Moral victories mean nothing to athletes. As honourable as we may all hope to be, the score on the board after the final whistle counts an awful lot.
When it comes to Olympic qualifiers, that score at the end of the match can haunt you for four years. The Irish women’s hockey team know that four years is a long wait.
In June 2015, the Irish women faced China in Valencia, hoping to claim one of the 12 spots in the Rio Olympics the following year. After drawing the game 1-1, the penalty shoot-out ended in Irish heartbreak.
Their last chance at Olympic qualification this time around was in front of a home crowd in Dublin against Canada on November 2 and 3. After both the games ended in a draw, it was down to a penalty shoot-out once again, a place midfielder Roisin Upton has found herself in many times before.
“It’s actually much harder to watch, I’d prefer to be taking one instead of watching,” says Upton, who struck twice after the Sunday game, during the shoot-out and the sudden-death.
“It’s eight seconds and you’re just looking to back yourself and try not to let the occasion and the crowd take over and stay as focused as you can,” she adds.
With so much at stake, it takes courage to back yourself, but Upton once again delivered, scoring the winning goal despite a wrist break sustained during the match.
“It was just complete ecstasy and excitement. We have been training intensely now since July, so there was a lot more pressure going into the match.
“It was something we never had to deal with before, there were huge crowds, so much excitement and nerves. Everyone is just on a complete high from it,” says the 25-year-old.
The Irish women’s first Olympic qualification couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team have played a vital role in the 20×20 movement within the country, aimed at increasing participation and visibility of girls and women in sport.
While Ireland doesn’t lack female sporting role models, the hockey team has become a leading light in the movement that Upton believes has done a lot to change perceptions towards women’s sport.
“I think there was probably a notion there before [20×20] that people didn’t care about women’s sport, but I think at the World Cup last year, when women’s sport was on television, people were watching,” says Upton.
“The media outlets need to know that people do care about women’s sport and people want to know more.
“This past year has been huge for women in sport and it’s only been getting bigger and bigger. We’re in no way competing with male sports, but we’re on the rise and it’s fantastic.
“We’ll welcome everyone onto our bandwagon for supporting our team, because it not only helps women in sport, but it is also great to have the backing of a nation,” adds Upton.
Bandwagoners or not, the hockey team deserve all the support they have amassed over the last number of years, with their real watershed moment coming last Summer in the World Cup.
The Irish team, made up entirely of amateur players, stunned the tournament by making it to the final, defeating the USA, India and Spain en route.
Ireland faced the top ranked Netherlands team in the final showdown and despite a 6-0 defeat, the Irish team made avid fans out of curious bystanders with their talent and tenacity.
Although they had achieved something colossal, the team felt the sting of the loss which would test their resolve, but ultimately drive them on to achieve their long-term goal of Olympic qualification.
“It’s incredibly tough and we’ve all been on the flip-side of the great wins. It’s not even just the commitment that you’ve given to it, but it’s also the sacrificing so many things at home, you’re putting relationships and work on hold,” says Upton.
On the back of their World Cup performance, the Irish women knew they had the ability to compete with the biggest teams in the sport, but as is often the case, the matter of money has a habit of getting in the way.
While teams like the Netherlands and Belgium have the resources to have professional hockey players, in Ireland that is not the case, with the players working or studying in conjunction with their training.
Upton, who recently graduated from her Master’s in Education from Mary Immaculate College in her native Limerick, has been able to make hockey her main focus following the completion of her studies.
While the juggling act between sport and work represents a challenge, the support they receive in recognition of their efforts keeps them pushing on.
“I think the public appreciate the sacrifices that we’re making. What was really special for us was, given the absolutely atrocious weather [for the Canada game], we still had over 6,000 people at our game.
“It would have been the easiest thing in the world to sit at home and watch it on the television, but people still came out,” adds Upton.
The attendance Upton is referring to represents the largest attendance for a women’s international team event in Ireland and epitomises that these women are indeed history makers.
While Olympic qualification was the original target, now that it’s in the bag, Upton is certain that the Irish team won’t be heading to Japan happy to just take part.
“Even though it’s something we’ve never done, [qualifying] was still only a stepping stone to where we want to be,” says Upton.
“Where we want to be is medalling at the Olympics. That is the pinnacle and I suppose all athletes would agree that nobody’s happy just to be involved, everybody wants to win, so this is no different,” she adds.
With their recent form, there’s no reason why the Irish team shouldn’t be aiming for a medal, but that confidence comes with a target being placed on their backs.
No longer an unknown entity, other countries will relish the chance to take a swipe at Sean Dancer’s side, but it’s a test Upton can’t wait for.
“It’s exciting that teams need to respect us and at the same time it’s a challenge and we need to accept it,” adds Upton.
“We need to improve and we need to take more opportunities, but we’ll embrace it. It’s exactly where we wanted to be.”