Leah Wilkinson – teacher and Olympic medalist
Leah Wilkinson – teacher and Olympic medalist
Leah Wilkinson, Head of Year 10, teacher of History and acting Head of Politics at Ewell Castle, as well as most capped Welsh sportsperson and Olympic bronze medalist, tells us about her incredible journey to Tokyo.
A slinky, the famous toy, has the ability to recoil, to spring back, to be stretched and then re-form. My hockey career has very much been like the slinky.
I love all things sport! Growing up I took part in hockey, football, judo, gymnastics, cricket, you name it, I played it at some point. My parents played hockey so every weekend I would be dragged down to the local pitch to watch. The speed, tactics and risk all drew me to the sport. At 16, I gave up everything else to focus on hockey. Aged 17, I played my first senior match for Wales. There was great pride in wearing the Three Feathers on my chest and singing the anthem for the first time, though it certainly came with challenges: missed parties, special occasions, time spent in the gym rather than with friends. Now I know they laid the foundations for my resilience.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
At 18, I started studies at Loughborough University, the sports mecca of the UK. I had now played for Wales a number of times at this point and was well known throughout Loughborough’s hockey circles. I was a big fish in a small pond, and I enjoyed it. However, with overconfidence came complacency. By the time I left Loughborough, I had taken my foot off the gas. I told myself that Loughborough was a good enough standard, but the truth was, I was plateauing.
This lesson was a hard one for me and really hit home in 2012 when I watched many of my old teammates take part in the Olympic Games, all from the comfort of my sofa. Even though my Welsh career was going well, I felt I had wasted an opportunity and was full of anger and regrets. If I wanted to play for Great Britain, I needed to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.
Even though I had less time and fewer facilities around me than I had had in the previous decade – I was now a full-time teacher in Bournemouth as well as a housemistress in the boarding house there – I did keep to my promise. I also moved to Reading Hockey Club, the best team in the country at the time. Though the travel was tough, I knew it was the right place for me to be.
OLYMPIC TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
When it comes to injuries, I have always been lucky. I have numerous scars on my face from not moving my head out of the way quick enough, but I have very rarely had an injury that has kept me out of training or matches. In 2014, I got the opportunity to trial for Great Britain. The Saturday before, whilst playing for Reading, I twisted my ankle badly. I was extremely angry and disappointed of course, but, thankfully, only a few months later I could try again. And… the story has repeated itself. The Saturday before my trial I had broken my wrist. It took a lot of strength to keep getting up in the mornings to go for a run again.
I had to wait until 2015 to get another opportunity and I knew it was my last chance. The team trained in four-year cycles so I would be coming into the squad very late on.
And… Yes. In the last minute of the last game that indoor season, a ball hit me at the wrong angle and broke my thumb. The indoor season is played between December and January: my trial for Great Britain had been arranged for the start of February. As hard as I tried, my thumb was still nowhere near better when I attended my trial. But I walked onto the pitch and told myself I can do it. After about 2 minutes I burst into tears – I couldn’t. Those who know me know I played with stitches and half-healed cuts on my face. But I could not grip my stick, I could not play my game, or in fact, any game. So, I had to take my shin pads off, gum shield out and drive home. I was devastated, that was it. My chance of going to Rio was over. Just over a year later, that squad won the Olympic gold medal as I sat on my sofa and watched again.
But I didn’t give up. Tokyo 2020 was coming soon. So I trialled again. I knew I was facing an uphill battle: the coach had told me that I didn’t fit the age profile of a player they typically offered a full-time contract to. I was trialling with 18/19-year-olds and was the oldest person by 3 years. After 3 weeks of trials, I received an email to say that I was not going to be offered a place in the squad. That was that, I thought. My dream of playing for Great Britain was over.
After a few weeks of moping around, I worked hard to change my mindset. I looked at what I had achieved in hockey. I had competed in two Commonwealth Games and played over a hundred times for Wales – only a handful of athletes had ever done that before. How lucky was I! There was something very cathartic about changing my thinking. Over the next two years, I played in another Commonwealth Games, became the most-capped Welsh athlete of all time and got to see more of the world, playing the sport I loved.
In late 2018, there was a change of coaching team within the Great Britain women’s squad – and that changed everything for me. On the 1st October 2019, at the age of 32, I gained my first cap for Great Britain, against India, at Bisham Abbey, our full-time training venue. It was the perfect location: I got to see the pride on my families faces as I stepped out on the pitch. 27 years after having first held a stick, 15 years after first playing for Wales and 6 years after my first Great Britain trial I had done it! Leah Wilkinson, 169 Welsh caps and 1 Great Britain cap. That November, I was able to go on to represent Great Britain in the Olympic qualifiers, as we secured our position at the Tokyo games. In January 2020, I took a sabbatical from Ewell Castle and started my new job: a full-time hockey player.
My Great Britain career of course couldn’t have run smoothly! Shortly after our team trip to Australia and New Zealand in January 2020, Covid-19 rampaged through the world. We trained every day like Tokyo 2020 was going ahead, even though restrictions were becoming tighter and tighter. When the Olympics was finally postponed in March, I was honestly grateful that the team now had another year to prepare after turbulent few months. We trained in bubbles of only 3 or 4 athletes for the first few weeks, were tested regularly and were only allowed to drive from home to the pitch, then straight back home. It took around six weeks until we were able to train as a whole squad again.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane that I believed that my dream might just come true! We prepared the best we could. We were fortunate to play against the USA and Germany and even without supporters, these matches felt so special. We also prepared for the Japanese heat during this time. As we couldn’t use the heat chamber, we exercised on a bike at temperatures around 40-47 degrees in individual plastic greenhouses, heated by a heater with the steam generated by a wallpaper remover turned upside down. It was hard! But it worked.
My Olympic experience was one I will never forget. The facilities were second to none, people are amazingly friendly, even the food was fantastic. As a team, we put in some gutsy performances but most of all, we found our consistency and being able to win Team GB the Olympic Bronze medal was absolutely incredible.
When I was a child, playing with my slinky I would have never thought that the very concept of this simple toy would be so influential in my life, and I certainly did not think I would be writing about one! The ability to bounce back is difficult to master because it comes hand in hand with disappointment and emotional distress. My story is not about one major event in my life that has led to me becoming a more resilient person; rather it is about lots of different events throughout my life that I have had to bounce back from. I take great pride in being able to show my Olympic medal to people – I hope that it will inspire the future and more people will work to achieve their dream, whatever it may be. Never give up on that dream, even when you think it’s gone!