“It feels like only yesterday” – Katie Mullan on a year since Olympic qualification

** Article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on November 3

Exactly a year since that electrifying night in Donnybrook’s Energia Park, Katie Mullan was probably expecting to be basking in the afterglow of a maiden Irish women’s Olympic hockey campaign.

Instead, a global pandemic means those Tokyo qualifiers remain fresh in the memory. Two drenched contests in the repurposed rugby stadium drew record crowds of over 6,000 each time, enduring the conditions and two emotionally agonising scoreless battles before Canada were eventually defeated in a sudden death shootout.

Katie Mullan rises highest during the qualification celebrations. Pic: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The conditions and the occasion prevented an expansive performance with the temporary surface holding huge amounts of water; the litres that did drain off wreaking havoc with RTÉ’s booth just above the Dodder.

But, like the 2018 World Cup, the set-piece of the one-on-one shootout duels provide a focal point.

The ice cold “Watkins’ wink” and Roisin Upton unknowingly scoring the vital goal with a broken wrist created a folklore and ecstasy which a 3-0 cruise could never have provided.

“We are well aware the fashion it happened in added to the celebrations!” Mullan grins on the anniversary. 

“With such a huge crowd and atmosphere, our competitive nature as athletes, we definitely reflect with some disappointment that we didn’t give the crowd more to scream about during normal time and score a few goals.

“But because it went to the wire, there are youngsters in the stand who will never forget that night. That is the power of it and what it did for our sport. It’s huge.”

The Green Army entered the arena with big smiles, the Coleraine woman’s beam stretching across the huge screen.

But, in front of an expectant home crowd, there was a tangible “nervous energy” they struggled to tame.

While London 2018 was a shot to nothing, now everything was on the line. There, they existed in their own bubble, embracing each contest like Christmas Eve in gleeful anticipation — this time, the full media and public glare was on.

“There was huge pressure to perform. We don’t have a whole lot of experience of that within Ireland, playing in front of a home crowd and such a spectacle. That will stand to us in time and maybe there won’t be the same nerves around us as players. 

“It was a very special day and it’s hard to believe it’s a full year ago. In some ways, it feels like only yesterday. There’s a huge amount of pride to be part of it to get over the line; doing it in front of such an amazing crowd is unimaginable and it will go down as a special moment in history for Irish hockey.”

With the ticket to Tokyo booked, what should have followed was a relatively quick turnaround en route to the pinnacle of their sport.

Several training camps in January and February set the base layer for the final run-in before the abrupt halt.

A second South African tour of the year, scheduled for mid-March, was pulled at the last minute with the news Tokyo 2020 was becoming Tokyo 2021 arriving four days later and reality bit.

“When we stood on the pitch that night in Donnybrook, we were ready to hit the ground running for preparation,” Mullan said. 

“The way things unfolded, everything was flipped upside down. We function in cycles; it’s four years of planning, training, preparation. Adding that extra year completely changes things.”

Potential retirements have been put on hold, wedding plans and job arrangements have all had to be readjusted but it is the mental side of being out of the team environment that proved the trickiest to cope with.

“That’s been a huge challenge for everyone, for their personal lives, their working lives and how we manage it all.

“The hardest part is the only people who knew how we felt were our team-mates, especially around May, June and July when it was all meant to be building and happening. For that period, we weren’t able to be together.

“The people you normally need to lean on, you couldn’t be with them. That made it even more difficult.”

The postponement and the pandemic did offer a rare chance to throw herself fully into her work at Axial3D where she is a visualisation engineer, specialising in 3D printing of medical supplies.

They provide anatomical models for surgeons to help them with complex case surgeries but pivoted to produce personal protective equipment for hospitals and the healthcare industry.

The workload barely slowed down since; lockdown created a large backlog of surgeries which Mullan and the company are now working through to assist. The 26-year-old was grateful for the distraction but has also relished being able to scale back that commitment to three days a week in recent times.

The Irish women’s team availing of an exemption to the level 5 restrictions for elite sports, finally allowing them to link up at Abbotstown on Mondays and Tuesdays as a group once again.

Last week, Olympic Chef de Mission Tricia Heberle outlined a series of proposed changes to normal protocols with the athletes’ village and overall experience likely to be far removed from years gone by.

But Mullan is happy simply to take the reassurances and skip the fear of missing out.

Qualification celebrations. Pic: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“We don’t know any better! None of us has been to a Games so we don’t have preconceived ideas or expectations which, in a way, is a good thing. We won’t be comparing it to anything before.

“There was a stage where a Tokyo Olympics may not even be happening a few months ago so I think there is relief it will go ahead and are very grateful for that.

“Whatever way we have to do it with the restrictions and precautions, we are fully in support. It’s a safety-first approach and hopefully, for those who get selected, it will be a Games to celebrate and remember after some of the biggest challenges people across the world have had to face over the last 18 months.”

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