Youth Olympic Games – Part 2
Annnnnddd we’re back for Part 2 of my experience at the Youth Olympics! I left you in Part 1 (which you can read here if you missed it) at the end of the pool matches with the start of the finals campaign just around the corner. First up I had the quarterfinal between China vs. Austria, and what a game it was…
My Experience at the Youth Olympics – Part 2
(Check out Part 1 if you haven’t already!)
Defending champions China, who were so far undefeated and had only conceded 1 goal throughout the tournament, were up against underdogs Austria, who had produced some strong performances during the pool rounds. On paper, this looked like a relatively clear cut game, however it was anything but! Both teams were hungry for the position in the semi finals that a win would bring them and both teams came out of the starting blocks hard and fast.
For my co-umpire, Gemma from Spain, and I this game required everything in our toolbox. There were lots of little management opportunities where we had to step in in order to keep the game from getting too heated. I’m proud of the way we worked together to achieve this, maintaining consistency and clearly setting our expectations. This helped us to keep the game under control, particularly in the second half when things were really tight.
We had a goal disallowed because it came off the body, green cards for poor tackles and 4m, end-to-end fast paced and skilful hockey, a challenge for a breakdown, aerial throws, lots of noise from the crowd and lots of fast footwork for us as we moved down the pitch to support each other in high pressure situations, only to have to sprint back as the ball rocket back down to our end!
It was so exciting! This is exactly the games that we umpire for. What a privilege it is to be part of a game like this, not only to be able to watch the amazing hockey up close, but to facilitate the game to get the best out of it.
In the last 13 seconds of the game, at 1-1, one of the Austrian defenders brought down a Chinese attacker within the 11m area as she was driving towards goals. I awarded a challenge to China and gave a yellow card to the defender – talk about INTENSE! But these are the times that see us develop as umpires. You have to be able to make the big decisions, even in the highest pressure environments.
China failed to convert their challenge and so it was off to shootouts we went…
Shootouts are an interesting experience for an umpire. You find yourself basically under a giant magnifying glass. When you strip everything else away – the other players, the build up of play, the commotion of defenders and attacking passes, you are left with the simplest scenario of attacker vs. goal keeper. And everything counts. There’s no room for error because everyone is watching just these two players and what they do. And without the benefit of having video referrals, your decision so simply means the difference between a potential goal or no goal. By comparison, the high pressure environment of our circles during normal play seems almost forgiving…!
With both teams scoring an equal number of goals, we went to sudden death shootouts. There was a bit of confusion about who should go first for the sudden death round, but my Technical Official Kim Scott (USA) had my back and I was able to go over and confirm with her. We truly are better together (umpires + technical officials = third team forever )
After both teams missing the first round of sudden death, China came away with the win after they netted their second and Austria missed theirs. They proceeded to the semi finals to face India, knocking Austria out of the medal race.
There are key games we remember in our umpiring careers for different reasons. This game is one of mine. It’s one of my favourite games in my career to date because of how close it was, how fast it was, and how much technical skill it required to umpire. Just about everything that could happen, did happen. It was challenging and exciting, in front of a capacity crowd, and I’m proud of how our team (me, Gemma, Kim and Ayu) worked together on this game to make it the best game it could be!
First things first. I achieved something this day that I’d been trying for all tournament – I got a photo with Pandi, the games mascot! YAY! EVERYONE ELSE in our team had managed one, and somehow I had missed out every. single. day. I don’t know how that’s even possible. But, FINALLY it happened! One happy umpire right here: Success!
I also got to meet another legend on Semi final day. Helen Richardson-Walsh was one of the Athlete Role Models and was around for the last few days of the tournament, inspiring athletes (and umpires!), promoting hockey, and the like. (Background info in case you don’t know who Helen is: She played for England/GB for 17 YEARS, earned 293 caps, went to 4 Olympics, won bronze in London and gold in Rio in the epic shootout win over the Netherlands!). She’s really, really lovely, and we had a great chat about hockey, umpiring, her career and the up-coming Pro League!
But on to the hockey…
For this game, South Africa had beaten Australia in another exciting sudden-death quarterfinal shootout to face Argentina (who had overcome Namibia 3-0 in their QF). Argentina were so far undefeated and had only conceded 2 goals (to India), however when these teams met in the pool stage the score was 4-0, so if South Africa stepped up, buoyed by their win over Australia, we could have a fight on our hands.
Both teams came out hard and put up a good fight – in fact, it took 7 minutes (almost the whole first half in Hockey 5s!) before a goal was scored, which is a position Argentina weren’t used to being in. South Africa really pushed them and you could feel the frustration building in both teams.
So much so in fact, that this frustration spilled over a few times between players – there was a bit of pushing, etc. going on both on and off the ball. After talking to the players both during play and in the short breaks in play, it got too much that I decided to do something I hadn’t done all tournament. I stopped the game and called two of the offending players over…
Hockey 5s is a little unforgiving in this fashion to the umpires. You don’t have as many breaks in play (16’s, PCs, sidelines), or as long, as you would in a game of 11s to step in and manage the players like we normally would. The game is so fast. I didn’t want to card these players – I don’t believe what they were doing was worth sending them off for. But I did want to make it clear that it needed to stop. It may have been an unconventional approach for this tournament, but I believe the example needed to be set. And it worked…! They did settle down after that.
The game ended up running away from South Africa, with Argentina scoring the win 11-0 to go through to the Gold Medal match against India.
Gold Medal game
This was it. The last game of the day; of the tournament. The game that people had been lining up all day to get in to see. The main event. Two strong hockey nations, India and Argentina, battling it out for the ultimate prize – with the Argentinian girls in pursuit of their first Olympic Gold Medal (either junior or senior), on home soil no less.
I was pumped, and excited, and terrified; all at the same time.
Something that definitely wasn’t lost on me was the pride I felt at being part of this game. Not only because I was about to umpire the gold medal match, or because I was representing my country… but, for the first time in my life, I was taking part in an event where the women’s final was the big ticket game.
I was grateful to be sharing this experience with Sophie from Germany – we’d become good friends over the tournament and it’s always nice when you get to share wonderful experiences with your friends. After watching the men’s final, I joined her on her typical pre-game walk around the park. It’s good to get away from the hockey and the crowds, even for just a little bit, so you can focus on the game ahead.
After our pre-game dance off and (serious) talk in the change rooms, we went to the practice field to warm up. On our way there we walked past and saw the big-screen TV they had set up on the grassed area beside the field for all the people that couldn’t get into the stadium. It. Was. PACKED. It was like a mosh-pit! On our way back all the volunteers and security guards, and even a few fans(!), gave us high fives, cheers or good lucks. They were excited for us, and it’s lovely to feel part of a community like this.
Stepping on to the field and lining up for the national anthems was a pretty unreal experience. There’s nothing quite like Argentine patriotism. It’s enough to give you goosebumps, that’s for sure! I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I was to be out on that field.
When we checked the goals and got into position whilst the teams were having their final huddles, I remember so many people in the crowd cheering and waving to me. No one ever waves at the umpire! They were so excited to be involved in any, and every, part of the game. Now THAT is passion for hockey.
The 10 second countdown started and I actually couldn’t hear Sophie blow her whistle to start the game from the noise of the crowd! Then we were off.
The advice from many of my top-level friends and mentors for these kinds of games has been ‘make sure you take a moment to soak up the atmosphere and take it all in”. And I did. Oh boy, I did. Thinking about it even now, it still gives me goose bumps and sends a shiver up my spine. That feeling – that’s what you store away in head to remember forever. That’s the feeling you draw on when you have a not-so-great game, to remember why you do this job. Because umpiring can be tough, but it can also give you some of the most incredible experiences of your life. And this was one of mine.
When I blew the opening goal of the game – to India – I felt the atmosphere in the stadium noticeably tense. The home crowd had had no doubt that their golden girls would win, but by scoring the opener the Indian girls were stating loud and clear that they were here to win and you could feel the flicker of doubt creep into the fans in the stadium. They had a fight on their hands and this might not be the fairy tale ending they were hoping for…
However, when Argentina returned the favour and put themselves on the score board, the crowd ERUPTED. My goodness, the emotion when that goal was scored, both from the players and crowd, was raw. They were back in the game and they were hungry for the win.
Argentina proved too good for India on the day, coming away with a 3-1 win to claim the gold medal, but I have to commend both teams on their performances, not only during the gold medal game but throughout the tournament. Both teams showed great skill, discipline, determination and teamwork and it was a pleasure to umpire them.
The countdown to the final hooter, when the crowd and Argentinian players knew they had won, was again something that gave me goosebumps (so many goosebumps that day haha!). Walking over to Sophie, who’s massive smile mirrored my own, we acknowledged the privilege we had of being part of this game. With the adrenaline kicking in (as it so often does after you’ve been through an intense experience), signing the match card was somewhat problematic as my hands were shaking so much!
With all the official business done, we headed “back stage” to the warm congratulations of our colleagues and friends who had high fives, hugs and powerades waiting for us. We watched the medal ceremony, had our own little ‘closing ceremony/thank you’ in our officials lounge and then headed back to the hotel to celebrate a successful tournament and wonderful experience with a well earned glass of Malbec!
So, how do you sum up such an epic experience? Let’s suffice to say that the Youth Olympics far exceeded my expectations in so many ways…
This wasn’t a “junior” tournament – these kids were athletes, with the speed and skill to match even some of their senior counterparts. I dare say many of them will be pushing into their senior squads in the not too distant future. They produced some quality, exciting hockey and it was a pleasure to watch the teams develop over the tournament. Congratulations to all the athletes and team staff on putting on some wonderful displays of hockey and sportsmanship.
Hockey 5s really impressed me throughout these games. There has been a lot of discussion around rule changes and modified versions of hockey recently. Having been involved in umpiring hockey 5s in it’s infancy, I’ve seen this version of the game grow to become what, I believe, it was meant to be become – what we all wanted it to become. And trust me, I was sceptical. I wasn’t sure about Hockey 5s in the beginning. I love that we explore different rules and versions of our sport – in fact it’s one of the things I love most about hockey. That we are bold in the evolution of our sport. But I do believe there needs to be a good reason and sound logic behind a change.
I wasn’t convinced of the place that Hockey 5s would fill – did we really need it? Isn’t that place filled by indoor hockey? But after this experience I truly believe that Hockey 5s delivers everything that it’s creators were aiming for. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it allows the players to show off their skills. It’s spectator friendly and takes all of the most exciting parts of hockey (the goal scoring bits) and smooshes them together into a condensed version of the game.
But, somehow, miraculously, it manages to do this without taking away the solid, fundamental core of our sport. At the end of the day, it’s still hockey. Just in a more accessible format. Should it replace 11’s in top-level senior international tournaments? No. But it is a wonderful accompaniment to our sport that definitely has a place, particularly at junior level and in the developing hockey nations representation at international level.
The ‘Olympic experience’ also exceeded my expectations. The city of Buenos Aires went crazy with Olympic fever. The Opening Ceremony was NEXT LEVEL. Being able to attend some of the other sports was so cool and being able to walk around the parks, stadiums and Olympic village was awesome. And the city was just buzzing with people, fans, volunteers, visitors and everyone in between! Oh, and did I mention that the hockey was the most attended sport at the Games? Yeah. Having full capacity stands every day was unbelievable.
Finally, our third team was a DREAM TEAM. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to share this experience with. You couldn’t find a nicer, friendlier, more inclusive group of people. It never ceases to amaze me that you can take people from literally every continent in the world, from different cultures, religions, backgrounds and languages, put them together in a group for 2 weeks and everyone gets along like a house on fire! Hockey brings us all together and forms the glue of our friendships. And isn’t that just the greatest thing ever?