22nd Jul 2012 10:36am | By Tom Sturrock
Australia’s women’s hockey team was, for many years, one of the country’s safe bets for a medal at Olympic Games.
The Hockeyroos – every Australian team needs a nickname – won gold in Seoul, Atlanta and Sydney, but it’s been slim pickings since. Now, in London, the Hockeyroos arrive, for the first time, as outsiders, a developing side with plenty of promise but for whom, according to the experts, these Games may come a few years to early in the learning curve.
Still, according Casey Eastham, the Hockeyroos’ star player, and one of the world’s top midfielders, Australia could yet be the surprise packet in a tightening field.
“Going into the Olympics, the Hockeyroos come to mind because we’ve had that success in the past, but more recently, we’ve been in a constant rebuilding phase,” she admits.
“We slipped down to number nine in the rankings, to the point we’re probably consider an outsider. But you can’t pick it – any team in the top eight or nine can knock out any other on the day. That’s why the mental side of it is going to be so important – in London, anything could happen and then, I suppose, four years later, in Rio, we’ll have a really good, really strong side.”
What the Hockeyroos lack in experience, they make up for in athleticism – physically, they may be the best-prepared team in the competition, something Eastham attributes to them moving to Perth for the final months of the build-up.
“It’s an Olympic year, so all the squad has become full-time, training six times every week, probably two sessions a day, spending a lot of time in the gym with extra weight-training,” she says.
“We’ve been working really hard on our penalty corners because that can become really lethal if you do it well and developing that really helps us become a medal threat. Physically, we’ve ramped it up – I’ve never played in a group where we’ve had this kind of strength, power and speed.”
Four years ago in Beijing, Eastham was the baby of the Australian squad. Now, at the ripe old age of 23, she is one of the most experienced players.
Eastham, then still a teenager, scored four goals in Beijing but it wasn’t enough to propel Australia beyond the group stage into the semi-finals, a heartbreaking draw in the last match against China, the eventual silver medalists, condemning them to fifth place.
“We missed out on making the semi-finals and I remember that experience – you don’t want to find yourself in that situation again and I suppose I’ve just been trying to help prepare some of the girls mentally for that,” she says. “It’s a big thing to be able to get over the line in a crucial game.
“Four years ago, it was a big thing for me just to make the team so I wasn’t thinking too much about it but, with any Olympic preparation, you hope to come home with a medal. We’ve definitely got that in mind in terms of our goal-setting and what we’re pushing for.”
Eastham knows her younger teammates will increasingly be looking to her for leadership, for instruction, for a moment of individual brilliance when the going gets tough, and she is unfazed by the heightened expectations.
“That’s changed a lot, going from being the baby of the team to one of the most experienced players,” she says.
“I’ve gone from being a first-year player to one of the leaders, so there’s a fair bit of added pressure. But that’s all part of it and I’m really excited about taking that challenge, although I don’t really consider myself an older player.”
On the back of her break-out performance in Beijing, Eastman was promptly tipped to become one of the world’s elite players. And, although among the top handful, Eastham admits the years following the last Olympics were a slog.
“The first couple of years after Beijing I was a bit disappointed – I didn’t feel like I was getting to level I wanted to be at and hit a plateau. I was pretty down about that,” she says.
“But a new coach came onboard and I’ve felt like I’ve made a lot of progress since then and I’ve definitely got a lot more confidence. I’m in the best shape of my career – there are niggling injuries but nothing major and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.”
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