I believe in miracles, says Hockey coach as fearless women hunt glory

Hosts in the zone after being put through their paces by the Marines and a stand-up comic

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some of the recent talk in the British Olympic hockey ranks has been of Herb Brooks, the man who engineered one of the greatest upsets in modern sport when his United States Olympic ice hockey team defeated the Soviet Union's Big Red Machine in the Lake Placid semi-final at the 1980 Winter Games. ABC television did not consider the game a big enough attraction to broadcast live, but when it aired, announcer Al Michaels's final exclamation – "Do you believe in miracles?" – became a national mantra.

The British men's team have been watching Miracle, Gavin O'Connor's 2004 cinematic depiction of those extraordinary events and Ashley Jackson, the cavalier of Jason Lee's men's side, whose campaign opens against Argentina on Monday, can quote Brooks.

But in many respects, it is the women whose preparations most resemble the regime of the coach, who drove his team so fiercely that they called their wind-sprints "Herbies." The women have been put through a Royal Marine course by coach Danny Kerry, who asked a stand-up comedian to run a session for them at Bisham Abbey, a preamble to them being forced to do comedy turns in front of the men's squad and staff.

"It's about making things so uncomfortable that when you line up in a gold medal game you think nothing of it," said one insider.

The women's preparations of the past four years – shutting themselves away in Bisham's Berkshire acres, training every day there and even sharing houses – has ensured that a campaign which begins against a mysterious Japan side tomorrow evening, carries vastly more expectation than Brooks' college kids had against the grizzled "shamateurs" from the Evil Empire 32 years ago.

They expect gold – nothing less – on the bright blue so-called "Smurf Turf" of the Olympic Park's 15,000-capacity Riverbank Arena, the first hockey pitch in Olympic history that is not green in hue, with a ball that is bright yellow.

Mild concerns over the fitness of forward Alex Danson and the defender Crista Cullen have receded and though the Dutch – No 1 in the world – are in their way in their pool, Britain play them last and hope to have progressed by then. There are six teams in the pool and the top two advance to the semi-finals.

Japan have played pitifully little hockey for coach Kerry to be able to assess their threat, leading him to describe them this week as "really crafty" and "unsportsmanlike". The coach said he liked to go into games with better intelligence and that "someone needs to have a word".

His tongue was in his cheek because the women and men's sides – both ranked fourth in the world, though with the women possessing greatest gold potential – have been trained to fear nothing.

The men's squad have lacked the resources to closet themselves away but in the presence of coach Lee they have an equally unflinching commander, who has presided over a philosophical shift towards an attacking game, on the basis that "simply being difficult to beat isn't going to get you to the top of the podium".

A focus on mental strength, which has seen Lee draw on Lane4, Adrian Moorhouse's consultancy, is in part based on the absence of ready money. "We are a low-resource organisation so we try to build strength within people instead of building around them," says Lee.

Consequently, the British are as well equipped for penalty shoot-outs as for stand-up comedy routines. Lee is almost peremptory about the idea, promulgated by his England football counterparts, that you can't prepare for a penalty shoot-out. "After years working on the strength of the players themselves, it doesn't matter what the pressure is. They can go and thrive in those areas," he says. "The real strength of our players is internal."

For the women, the decision to invest four years of their lives in one tournament began in the depths of the debrief after a sixth-placed finish in Beijing where, with each of them sitting on the floor in a substantial circle, talk drifted towards their desire to go full-time. The five nations who finished above them in China all had. They trained on the day one of their number was married and, needless to say, have had the bouncy "Smurf Turf", which has taken some adjusting to, installed at Bisham.

It is why the women have regularly beaten top-four sides for the past two years now, their narrow defeat to Carlos Retequi's Argentine Leonas (Lionesses) in February's Champions Trophy final being their best finish in 20 years of tournament competition. In the process, the familiar surrounds of Bisham seem to have become something of an obsession.

The women opted not to use the Team GB Loughborough University facility and, having visited the Olympic village early "to get that out of their system", as one insider describes it, they repaired quickly back to Bisham, returning to Stratford only last Monday.

So here they are, holding aspirations beyond anything Brooks ever knew.

"I would have been very happy to finish fourth. I had little hope of a medal of any colour," he said, years after his side's triumph, though more relevant to this squad was the American's simple, final motivational speech delivered when, with his American team still needing to defeat Finland in the gold medal game, they trailed after two periods. "This will haunt you all your lives," he told them. They took the gold, 4-2.

Stars of the stick: GB players to watch

Kate Walsh – defender

Nominated by Sports Minister Hugh Robertson as the potential face of London 2012 in last week's Independent on Sunday, the captain's motto is "feel the fear and do it anyway" – which reflects the ethos of the side. Her ambition is to do for her sport what Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Chris Hoy have done for theirs.

Alex Danson – striker

Look out for her superstitions. She always spins her stick 15 times before the start of a game, is always the second player on to the pitch and runs her hand along the turf before the action starts. But the 27-year-old possesses superb close control and is the finisher without equal in the Great Britain side.

Crista Cullen – defender

Brought up in Kenya and only introduced to artificial turf at the age of 14 but is now one of the world's most celebrated defenders and has been named in the World All Stars team three times (2006, 2007 and 2010.) A set-piece specialist and feared penalty corner taker, she was the team's top scorer, with three goals, in the Beijing Olympics.