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Student Sport Quarterly: Lily Owsley

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After a stressful morning for SSQ, we finally got to meet our first ever cover star – an equally stressed Lily Owsley. Lily had just rushed to meet us at the Birmingham University Students Union from a rather horrific sounding statistics exam.

Turn the clocks back to August 2016 and most students would be working, travelling or, most likely, sitting around doing absolutely nothing. Lily, however, was winning an Olympic Gold medal: Great Britain’s first ever gold medal for women’s Hockey. It’s safe to say this was certainly not an average summer.

In fact, Lily is not an average 22-year-old student; even before leaving school, Lily was given the opportunity to play in the centralised England squad. She made her full Senior England debut in a World Cup Qualifier just days after her final A-level exam. This is a moment Lily still values as one of her best.

After completing her A-levels, she went received a place at Birmingham University, which worked well geographically; It meant she would be close to her family home in Bristol and England’s Bisham Abbey base where England train. Lily had seen her Junior England team mates go onto succeed at the university. Most importantly, Birmingham University gave Lily the opportunity to play in the Investec Women’s Premier League: a chance no other university team has the privilege of playing in.

The chance to study alongside playing hockey was ideal for Owsley, a self-proclaimed “hockey geek”. University for Lily seemed like the perfect release from her busy sports life; Studying for a Sports Science degree brings something else for Owsley to focus on. “I can get tunnel-vision sometimes when it comes to hockey… I can get a bit obsessed with it, which isn’t always good for your performance.”

She was both mentally and physically prepared for the work load, knowing that it was going to be quite a feat. Birmingham’s scholarship team help profusely with organising Lily’s busy schedule, allowing her to focus solely on her studies and hockey, without the extra hassle of organising her time.

Competing for England and GB does mean a lot of travel, something which Lily thoroughly enjoys. Just a week after meeting Lily, she jetted off to South Africa for a two-match series with England’s new squad, successfully winning both games. Some would say a trip to South Africa is precisely what’s needed after exams, but with lectures and two coursework assignments due whilst she was away, the trip was more than just the heavy training schedule and the two matches against South Africa.

Lily has become accustomed to fitting her work into recovery time, as she is back training with GB and so catches up with lectures online, only coming back to university for exams and labs. At times, balancing the two commitments does take its toll: “during the Olympic qualifiers, I had to take my exams in the British Embassy in Spain. That’s when it becomes not so fun.” There are other points however, where exams do have their benefits. Before the European cup semi-final, Lily took an exam in a London Hotel: “It completely takes your mind off it… I wasn’t even nervous; it was one of the best games of my life!”.

It hasn’t always been a simple pathway to success though, Lily has had two serious setbacks. The first being in April 2015, with the European championships and Olympic qualifiers on the horizon, on top of first year exams. Lily was hospitalised with meningitis. With the disease being potentially fatal, Lily was extremely grateful that she recovered, but as soon as she was discharged, just like any passionate sportsperson, her mind was straight back onto hockey. After a few days at home to get back onto her feet, Lily was back with the GB squad, being monitored 24/7. Lily makes it clear over the course of the interview how excellent the GB staff are and how well they have looked after her. The only lasting effect of the disease was fatigue: “It was so embarrassing, I had to take little rests going up the stairs!”.

Leading up to the Olympic Qualifiers, Lily was not in the shape she wanted to be in. However, despite the fatigue, Lily was still picked for the Olympic Qualifiers team; An opportunity which furthered the development of her game: “I had to reassess my game, I had to be a bit more clever with what I did. I had to think and be one of those clever players.”

Less than 10 months after getting struck down with meningitis, Owsley broke her collar bone whilst playing against Australia, with 4 months left until selection for the Olympics. Owsley seems to have an incredible way to turn anything into a positive, as 3 months of intense rehab allowed her to push her body to the limit, as she didn’t need to be fresh for training or matches. This allowed Owsley to be ‘super fit’ before her return to matches, squeezing in 2 games before the selection for the Champions trophy squad, which then led into the Olympics.

11 days before the games, Owsley and her team mates flew out to Rio. It was important for them to be acclimatised to their surroundings. They needed to train in the environment, to get used to the serious winter humidity and the mosquitos. The team felt faster, stronger and more ready to face the some of the world’s best after every training day there.

The team was under a lot of pressure, which Owsley says was driven by themselves. They had one focus: to keep winning games to get to the gold medal. The team played on both the first and the last-day of the Olympics, so it was important that they didn’t get carried away with the success of team GB. But the winning feeling brought back into the athlete’s village only encouraged them to add to GB’s gold collection. All the other members of team GB were completely behind the Hockey team throughout the tournament, especially once their own events had finished.

After each victory, the team would allow themselves 10 minutes of celebrating, before the focus was put onto the next game. All the preparation and focus proved to be worth it, finishing top of their Olympic group, followed by convincing victories over Spain and New Zealand, with a shoot-out final victory over the World’s number one team; The Netherlands. Owsley could find only one word to describe the games: “Perfect.”

Due to the team’s social media ban, Owsley had no idea of the support and excitement back in the UK. Her first taste was on the plane back, where there were newspapers laid out with GB from the front page to the back, with GB hockey often being the highlight. Owsley could not believe how Hockey was being perceived and how much it has now grown because of the games. The most important goal GB had throughout the tournament was to inspire the future. This was the one of the main reasons the team were in the Queen’s honours list, with Owsley being awarded an MBE: “I feel so proud to have an MBE, but part of me says: I’m a 22-year-old student! It seems a bit mad! Can I pop it on the end of my exams?!”

After creating history and being a member of the first Women’s Hockey team to win Olympic gold, you’d expect life to change a fair bit. For example, Sam Quek appearing in last years ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here’ which brought her endless amounts of fame. But this wasn’t the case for Lily, just yet, as she was due to go back to university in September: “You can’t really glam a lecture up that much!”

Not only was university life the same after their success, but re-trialling began soon after the games for the next 4-year cycle, which was selected in January. The new players trialling were in their prime, not leaving much time for Owsley to rest on her laurels.

Now life has calmed down again since the Olympics, Owsley has been able to compete in BUCS again. Owsley is clearly a huge fan of the university competition and she is very proud to announce that she has only missed one game so far. Despite being away, with 2 other Birmingham team mates for the Quarter Final she was very confident that the Birmingham side would get through for her to return for the semi-finals: “The Birmingham girls are so great, this year I’ve been able to spend so much time with them, and I love BUCS!”

Although Owsley can play in the BUCS championship, she has a very different life to most BUCS players. Leading up to Rio she did not touch a drop of alcohol, and she missed every one of her friends 21st birthdays. Owsley herself understands that what some see as a sacrifice isn’t for her, as it is a choice – to try and succeed – something which her friends are very understanding of, which helps her love of Hockey continue to grow.

After the games, though, whilst Owsley had a little time to relax, she discovered the normal life of a student: “Oh my god, this is what Uni’s like! I definitely made the most of it. I was literally acting like a fresher.” But Owsley is more than happy to leave that lifestyle to the side, and she is definitely ready for what hockey has to bring her over the next few years.

In the newly selected squads, Owsley (now with over 90 caps to her name) is now somewhat of an experienced player, something she has previously not been used to. Owsley is definitely up for the challenge, with the next goal for the team to overtake the Netherlands and become the world number one; this is a task that is definitely not going to be easy now that team GB have become what Owsley describes ‘the hunted’ after the Olympic success.

Owsley is confident, though, with many young, talented players coming through the ranks. It is certainly an exciting time for England and GB hockey.

Owsley has had an incredible few years, winning EuroHockey gold in 2015, as well as being awarded the FIH female rising star award in 2015, followed by Olympic gold in 2016. Looking to her future, Owsley will graduate in 2018 or 2019 and will then look to go into hockey full time leading up to the 2020 games in Tokyo. After that, Owsley is looking to do a masters in the Netherlands, so that she can compete in what is seen as the best league in the world.

Owsley’s advice for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps, or to succeed with any sport is to do you research and PLAN. Owsley recommends writing everything down. This will allow you to plan everything around training, which will give you more time than you thought you had.

“Just don’t expect it to be easy, nothing in life if you’re juggling two things are going to be easy. But enjoy the challenge.”

Want to read similar stories? Head over to Student Sport Quarterly for more!