Giving it stick

When Marsha Marescia arrives in Beijing in a few months’ time and checks into the Olympic village, it will be a very different experience to what it was four years ago.

Back then the captain of the Spar South African hockey team competed in her first Games and got a taste of what the Olympics was all about.

Now, with 162 caps to her name, she is one of the most experienced members on the side and will have the added responsibility of leading her fresh-faced team into the greatest competition the planet has to offer.

”I think that there will be more pressure than at the previous Games,” said Marescia. ”But I am as excited about these Games as I was four years ago. I think I am more prepared for the distractions and attractions as a whole though.

”Apart from the sheer intensity of the competition one also has to deal with the manifold distractions that are all part of the package: the 24-hour McDonald’s, pizza and pretty much anything else you could want to eat, including an unending supply of ice-cream; being surrounded by fellow athletes from across the globe; and the general hype and thrill of taking in that you have finally made it to the pinnacle.”

For Marescia this time round it is all about the hockey. The controversy about China’s dismal human rights record, the farcical torch relay and the pollution issues are not something that the 25-year-old midfielder is concerned about.

”All of those issues make me nervous, but it is out of our control and we need to stay focused on our hockey,” said the captain. ”I am a bit concerned about the heat, but having played in it I think we know exactly what to expect.”

The South African side played at a pre-Olympic tournament in Beijing in August last year against some of the toughest opposition — Australia, China and Argentina.

”We played at the Olympic hockey stadium and it was great. We managed only to come fourth, but it was quite an experience.”

Other than that tournament, the team’s preparations have included a successful series against Ireland, a four-nations tournament in Argentina and the three-nations Spar Cup against Canada and Russia in which they emerged victors.

Still to come in June and July are a trip to Ireland and Holland and a number of training camps to put the finishing touches to their Olympic build-up.

Comparing this preparation with the build-up for the Athens Olympics, where the South Africans finished ninth out of 10, Marescia said: ”We have had more international competition leading up to these Games and I think our training programmes have been just as intense. On the field I think that we are strong when we move the ball. The fact that we get along so well off the field I think is also a strength.”

The squad has 24 members but this will be trimmed down to 16. Included in the 24 are four players who have Olympic experience. Apart from Marescia, they are Kate Hector, Jen Wilson and Fiona Butler.

This relatively inexperienced team remain realistic in their expectations. ”We hope to finish in the top 11 [out of 12],” said Marescia. ”Positions eight to 11 are realistic, I think.”

It might not be as glamorous a goal as reaching for the podium but, as Marescia pointed out, the experience is likely to prove invaluable to the team four years from now when they can perhaps set their sights a little higher.

Zimbabwean hockey gold

Zimbabweans have not had a lot to celebrate in their Olympic history, apart from Kirsty Coventry’s sterling performance in the pool in Athens in 2004 and one special display by an inexperienced group of hockey players 28 years ago.

In 1980 the newly fledged women’s hockey side from Zimbabwe was invited to the Olympics in Moscow, after the United States-led boycott of the Games left the Russians with no opponents in what was to be the first women’s hockey competition in Olympic history.

Apart from occasional challenges against South Africa, the Zimbabweans had not played at international level (and never on Astroturf). They had just three weeks to scramble together a national kit before hopping on a plane — usually used for transporting meat — for their journey to Moscow via Lusaka, Luanda and Bucharest.

Once there they surprised everybody, including themselves, emerging as the first Olympic women’s hockey champions.

”We did not think for one minute we were going to get that far. It was absolutely amazing. Unless you’ve actually been through that experience you can’t explain that feeling to anybody,” said Sandy Szechenyi, who was one of the members of the team, with her twin sister, Sonia, now married to former Springbok Ian Robertson.

”You’re just on a high and you think: ‘I’ve actually won a gold medal at the Olympic Games.’

”You know how many people dream about that? Just going to the Olympic Games was a dream in itself, but to go there and win a gold medal — that was fantastic!”

The current South African women’s squad: Tarryn Bright, Cindy Brown, Butler, Dirkie Chamberlain, Lisa Deetlefs, Farah Fredericks, Leslie-Ann George, Henna du Buisson, Hanli Hattingh, Hector, Taryn Hosking, Kim Huback, Marcelle Keet, Kelly Madsen, Sanani Mangisa, Lenise Marais, Marescia, Mariette Rix, Shelley Russell, Vida Ryan, Vidette Ryan, Kathleen Taylor, Wilson.

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