now is to retire after the Olympics next summer. I feel like this delay has almost given me a chance to be a better player."

'I hit a downward spiral'

Townsend, who won her first international cap in 2008, helped Great Britain claim an historic gold medal at Rio 2016, but has been plagued by injuries since then - which she says resulted in her losing her love of the game.

"I had no injuries leading up to Rio but the four years since have been by far the hardest of my career," she told BBC Radio Kent.

Georgie Twigg, Susannah Townsend, Helen Richardson-Walsh, Kate Richardson-Walsh
Great Britain's penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in Rio brought them a first Olympic gold

"I had knee surgery after Rio and a couple of months after I came back from that I had a serious ankle injury. I rehabbed my knee really well, but my ankle not so well and it's been an ongoing struggle for me.

"I probably haven't played as well as I should have in the past couple of years, mainly due to the injuries, but if I'm completely honest too, I didn't enjoy my hockey as much."

Townsend added: "I lost some confidence in my game. I hit a downward spiral and with disappointing results and the changes for a new Olympic cycle with new athletes, I think without realising it I got into a bit of a rut.

"It got to the point where I wasn't enjoying myself as much as I should have and my performances slipped."

Regaining her buzz

An intervention by close friends sparked some soul-searching which has led to a turnaround in her outlook.

"They told me, 'you're not yourself, you don't have that buzz about you - and not just on the hockey pitch.' It made me take a good look at myself," Townsend said.

"I made a promise to get back to being myself again, being true to me and not being influenced by others - it's directly affected my hockey.

"Thankfully in the past six months I have started to really love it again. There is a direct correlation between me being happy and playing well."

The mindset change may have come just in time to keep Townsend's hopes of a second Olympic gold medal alive.

She admitted: "Of course I want to go and win another gold medal, but in my head in these past few months I've been thinking that just to go to another Olympics would be my biggest achievement.

"It might sound silly (as an Olympic gold medallist) but if I am selected for Tokyo next year I am certain it would be the best achievement of my career."

'Extra preparation will benefit GB'

Susannah Townsend
Susannah Townsend has played club hockey in Germany

The Canterbury Hockey Club product says the postponement of the Games has bought her vital time to regain full fitness and showcase her worth to coach Mark Hager, who took over the reins early in 2019 following the departure of Danny Kerry.

She said: "I feel as a squad we'd have done well at an Olympics this summer, but more time is probably a benefit to us.

"I wouldn't have continued if I didn't think we could go and win another gold medal. This year might have been pushing it a little bit but I think next summer, with all that extra time, we'll be ready.

"We lost time in this cycle without a head coach (after Danny Kerry took over as GB men's coach). Mark came in and has done a fantastic job but more time can only be a benefit as a new coach takes time to embed his philosophy and his style and develop the player relationships he wants.

"Obviously there is frustration about the postponement because I felt like I would have been in a really good place come the Olympics and it would have been a really good summer, but it might be an even better one next year."

No sentiment in elite sport

Townsend will turn 32 on the eve of the rearranged Games and is under no illusions that her place in the squad, let alone the team, is by no means secure.

She said: "There are no assurances about selection and certainly no sentiment in elite sport. I know what I can do on a good day but I haven't had enough good days in the past couple of years.

"For me it's going to be a little bit more of an uphill battle due to my age and injuries. I'm going to have to manage my body going forward, resting and stretching in particular. I have to find ways to help myself and make the right decisions.

"If you ask anyone who is close to retiring, when you can see the end you can put yourself through more pain than you could have before. I am starting to feel that it is going to hurt but I can do this because I can touch the end."

Townsend cannot tell you how her international hockey story will end - but she is desperate to be the one who decides when it does.

She added: "Hockey is getting faster. It's relentless. It's all about speed and change of direction. It's continuing to evolve. It's good having these 21-year-olds coming in because you learn a lot.

"I know my strengths and I tend to try to stick to them. I've shown in the past few months I can still do it, I just need to, in the next 14 months, get myself in the best place into contention for selection.

"My ankle will never be brilliant, it's just something in my head I have to accept. Trusting my body is a big thing.

"I might not be quite what I was physically, but I'm a better hockey player than I ever was. Hopefully I can get to one more Olympics and prove that."