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From her lowest ebb to Olympic gold - Spurs fan Helen Richardson-Walsh's amazing sporting journey

Posted on 18 January 2017  - 13:45

Helen Richardson-Walsh admits she was ‘at the lowest of the low’ after a second surgery on her back in March, 2014. Now, almost three years later, she’s an Olympic gold medallist, has been awarded an MBE and recently talked tactics and sporting philosophy with Mauricio Pochettino. Helen spoke about her extraordinary sporting journey after that meeting with Mauricio at Hotspur Way...

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In conversation with…

Helen Richardson-Walsh

- Capped 293 times by England and GB
- 17 international medals for England and GB
- Two golds - Euros 2015, Olympics 2016
- Spurs fan
- Patron of Proud Lilywhites, our LGB&T supporters group

After finally winning gold after being so close so many times in the European Championships in 2015, could you feel a change of mentality going into the Rio Olympic?
Helen: “There were certain teams - the Dutch were one for us - where you go into a game and subconsciously, you’re probably thinking ‘we’re not going to win this game’ but you can’t think that way. If you do, you’ve lost it. We turned that around with a lot of teams. We started to beat Germany consistently, we were close to Argentina and we were starting to win games that could have gone either way.”

Below: Olympic champion! Helen with team-mates Georgie Twigg, Susannah Townsend, Kate Richardson-Walsh and Sam Quek after winning gold in Rio

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Was playing the Dutch in the Olympic final the perfect scenario?
Helen: “They were close to losing to Germany in the semi-final and I’m glad we had the chance to beat them. Looking back, it’s easy to say it because we beat them but at the time in my head I wanted to play Holland. We believed we could beat them because we'd beaten them in the Euros the year before.”

When did you get the feeling ‘we can do it’ at the Olympics?
Helen: “This Olympic Games was the most I’d felt in the moment and collectively we were in the moment as a team as well. We weren’t looking too far ahead. We always knew we’d have to beat Holland to win gold. We beat Australia in the first game and there was a steely focus that carried through from there.”

Below: At Wembley with fellow Olympic medallists Richard Hounslow and Matt Gotrel
 
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‘You'll make me cry again...’

You scored a penalty in the shoot-out against Holland in the final - millions were watching - can you describe that moment?
Helen: “I was strangely calm. I don’t know if it’s my age but I’d been through a lot to get to that point and that allowed me to enjoy it. I’d taken so many penalty strokes in preparation for that moment and then the crowd started booing! That’s really unusual in hockey, it just doesn’t normally happen. That made me smile. I thought ‘right, this is going in’. After I took it, I couldn’t really run – I’d damaged my hamstring in the semi-final – normally I would have run off to the crowd celebrating but because I couldn’t really run I just turned and looked at the Dutch and gave them a look to say ‘right, we’ve got this’.”

How did it feel to receive that Olympic gold medal?
Helen: “I still look at now. It comes in a lovely wooden box, I have a little look and every time I look, it gives me the same feeling.”

Ultimately, that’s what the blood, sweat and tears has been about…
Helen: “Yes, for 17 years. You’ll make me cry again…it brings out so many emotions.”

Below: Helen celebrates after scoring against Spain in the Rio Olympics
 
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The thing is, so many sportsmen and women don’t get there - for instance, a professional footballer may never play at Wembley…
Helen: “It’s incredibly special. As a hockey player and Olympic athlete you look at Olympic gold medallists as amazing people, people who have achieved something very significant. There is a small amount of people in the world to achieve that and to think I’m now one of them is incredibly special after what has been an emotional, challenging journey.”

‘I was at the lowest of the low’

It must be even more special with your serious back injury and two surgeries in 2013 and 2014…
Helen: “That made it even more special. It was just over two years before the Olympic final that I came out of a second back surgery in the space of under a year and fighting things like depression, struggling with my mental health and at the lowest of the low and then having my place in the squad challenged. I’d never had that.”

Below: Helen in action in the Olympic semi-final win against New Zealand
 
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Did that make you stronger?
Helen: “Yes, definitely. In fact, once I’d got back onto the pitch in January, 2015 I didn’t miss another session between then and the Olympic final.”

What was the timespan between the second back surgery and Olympic gold?
Helen: “The second back surgery was in March, 2014 and the final on August 19, 2016, so just over two years. For someone like me who struggles with fitness as well, 2015 was a year of getting selected for a couple of tournaments and finally winning the Euros, which was great - it was also about building my fitness up and getting stronger and faster for the big year, 2016.”

As a team, you’d shut yourselves off from social media during the Olympics, did you finally realise what that win meant to everyone when you returned home from Rio?
Helen: “By all accounts, 10 million people watched it in this country, I’ve heard that people were turning over from football to watch it, watching it in pubs and so many different stories we’ve heard.  People have said it was one of those ‘where were you’ moments that you remember. To be a part of that…also, it has inspired people to pick up a hockey stick, so that’s fantastic as well.”

'It's hard to understand what you've achieved'

People never forget Olympic gold medallists and now you fall into that category, how does that feel?
Helen: “It’s great to think of it like that. It’s so hard to understand what you’ve achieved at the time but things like that really bring it home. It’s incredible for hockey as well, amazing.”

Below: Helen with Dele Alli at Hotspur Way

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And, of course, you are now Helen Richardson-Walsh, MBE! When did you find out about that honour?
Helen:  “It’s a funny story. I was away travelling. You normally find out with a letter through the post but because I was away, I hadn’t replied. Myself and Kate (Richardson-Walsh, Helen’s wife) were skiing in Whistler (Canada), I was on the ski-lift and my phone was ringing. I couldn’t get the phone out in time but I saw it was unknown number. I then listened to a message from one of the (Buckingham) Palace’s people and that’s how I found out! They just wanted to find out if we wanted to accept the honour and we obviously do, gratefully.”

'Exciting times'

Finally, onto Spurs, what was it like to visit Mauricio at Hotspur Way?
Helen: “It was amazing. I’ve never been to the facility and it’s incredible. As soon as you walk in you feel it’s such a high performing unit from the receptionists through to a meeting with the manager, everyone is on the same page. You can see that watching the players train. There is a togetherness. You can see it and that has been instilled from the top.”

It’s a good time to be a Spurs fan…
Helen: “Yes, definitely. It’s fantastic with the team playing so consistently well and then the new stadium as well! These are exciting times.”