While most Team GB athletes would have been hoping for a glimpse of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis Hill in Rio, hockey star Susannah Townsend had high hopes of bumping into someone else in the athletes village. But the West Ham fan was left disappointed when she was told Manuel Lanzini would fly back to London after Argentina confirmed he would not be fit to take part in the Rio Olympics.
Still, it gave the 27-year-old chance to focus on playing her part in helping Team GB’s women’s hockey side win gold after a brilliant tournament ended in them seeing off the Netherlands in a tense final. But in an exclusive interview with Blowing Bubbles the midfielder admitted she didn’t fully appreciate the level of support the team had and the joy they brought to millions back home as they became Olympic champions.
‘You’re in a bit of Team GB bubble,’ she explained. ‘To be honest you don’t know much about what is going on back home. It wasn’t until we landed that it really dawned on us what the reaction had been to Team GB’s success in Rio. ‘As we walked off the plane, I remember thinking that we’d done something pretty special and that it had been appreciated more than we’d realised.’
The gold medal has been four years in the making. The women have spent countless hours training for various scenarios, coming up with plans, executing tactics but winning a medal wasn’t their only goal for Rio. ‘A couple of years ago we had a meeting to discuss what we wanted to do, what we wanted to achieve,’ the Canterbury star continued. ‘We wanted to create history and inspire a future generation.
We wanted to show those back home that they can achieve anything, and more than anything we wanted to promote hockey and get girls playing. ‘Whether that’s someone with hopes of playing professionally or just at amateur level, I hope we’ve inspired girls to pick up a stick and give it a go.’
Townsend, who made her international debut back in 2008, was impressed by the lengths Team GB went to create a home from home in Brazil. ‘It was little details like having Union Jack chairs that really helped make this Olympics for me,’ she said. ‘Being part of Team GB hockey, we created our own fun – as I’m sure you saw on the news with us singing on the plane! ‘We tried to lap up as much of the experience as possible and got involved with everything that we could.’
But what next for the former Reading player? ‘I’m going to have a little bit of time to rest my body and rest mentally,’ she replied. ‘I want to go to the Tokyo Olympics and we’ve also got a home World Cup in two years time and plenty of tournaments in between. ‘We’re currently number two in the world and with a few fresh faces to come in, hopefully Team GB and England can kick on and be at the top of the sport for years to come.’
Her desire to win gold at Rio meant that she’s had to make a few sacrifices over the past couple of years, which included getting to watch her beloved Hammers. ‘I couldn’t get to Upton Park as much as I wanted to last season,’ she continued. ‘I was about four or five when my dad took me to my first West Ham game. ‘It was always special going to Upton Park. My whole childhood was there. Everyone has got memories of their matchday experience and it will always be a place that I’ll love.
‘As I got older and became busier with hockey, it was always a relief to go to a game and spend 90 minutes shouting at footballers! ‘We used to get our car washed on Barking Road on matchdays. Even when we were running late, we’d take the car there, throw the keys at the guys there and run down to the ground.
‘The people who sat around me, they are extended family. I grew up with most of them. I don’t think they all realised or knew what I did but the messages I got from them while I was out in Rio were really special.’ But what about the new stadium? ‘It’s going to be a little bit weird walking up to the new stadium for the first time. ‘I’ve not really had chance to read what’s been said about it and I honestly have no idea what I’ll be walking into because I’ve just not had the time.
‘I’m excited to be able to spend a bit of time enjoying West Ham before starting to turn my thoughts to the World Cup and Tokyo.’ She added: ‘As long as I get to see Mark Noble when I go, I’ll be happy. He is great, always works hard and just loves West Ham. I really like Dimitri Payet too. ‘My childhood hero was Paolo Di Canio. I can remember when Harry Redknapp signed him there were people saying he was trouble but he was great for us. I also liked Joe Cole, Bobby Zamora and Tomas Repka.’
Townsend, who has already passed the century mark in appearances for her country, is also a huge fan of Slaven Bilic. ‘He’s brilliant. I wanted him as our coach before Sam Allardyce. I’ve always loved the way he is as a coach. He is so passionate and how we played last year was all down to him.’