Tokyo Olympics: Full throttle to a standstill - one year since Ireland made history

By Nigel RinglandBBC Sport NI
McFerran Magic & Watkins' Wink - a year on from Ireland's Olympic dream

For some of the Ireland women's hockey squad it feels like yesterday, for others a lifetime ago.

It is, in fact, a year since that dramatic night at Donnybrook in Dublin.

Ireland and Canada had just played out a second forgettable scoreless game in 24 hours, with the nerves and occasion getting to both countries.

A place in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be decided in a shootout. In front of the largest ever crowd to attend a women's international sporting fixture in Ireland, the evening went from forgettable to unforgettable in an instant.

At 3-1 up in the shootout, the Canadians now with four opportunities to dash Irish Olympic dreams once again after the tears of 2012 and 2016,

However Ireland produced the comeback of all comebacks to win in sudden death and make history, and in doing so they became the first Irish women's team in any sport to qualify for an Olympic Games.

The emotion was genuine as the squad acknowledged those players who had gone before them, setting the platform for this group who had already shocked the world in 2018 by reaching the World Cup Final.

The uncertainty was hard

2020 was going to be their year.

And then... the world changed.

Like everyone else the women had to come to terms with the Olympics being postponed and then focus on not only how lockdown affected their training but more importantly their families and livelihoods.

"Qualifying didn't sink in for quite some time, in fact I don't think it will until we step out on the pitch in Tokyo and see the rings," said midfielder Chloe Watkins.

"The last few months of training before the postponement, things were getting very real and we were getting to the point of selection dates coming up and the final stages of preparation when things were being pulled."

Ireland celebrate qualifying for the Olympics
Ireland's Olympic dream has been delayed until 2021

Major life decisions had to be taken by members of the squad. Many had put college or job opportunities on hold, could they afford to do that for another year? Others had planned international hockey retirement after the Games. Could they hold on especially with the uncertainty that still remains that the Olympics could yet be cancelled?

"The time around the postponement was the toughest. It was quite abrupt and from training for the biggest tournament of your life you're suddenly training by yourself and the uncertainty was hard, as it was for everyone," added Watkins.

"We're used to having our next twelve months planned out to the day and to have no plan and no clue what would be happening was hard.

"Everyone needed their own space and to process what was going on and other aspects of their lives had been affected as well so everyone needed a break."

'Plenty of reasons to smile'

Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran, who made those two crucial saves in the shootout, spent lockdown in the Netherlands where she plays her club hockey. She hasn't been home since Christmas.

"When the delay was announced I was actually having quite a tough time with my hockey, I wasn't playing well, I wasn't in a good space with it and I didn't really want to play if I'm being honest," she said.

"Ultimately it worked out for the best in a bad situation for me. I needed to get away from the sport and not have to think about it.

"The mental side was tough however, I had no routine, I was living in Holland, I was by myself and it was a challenge but I've learnt a lot about myself as a person and the hope that the Olympics will happen takes all the negatives away and gives you something to hold on to."

The squad have been back in socially distanced training for the past few months and while there is a provisional plan in place moving forward it is subject to change as life in general is at the moment.

Ayeisha McFerran made two saves in the shootout
McFerran made two saves in the shootout

Even before the Olympics is scheduled next July there are the European Championships and World Cup qualification to think about, but ultimately Tokyo is the goal and there is plenty of recent positivity from both the Japanese government and International Olympic Committee that the Games will go ahead, albeit not as we've known it before.

"We don't have too much to complain about in the grand scheme of things," added Roisin Upton.

"Yes, we had gone full throttle for the Olympics and it was disappointing but I guess the good news is that things at the moment are sounding so positive that Tokyo 2021 will go ahead with or without a vaccine and that has definitely spurred us on to continue training.

"The reassurance that we received from the Olympic Federation of Ireland in recent days was fantastic and it has realigned our focus.

"It is a new norm and it can still be challenging but we are still very grateful that we still have the opportunity that this squad will still be going to an Olympics in Tokyo next summer."

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