Ben Hawes: 'Bionic Ben' is ready to turn mettle into gold

Hockey player tells Sue Mott how he's overcome awful injuries – and the insertion of metal plates – to push for London 2012 glory

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jessica Ennis may have a rival to be "the face of London 2012" after all. The Great Britain hockey player Ben Hawes has a fascinating face in his own right, not least because it is packed with titanium from two different accidents that shattered two different cheekbones on two separate occasions. One mishap would surely have been classed a misfortune, but two looks like carelessness.

When he captained the GB hockey team in Beijing, he was known to the newspapers as "Bionic Ben", so enthused were they about the metallic aftermath of his first incident in 2007.

"It was a pre-season friendly and just a case of bad timing. As I was turning with the ball, an opponent came in on the blindside and smashed his forehead into my cheek. I went down and knew it was a fairly hefty hit. But when one of my team-mates took me to A&E, a junior doctor said it was just heavy bruising and sent me home. The next day I saw hockey's doctor who took one look at me and said: 'You've broken your cheekbone.' I had. In six places and fractured my eye socket."

He was fortunate in one way. (Please feel free not to read this paragraph if you are eating breakfast.) Reconstruction often involves patients having an incision from ear to ear across their hairline and the skin of their face peeled back to reveal the stricken area. Hawes' consultant made a more modest double-pronged approach via his mouth and forehead. "It wasn't very comfortable," he said with the understatement in which he specialises. "But I am more squeamish than most. I can't watch Casualty... for many reasons."

Nine months after the Olympics, he was in hospital again, under the same surgeon, having a second titanium plate inserted in his cheek following a hockey ball's freak deflection during a match he was playing for Surbiton. "I was a bit away with the fairies at the time, so I carried on playing. But afterwards I thought: 'I recognise this pain.' Sure enough..."

That ought to have exhausted his lifetime's supply of bad luck. But apparently not. A long-term ankle injury (ruptured ligaments) kept him out of international hockey for nine months and on his return this summer he found he was both mentally and physically off the pace. "It was worse than being injured. Getting back to the playing and discovering the game had moved on. It was my lowest time. Not depressing so much, as intensely frustrating. I couldn't do the things I'd done before. I just wasn't physically able. I knew I was better than this.

"Meanwhile the squad had grown. A lot of younger guys had been drafted in and there is huge competition for places. So I decided I'd have to work really hard. I've just had my best ever set of fitness results, including three personal bests, and being selected to go to New Zealand for the Champions Trophy against the top international teams in the world [the tournament starts on Saturday] was a great step for me."

Hawes represents a cohort of athletes who are balancing on a knife edge as the Olympics approach. Many have spent years – in his case 10 – channelling their entire life through the needs of elite sport. For all of them, a home Olympics represents the Holy Grail. The essential cruelty is that many will fail and only find out at the final selection hurdle in June. Hockey's head coach, Jason Lee, just shrugs and offers one word in exoneration: "Sport." The athletes, too, understand that they have to be in it to win it. The only alternative to the suspense is to walk away now and none of them would be mad enough to do that.

"Everyone's in jeopardy," acknowledged Hawes, who will turn 32 on the first day of the Olympics next year. "We're all very aware that a 28-man squad has to be cut down to 16 Olympians by next June. You can never relax, never let your standards slip. Every training session we're followed by GPS and videos. There's no hiding place." This explains his relief at being selected for the Champions Trophy, a major world-ranking tournament.

For Hawes, who represented his country at the Junior World Cup in 2001 and who has been part of the set-up ever since, maybe his luck – his spectacularly bad luck when it comes to titanium implants – is changing but he is resisting the urge to celebrate.

"Most people who know me will probably tell you that I'm not the most outgoing, cheery personality at the best of times. The fact is, this is sport. No one knows what's going to happen in two weeks' time, let alone six months. I just don't want to have any regrets that I didn't put everything into being at London 2012. On the pitch, not in the stands."

Follow Team GB in New Zealand at:

When we were kings: Glory boys of '88

The Halcyon Days

Britain won gold at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, for the first time in 68 years.

They beat West Germany 3-1 in the final thanks to a goal from talisman Sean Kerly, and an Imran Sherwani double, assisted by the goalkeeping heroics of Ian Taylor. After the second goal, BBC commentator Barry Davies asked: "Where, oh, where were the Germans? And frankly, who cares?"

Kerly, the top scorer in the event, earned brief fame for his hat-trick in the semi-final against Australia, including a last-minute winner. He was seen as the Gary Lineker of the hockey world.

Olympic results since 1988

1992 Barcelona Lost 2-1 to Spain in the fifth-place play-off.

1996 Atlanta Beat India 4-3 in the seventh-place play-off.

2000 Sydney Lost 4-0 to Germany in the fifth-place play-off.

2004 Athens Lost on pens to South Africa in ninth-place play-off.

2008 Beijing Beat South Korea 5-2 in fifth-place play-off.

Will Unwin