Superheroes don’t really exist outside of films or comic books. If they did, Abigail Walker would be a perfect candidate to be one: When the Canterbury and Great Britain goalkeeper isn’t keeping out shots from the best in the world, she’s saving lives in her day job as a surgeon. The Top of the D was lucky enough to catch up with her during the recent Investec London Cup; I didn’t dare ask what her Kryptonite is, though.
The Top of the D: The Olympic Squad was announced to the players a week before it was made public, did you tell anyone? How difficult was it to keep quiet?
Abigail Walker: We were given fairly strict instructions that we were allowed to tell really close friends and family and no one else. I’ve got quite a big family, so I told quite a few people! It’s an emotional time, so I think our coaches realise that you need to tell a few people just to ensure you get the support you need. All our families know the system well enough that if we say it goes no further, it goes no further.
TTOTD: How has the mood in the camp been since the announcement? Has there been noticeable disappointment amongst those not selected?
AW: We had about a week to take it in, and then came back to training. Obviously some people are disappointed and emotional. Then again, you want people to be disappointed because everyone was fighting for a place. The general feeling is that the 16 who are actually playing at the Olympics are representing all 28 of us. Of course the people left out took it hard, but when we all got back to training; everyone had their professional head on.
TTOTD: The goalkeepers share a different experience to the other players, how hard has it been working so closely with your direct competitors for a place?
AW: It is always in the back of your mind that it is a competition, but I have to say Beth (Storry) and Maddie (Hinch) are two of the nicest people in the world, so it’s always been in good spirit. We are always pushing each other to get better so we look at it as “may the best man win.” Beth is one of the best goalkeepers in the world so it’s an honour to be in the squad with her, and Maddie will be an absolute superstar.
AW: I suppose so, but then, would you rather have that situation for Great Britain or against them?!
TTOTD: You are one of a handful of the non-English contingent in the GB squad, does that make a difference, and as a result, do you feel more proud of being in the 18?
AW: It doesn’t really occur to you on a day to day basis. It’s only when people point it out that you think about it. I’m very proud of representing Scotland, but because we’ve been together and really close for three years, it just feels like we’re one team.
TTOTD: How has your focus on hockey affected your job? How have your employers been?
AW: I’ve been really lucky actually; my job has been really flexible. I’ve gone from full time, down to three days, down to one day a week. It’s important to me to keep doing some work, because when I just play hockey, I find I don’t play that well. I probably get a bit too obsessive about it, so doing my job can help with my hockey.
TTOTD: Presumably with your job, you have to keep doing it in order to remain competent and keep the qualifications, too?
AW: It does keep your hand in a little bit, yes. I’m still going back to repeat a year of my medical training just to get me back up to speed, but there’s a lot of skills that transfer from hockey to medicine, especially with goalkeeping. A good example is having the ability not to be emotional about a situation. Even if it’s a sprained ankle after you’ve seen a heart attack, it’s the most important thing in the world to that person at that moment and you have to treat it that way. It’s like that in goalkeeping too, there’s no shot that you can be casual about, there’s no time you can just switch off. It’s quite transferable really.
TTOTD: There’s no safety net in either, really is there?
AW: That’s quite a good way of putting it, yes!
TTOTD: What was more nerve wracking: Your Great Britain debut or your first foray into surgery? Which did you find more difficult?
AW: That’s a really good question! <Pauses> I’d probably say playing hockey. In medicine, there are very few moments which are life or death. It might be like that on Holby City, but it isn’t in real life. Medicine is much more safety first. You check everything, and even if one check doesn’t show something, there are ten more behind it. In hockey, there are many more split second decisions. If you let a goal in, you can feel the change in mood and change in situation there and then. Medicine is not really like that. I suppose in that respect, I found the hockey more difficult and more nerve-wracking.
AW: Yes, definitely. You can foresee what’s going to happen. There are the odd occasions where emergencies take you by surprise, but thankfully they are relatively few.
TTOTD: Having trained and played together solidly for the last few years, how hard will it be for you to go back to “normal” life?
AW: We’ve actually already had meetings about how we’re going to feel afterwards. We’ve called it the “Road to Rio” [The venue for the 2016 Olympics.] It’s not like after London 2012 life just stops. The team will move on. It can be hard to accept sometimes that this happens, especially if they move on without you, but younger players come through and that’s just something you have to accept.
TTOTD: So you have discussed the fact that some will be building for Rio and some will be back to normal?
AW: Everyone’s very realistic; you don’t know how you’ll feel after the Olympics. You might win a gold medal in London, and think you want more, you might finish last and think you never want to play hockey again. You just don’t know.
TTOTD: Which player should we look out for at the Olympics?
AW: I think the player who strangely gets overlooked is Kate Walsh. When the various teams of the year are announced people like Crista [Cullen] and Helen [Richardson] are named in them all. They are superstars, no doubt, but Kate is the heartbeat of the side. She’s just….she’s never off her game. She’s so consistent and absolutely amazing!
TTOTD: How important are the squad players, both stand by and fringe members, in helping the 16 to succeed? What do you see as your role in that?
AW: The way I see it is that I’m a bit like the lead out cyclists for Mark Cavendish. You’ve got to be prepared to give everything but not quite make the last five metres. We [the squad players] need to get our team absolutely fit and firing and ready to go. Sometimes I’ll say to our forwards “I want to be the best goalkeeper in the world, so that when you play Argentina in the semi finals, you’ve already played the best, so you’ll have it easy here.” Our job is to make it as tough as possible for the 16; you know, train hard and play easy.
TTOTD: How would you like to be remembered when you retire?
AW: No one’s ever asked me that before! I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who made the most of what they’ve got. You can’t always control the outcome, but I’ve always given everything and tried to be passionate on and off the field. I hope I’d be seen as somebody who never left anything behind.
And so, with that, Abigail Walker left into the London Night. However, I believe she was getting a lift back to the hotel with Crista Cullen, not donning her red cape and flying.
The Top of the D would like to thank Abigail Walker for her time and good humour in conducting this interview.