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Why is Team GB hockey player Sam Ward wearing a mask at the Tokyo Olympics?

Striker who scored twice against Netherlands suffered horrific head injury in qualifying for Tokyo that left him blind in one eye and could easily have ended his career

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 30 July 2021 11:49
Naomi Osaka lights Olympic cauldron as Tokyo 2020 Games begin

Team GB’s men’s hockey team have made it through to the quarter finals of the Tokyo Olympics after bouncing back from a 5-1 thrashing by Germany to draw 2-2 with the Netherlands at the Oi Hockey Stadium on Thursday.

They will now face Belgium in the knockout stages on Friday, fighting for a place in the semis.

GB’s two-goal hero against the Dutch was forward Sam Ward, whose two late strikes secured the draw.

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Spectators previously unfamiliar with the sport might be wondering why Ward plays wearing a padded domino mask to protect his face.

He has done so ever since suffering an utterly horrific accident during qualifying for these Games, when he was struck in the head by a teammate’s shot on goal during GB’s match with Malaysia on 3 November 2019.

The incident happened around 20 minutes from the final whistle, with Ward’s sides comfortably in front and was caused - at least in part, by the player’s own admission - by his being caught out of position “in absolute no man’s land”.

Hockey balls can travel as fast as 100 miles per hour and Ward was caught in the side of the head just above his left eye by the wayward snapshot, the resulting injury leaving him with seven or eight fractures to his face and a torn retina, resulting in the permanent loss of central vision from his left eye.

“I remember dropping to the floor, I remember getting into hospital and I remember looking and there was just this dent and loads of swelling down the side of my face. And then also a lack of bone structure here,” Ward recalled recently, pointing to his left temple, in an interview with the National Lottery to promote its fundraising efforts in support of British athletics.

“It was a whirlwind of emotions. The boys had obviously just qualified for Tokyo. So they were absolutely buzzing… I got taken through for an X-ray and I was coming back out and I was shouting to them: ‘Is there a hole in my head?’”

Going into grisly detail about the surgery he underwent, which required four plates and 31 screws to repair his skull, Ward explains: “There’s no real nice way of saying this, but they have a few different routes to repair such an injury, basically, and unfortunately mine resulted in an insertion from here [pointing to the base of his left ear] over to here [the centre of the right side of his skull] where they basically peel back your face and basically put plates and screws in it.”

The 30-year-old from Leicester, who plays for Surrey’s Old Georgians at club level, also speaks movingly in the interview about his difficult recovery period, including the moment he returned to hospital 10 days after being operated on to discover his partial loss of vision would be permanent.

“Finding out you’ve lost central vision in your left eye for life was probably the toughest time, and I remember walking out of there, ringing my dad and just crying my eyes out,” he says.

Sam Ward of Team GB celebrates after scoring against the Netherlands

His subsequent recuperation included “dark and tough times, mentally it was pretty brutal” but he worked with a sports psychologist who helped him manage his emotional response to the trauma.

“Because we didn’t know what was going to be achievable… every little baby step was amazing,” he says. “And as long as we, through the whole process, could see that we didn’t expect to be here at the next step, it kind of kept you very level-headed and grounded.”

For Sam Ward, being part of Team GB’s squad for Japan was already a major personal victory, but now that his side have progressed beyond the group stages, he will be hoping his remarkable story does not end there.

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