Anne Panter: Not so jolly hockey sticks

She has returned the GB women's team after a career-threatening series of injuries, including an horrific car smash

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The Independent Online

How and why hockey?

I am from Wellingborough and was encouraged by an enthusiastic PE teacher. I started playing for my local club, Kettering and went on to Leicester when I was 16. I am still playing for them now. I played all sorts of sports at a reasonably high level including athletics, as a 1500 metres runner, but hockey was the one that grabbed me most as I got into my teens. I played for England Under-16 when I was 13 and from there it progressed quite quickly. I went to the Under-21 World Cup when I was 15 and got my first senior cap against China in Macau at 18. I went to the World Cup later that year in Perth, Australia. Now I have 50 England caps and 36 for GB.

What happened in your accident?

I was in the GB squad in 2003 preparing for the Athens Olympics but at the end of the year I had a car crash on the M4. I was at the back of a really nasty pile-up. The car behind me ended up with its wheels on the roof of mine. I smashed my ankle up badly, damaging all the ligaments. I needed two operations and was out for about 18 months.

That wasn't the only injury setback?

No, I have just returned after two-and-a-half years on the sidelines during which I also underwent surgery to reconstruct a ruptured post-cruciate ligament in my left knee which involved a hamstring graft from both legs. This time last year I couldn't walk never mind play hockey. I tried every rehab option. I couldn't swim, I couldn't bike, I couldn't jog, I couldn't do anything. I was constantly in pain. I was 25 and I had a knee I couldn't live a normal life on, let alone play international sport. Most people seemed to think I would never play at that level again.

How did you recover?

I came off funding at the end of 2009 so I took a marketing job with Cadbury, working on their 2012 marketing campaign which kept me in touch (she is a maths and economics graduate from Nottingham University and hopes to make a career in finance when she finishes hockey). Something had to be done, so I had an operation by a brilliant surgeon, Andy Williams, in February 2010. It meant three months in a leg brace from my hip to my ankle. When it came off, I could see that the muscle had actually disappeared and my leg was concave. It was then it really dawned on me how far I was from playing a game but my strength and conditioning support was fabulous. The plan had been for me to be back in squad training in February but the first session I joined in, I tore my hamstring which out of all the frustrations, was pretty sickening. But thanks to my strength and conditioning coach and physio I managed to start playing again.

You seem slightly built for a defender

I always get laughed at for my skinny legs but I don't ever get any bigger, however many squats I do. If they ever invent a muscle transplant, I'm up for it. In the system we are playing now, I am more in midfield.

What most appeals to you about hockey?

The speed and variety of elements. You need to be strong, to be fast and have endurance. You can go out every day for a year and practice something different. You can have a player who has an absolutely beautiful hit and can play 75-yard passes with complete precision and you can have others with the skills equivalent of [Lionel] Messi in football.

What does 2012 mean to you?

The Olympics are the absolute pinnacle in hockey. Competing in Beijing where we finished sixth, was a good first experience. I remember when Holland won the gold, I thought 'that's what I want'. I fell in love with the Olympics when I watched the 1992 Barcelona Games, the most magical sports event ever. Even if I wasn't a hockey player, I'd still be excited about the Games coming to this country.

Any other sporting interests?

I love watching rugby. I support Northampton Saints.

It's a long road from St Trinian's to the Olympic Park

The icon "It is hard to look beyond Kate Walsh, our captain," says Anne Panter. "She is the most fantastic leader.

"I've known her since I played with the Under-21 team. To have held her captaincy for eight years and to have got better and better is phenomenal.

"She has the true respect of all the players. She will shout at you when necessary but she drives you on and sets standards. She is the most professional athlete in the squad."

The coaches Hockey is one of only three of the 26 Olympic sports – boxing and shooting are the others – with all-British coaching set-ups. The men's coach Jason Lee, 41, a former Olympian, says he will be stepping down after 2012. Danny Kerry has coached the women's squad since 2004, his players securing several European, Commonwealth and World Cup bronze medals. The assistant Karen Brown, hockey's first female international coach, is Britain's most capped British player (355), competing in three Olympics, winning bronze in 1992

The image Forget the Belles of St Trinian's. The Belles of Bisham are dedicated full-timers, with the accent on professionalism. To suggest otherwise invites a firm rebuttal. According to Panter: "The game has changed dramatically since I started. Now the emphasis is on speed and power as well as skill. The levels of fitness are amazing. We are the most athletic squad in world hockey."

The venue The 16,000-capacity temporary arena in the Olympic Park will be moved to Eton Manor after the Games and downsized to 3,000 seats as a permanent hockey home. The synthetic grass pitch is a first-time blue, with a pink surround, to make it more TV friendly. It will also be used for Paralympic football.

The prospects The women's medal hopes lookbetter than the men's, having gone from seventh to fourth in the world in two years. Argentina, Holland and Germany are the biggies to beat but Panter is sanguine: "Gold is not unrealistic as we believe we can beat any team." Especially at home.