As she prepares to protect the title that has tormented her the most, Maddie Hinch knows she is trapped in a paradox, writes Ella Jerman.
The Great Britain women’s hockey team may have won Olympic gold in Rio, but there are no allowances for the fact that they are the reigning champions. If they fail to beat Chile in next weekend’s two-match qualifier, their hopes of defending their historic title are gone.
Tokyo dreams hanging by a thread, the pressure has never been higher for GB - and Hinch knows what it’s like to feel the heat.
She kept her cool to save all four penalties against Holland to guide GB to gold in the 2016 final, a performance that generated so much expectation that the goalkeeper felt forced to take a break from sport altogether last year.
It was the pressure of living up to her Olympic final goalkeeping heroics that caused her to walk away from hockey, yet the very thought of losing her title is exactly what is drawing her back for more.
As the Tokyo clock ticks down, Hinch is no longer one to fear expectation. An Olympic title does not come by easily, and she isn’t ready to let anyone else have it just yet.
“I personally can’t see beyond the qualification weekend right now. It’s the only shot we have of going and that’s brutal, but it’s sport and the ups and downs are part of what we do,” said Hinch, who was speaking at a TeamUp event in Marylebone, London.
“It’ll be a challenge, but I think we have to recognise that we’re not trying to live up to what that group did. We are a new team writing our own story, and this will be part of that story.
“It’ll all be about the Olympic champions trying to qualify all weekend, but we just have to let everyone else do their talking.
“I started to not like hearing it, but then I had to slap myself and say Maddie, how great is it that you can be called an Olympic champion?
“Sometimes I feel myself starting to hate it, but we should be embracing it. If we don’t win gold in Tokyo, someone else gets to walk around with that title on their back and I know I will want it again.”
Hinch is well aware you have to pay a high price for elite sporting success.
She returned from Rio only to get on a tube and see her face plastered across the newspapers. When she googled her own name, the page was quickly flooded with videos of her final heroics. Thrust into the limelight, her ten-month break turned out to be exactly what she needed to adjust.
She added: “The key is enjoying having it, but not letting it dominate us.
“At the end of the day, the life we live is incredibly mentally challenging and you realise, playing sport is the easiest part. For me, stopping a ball is easy – it’s the rest of it that goes on in my head which is difficult.
“Rio was an unbelievable moment but it also came with its challenges.
“I felt like I had to relieve that Rio final in every single game that I played. I couldn’t be faultless, I had to be superhuman.
“It took a bit of time but of course I realised I still love the game and I still love playing and I want to win medals.”
As the reigning Olympic champions, one might have thought winning medals come easily to GB women’s hockey team, but instead most were left wondering where it all went wrong.
It was blow after blow for Hinch and co, first being knocked out at the quarter-final stage of their home World Cup last summer before finishing a dismal eighth-place finish in this year’s Pro League competition.
But Hinch has had enough with expectation. While she wants to carry her team towards success, she wants to ensure they do it on their own terms.
“You see and hear all the time that we are the Olympic champions, but, there’s only five of us left from that team,” added Hinch.
“We’re also in a very different phase than the Rio group was. The Rio group had been around a bit longer and were more ready in a different stage, but this group has a lot of people who are still learning.
“As long as we go to into matches competitive, anything can happen – Rio proved that. We shouldn’t have necessarily won gold there, it wasn’t written in the stars, but we did our game right and it happened. That’s exactly what we need to do against Chile next weekend.”