Simpson earns brief respite

Mike Rowbottom meets a teacher who is learning to cope with success; It's difficult when friends say: 'Can you come out?' But all you think about is getting up to train the next morning
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The Independent Online
Rhona Simpson spent yesterday in most unusual circumstances. She did nothing.

After a gruelling and ultimately successful campaign to earn a place in next year's Olympics, Simpson and her 15 colleagues from the Great Britain hockey squad have been ordered to rest.

Thus the 23-year-old PE teacher from Glasgow found herself with a rare free period in her hectic timetable. Time, perhaps, to reflect upon her goal which secured victory over South Africa in the final match of last month's Olympic qualifying tournament and ensured a trip to Atlanta next summer.

Time, more likely, to nip out of the front door of her family bungalow to visit the purpose-built stable 50 yards away which houses her other sporting team-mate, Maybe This Time, on whom she won the British Newcomers' final in the 1992 Horse of the Year show.

Simpson, who began riding when she was six, represented Britain's junior showjumping team. She competed against the likes of Michael Whittaker, Malcolm Pyrah and Nick Skelton, and has harboured dreams of competing in the Olympics for a long time. But it is only in the past three years that she has come to accept that the best chance of her doing so lies with hockey rather than horses.

A month before her equestrian triumph at Wembley she played for Scotland's Under-21 side at the World Cup in Barcelona. Soon after, she finished as top scorer in the junior European Cup. This combination of talents earned her the 1993 British Sportswoman of the Year award in the student category and a trip to Downing Street in the company of sportswomen such as Sally Gunnell.

Sooner or later, however, she had to make a choice. "If I had wanted to be an Olympic showjumper I would have needed a big sponsor and I would probably have needed to move down south to get one," she said. "It is a highly monied sport."

The fact that she could combine hockey with a four-year degree at Heriot- Watt University, where she studied to be a PE teacher, tipped the balance.

She feels she may return to showjumping. But in the meantime she believes that one sporting endeavour has strengthened another. "Showjumping has taught me to deal well with pressure situations," she said. "If you are going last, you have to get round in a certain time to beat someone. You know exactly what you have to do. Some of that transfers to the hockey pitch. For instance, I didn't feel particularly nervous during the qualifying tournament, even though it was so important."

The tournament, in which Simpson scored four goals in five games, was the culmination of three months' solid training and preparation. In that time she grew used to routine small sacrifices - no sweets or chocolates because she has to watch her weight, and no drinking, even though she likes the odd vodka.

"It's difficult sometimes when friends say: 'Can you come out? Can you come out?' But all you think about is that you are getting up to train the next morning, and you can't afford to feel rotten."

The main problem, however, was finding the time off from her job as a teacher at Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow. With the agreement of her headmaster and the support of her parents, Margaret and David, with whom she still lives, she took three months off work. The school employed temporary cover.

Now, however, she must go back to the headmaster's study with another request: "Please sir, can I have the summer term off as well?" It is not an ideal situation for someone in their first year of teaching, as she is only too aware. Her serious ambition of being a head of department is likely to be delayed.

Such career calculations have had to be made by all the other members of the British squad. Sue McDonald, Simpson's fellow Scot, for example, has left her job as a teacher. Pauline Robertson, the vice-captain, has to combine playing with a high-powered job as a manager with an insurance company. And Sue Slocombe, the coach, is as hard-pressed as any to accommodate her job as a principal lecturer in education at the University of the West of England.

"Trying to juggle this job with the Great Britain commitments is nigh on impossible," Slocombe said. Like Simpson, she will be seeking a second leave of absence next year.

Of the other seven teams at Atlanta, at least four are full-time. And all the other seven employ several full-time paid coaches. Australia, for instance, have 24 between the men's and women's teams. Britain, by contrast, have one - Maggie Souyave, the England coach.

"From time to time players do come to us and say they don't see how they can keep giving the time to the team," Slocombe said. "So far we have found ways round things. But we don't seem to have the structure that so many of our opponents do."

All the more glory to Britain, then, for their achievements thus far. Simpson's reputation, meanwhile, is flourishing, thanks in part to the Scottish television recordings of Britain's qualifying matches. "They showed the game against Holland last Friday," Simpson said. "Even some of the wee boys were saying at school that they had seen me on the telly." She had better get used to the attention. This Friday they are screening South Africa v Great Britain, complete with Miss's Wonder Goal.