Great Britain hockey star Helen Richardson-Walsh has been announced as a Youth Athlete Role Model for Buenos Aires 2018. She tells us how seriously she takes the responsibility – and why Argentina is the perfect venue for her sport.
“I believe that at the YOGs you get a very real feel of what it is like at the actual Olympics. There is a lot of new stuff to deal with when you go for the first time – a multi-sport event, interacting with different athletes, how to deal with a massive food hall and so on.”
There can’t be many people in sport who have worked harder for an Olympic gold medal than Helen Richardson-Walsh.
The hockey midfielder began her Olympic career at 18 – becoming the youngest-ever British female to make an appearance in her sport at a summer Games. But it would be another four Olympics and 16 years before she finally climbed to the top of the podium.
“It was the perfect way to end a career,” she said, a year on from Great Britain’s dazzling hockey victory at Rio 2016, in which her side won every single match in a perfect campaign, and defeated the Netherlands in a dramatic final. “I only have to get the gold medal out and look at it, and all the amazing memories of that summer come flooding back.”
Richardson-Walsh is still playing the game at 36, but is now focusing mainly on the next chapter of her career: education. She has taken up a part-time teaching role at a school in Cambridgeshire, and regularly gives talks to groups of schoolchildren about her storied career.
Doing a similar thing in Buenos Aires as an athlete ambassador therefore seemed like a logical step. “I put my name forward to do it, and when I found out I’d been chosen, I was delighted,” she said.
“When I was playing as a youngster, there weren’t a huge amount of visible female role models in the sporting world. The GB squad have actually thought about that a lot, and it’s something we now take really seriously. It’s part of our vision to inspire the future, so to be an ambassador at the YOG is a real honour.
“I’m very excited to be involved on both the Team GB and the hockey side, and to see what they’ve got planned for workshops. Hopefully the next generation can really get something useful out of it.”
She sees the process as two-way. “I’m really enjoying working at a school and doing talks,” she said. “I wish I’d had somebody who’d achieved what I’ve achieved come into my school and talk about it. How they did it, the lessons they learned.
“But I’m not going along and just telling kids things. These talks are really interactive. I learn as much from them as they do from me. It’s great to hear their views on different topics, and sharing information. I also love getting into the nitty gritty of hockey.”
Richardson-Walsh feels that the YOG is a sign of things moving in the “right direction” when it comes to gender equality in sport. “Things are getting better in the Olympic Movement,” she said. “Across the Games, when new sports come in, they have to show that they are demonstrating equality.
“There is still a way to go, and it’s important that the media take on this role in social change. They need to promote women who are doing incredible things. Let’s put them out there and build the profiles they deserve.
“But I would just have loved going to a YOG as a 16-year-old. Oh my goodness! Going to a hockey tournament anywhere is exciting, so if the Youth Olympics had been around, I’d have just been amazed.
“I believe that at the YOGs you get a very real feel of what it is like at the actual Olympics. There is a lot of new stuff to deal with when you go for the first time – a multi-sport event, interacting with different athletes, how to deal with a massive food hall and so on.
“I learned all this at the actual Olympics, so to learn to do it at a YOG is brilliant.”
She also enthuses about the host city. “I’ve been to Buenos Aires and Argentina a lot, because it’s a huge hockey country. They have a lot of tournaments, I must have been eight or nine times, and I love it there.
“Hockey players are superstars in Argentina. Luciana Aymar has only just retired, and she was the world’s best player. Argentina play their hockey a bit like they play football – really skilfully. And the fans are fanatical.
“It’s one of my favourite places to play. They get the flares out, they dance and sing. It’s a great country and the atmosphere should be wonderful for the YOG.”
Even role models have role models, meanwhile, and one of Richardson-Walsh’s is a fellow ambassador.
“When I was growing up, one of the strong sporting women who stood out was Gabriela Sabatini, so it was great to see her name on the list. I used to love watching her at Wimbledon, so it’ll be amazing to see her at Buenos Aires 2018.”