Hockey: Sixsmith elevated by striking success: Mike Rowbottom on the confident women's hockey player who continues to generate interest in her growing sport as Great Britain build for the future

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The Independent Online
THE BBC's Question of Sport - that enduring mirror of popular taste - will be calling later this month upon the effervescent, 26- year-old redhead who now stands for women's hockey in the way that Sean Kerly has long represented the men's game.

For Jane Sixsmith, this is the third appearance amid the jumpers and jocularity. Following last year's Olympics, where she contributed five goals to help Britain win the bronze medal, she has become an established sporting figure, instantly recognisable for her hair - and her flair.

But although the profile may be high for a player who now has 51 goals in 140 games for Britain and England, the rewards do not begin to approach those of other well- known sportswomen like Sally Gunnell or Laura Davies. That is the deal with hockey, where devotees are usually too busy playing themselves to watch. Never mind the players, there is scarcely any money even for the adminstrators. For example, Sue Slocombe, who coaches Britain and England, does so unpaid.

Sixsmith does not repine. A year on from Barcelona, her success has brought her a different, more challenging job, a sponsored car, a new shoe deal - and a lot of attention. Sixsmith's employers, Birmingham City Council, cannily switched her from the payroll department to the recreation division, and she is now a sports development officer supervising coaching programmes at more than 80 local secondary schools.

'The whole of PE in schools has taken a back seat,' she said. 'The teachers' strike has made a major impact. It's vital to identify and encourage young players in every sport. If I hadn't had an enthusiastic teacher I would never have played hockey.'

Sixsmith has always had sporting ability - and guts. As a 10- year-old, at the instigation of her three football-mad elder brothers, she went along to a training session of Walmley Boys.

'My brothers had been down in the pub one night with the manager of the team and had suggested me just for a laugh. I was always playing soccer with the lads at school break times - I didn't play with the girls. One of my brothers said, 'I bet my sister is better than half your team'.'

The judgement proved correct. After joining the team as a centre- forward, the only girl in the Lichfield League was top scorer for two seasons. Gregory's Girl had nothing on it - but the league forced her to stop playing with the boys when she turned 12, obliged to adhere to national guidelines.

A couple of years later, a circular to local schools from Sutton Coldfield Hockey Club requesting young players to come forward drew an immediate response from the frustrated footballer. Hockey's most celebrated tomboy, who is known within the game as Jasper - Jasper Carrott, carrot-coloured hair, bubbly Brummies - has always had a natural gift for the game. 'What distinguishes Jane is her acceleration over short distances, and her flair,' Slocombe said. 'When she receives the ball you expect something to happen.'

That is a rare gift, and it is one which Sixsmith has had to shield from time to time. 'It's instinct,' she said. 'Every coach I've ever worked with I haven't necessarily done everything that they said.' What taught her as much as anything was the experience she and the core of the Barcelona squad had at the Olympics in Seoul, when they finished fourth.

For Sixsmith - at 20, the youngest Great Britain international - those Games were a largely frustrating occasion. Despite a widespread media campaign in her favour, the GB coach, Dennis Hay, gave her only peripheral involvement. 'I had about 50 minutes' play all told,' she said.

'But the benefit for me and all the other girls who were still there for Barcelona was that we knew what to expect second time around. In Seoul we were probably guilty of star-gazing. When you are going into lunch or dinner in the Olympic Village, you suddenly see Boris Becker next to you in the queue. Or Linford Christie is sitting next to you in the laundry. 'In Barcelona, we saw less of the Olympics than people at home. When you have actually been to the Olympics before and come so close to winning a medal . . . it was strictly business for us.'

And Sixsmith and her colleagues intend for it to be business as usual next year at the World Cup in Dublin. Beyond that, she foresees a final Olympic appearance in Atlanta. Or better still, an Olympic final appearance. Where Kerly led, Sixsmith would like to follow . . .

(Photograph omitted)

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