Maddie Hinch has experienced something the vast majority of us will only ever dream about — receiving a gold medal at the Olympic Games.
The 29-year-old England Women’s Hockey goalkeeper put in an heroic performance in the final of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Despite being peppered with shots for much of the game, Maddie’s determination and will to win helped the team achieve the dream of an Olympic title.
As mere spectators, we understandably react with delight at the sight of our own achieving sporting glory. But what we often don’t — or indeed can’t — understand is the determination, hard work and sacrifice that is required to earn a place on an Olympic podium.
Maddie’s story is truly inspirational, and it’s made all the more special by her humility and her desire to help others achieve their dreams.
Finding hockey at school
Maddie spent her formative years on the move — the result of her father’s role in the Royal Navy. It wasn’t until the final year of junior school that Maddie was able to put down some roots in Somerset. It was here, during a friendly game of rounders, that her PE teachers noticed Maddie’s love of theatrical dives. She was told that her unique talents made her perfect for the position of goalkeeper in field hockey, although Maddie thinks the real reason may have been related to the unpopularity of the position.
Maddie’s Olympic journey had started, although at the time she certainly couldn’t have dreamt how her career would flourish. The England goalie remembers her teenage years as some of the toughest in her career.
She said: “It was a really tough journey between the ages of 13 and 18. I really struggled. I was much smaller than most goalkeepers, and my coaches were concerned that this was adversely affecting my performance. I just wasn’t getting picked for games, so I had to stay strong and keep going.
“I was forced to change my game to make up for my lack of height. I put myself about the box a lot more than other keepers, which wasn’t all that popular at the time. But it made me stand out. This is how goalkeepers play now, though, so it worked out.”
Getting into the club system
Maddie’s style of play was ahead of its time. Goalkeepers were once coached to stay close to the goal, whereas now elite players are encouraged to make full use of their box. This approach was getting Maddie noticed, and the help of a teacher helped her to take the next step.
Maddie said: “Luckily, I had a PE teacher who was playing for Exmouth Ladies at the time. She introduced me to the national system. By the age of 15, I was regularly playing with much older girls.
“I started to earn a reputation, and by the age of 21, I was playing with Olympians for Leicester Ladies. I was now learning from the best in the game, and I was determined to improve. I was eventually given my chance with the national team at 24.”
Living the Olympic dream
While Maddie’s career thus far has already involved some memorable highs, it is her Olympic success in Rio that really stands out. She played a pivotal role in the final against reigning champions the Netherlands — making several remarkable saves throughout the game and the final penalty shootout.
Maddie said: “The Olympic Games in Rio was a surreal experience in many ways, but it was so special. We had debutants and players competing in their fourth Games, which was a good mix of youth and experience.
“I was fortunate enough to get a little taste of the Olympic experience in London four years earlier. I was invited to take a look at the set-up, which was very exciting. It was surreal to be walking around and then have someone like Roger Federer walk past.
“The run-up to the games was carefully managed. By the time we arrived in Rio, we were all very well prepared. To maintain our focus, we had to live in a media bubble. We all changed our phone numbers and came off social media.
“Unlike other athletes, we never got the chance to unwind and simply enjoy the Olympic experience as spectators. We were in competition throughout the Games, so we had to train and look after ourselves the entire time.”
An experience of a lifetime
Of course, we all now know that Maddie and her teammates were able to experience something exceptionally rare — receiving a gold medal at an Olympic Games. As the Union Flag rose and “God Save the Queen” bellowed across the Olympic park, Maddie couldn’t stop smiling.
She said: “To be honest, the ceremony was all a bit of a blur. All I can remember is how much my jaw ached from smiling. I get asked about the actual experience on the podium a lot, but if I’m honest I don’t remember all that much about it.
“In fact, the first week or two after winning the gold medal was surreal. We went from TV interviews to public appearances every day. But I had to go back to Holland shortly afterwards to play for my club, so I had to leave my teammates to it.”
Motivation is never a problem for Maddie
It is often said of some sports stars that achieving the ultimate accolade diminished their hunger somewhat. But for Maddie, the experience made her hungrier than ever for success. She uses the desire to relive those incredible experiences as her motivation.
Maddie said: “Staying motivated is very easy for me. One you have a taste of success, you get greedy for it. Also, I don’t know how good I can be. I can still improve my game, so I’m always working hard. I’ve only been playing regularly for my country for six years, so I’ll continue as long as my body allows me.”
But another motivation for Maddie is the effect she and her teammates are having at the grassroots level.
She said: “Our success inspired 12,000 young people to join their local hockey club after the Olympics. This is great for the future of the sport, as some of these youngsters could be the stars of the future.
“I never thought I’d see the day when children dress up in hockey uniforms to greet an Olympic team at the airport. We want to make the most of this opportunity, which is why we visit local clubs around the country. We want to inspire youngsters to take up the game, which is also a great motivation for me.”
Maddie’s biggest challenges could still be ahead
Maddie has already achieved one of her biggest ambitions, but she’s ready for the challenges that are still ahead.
She said: “I’ve faced big challenges all through my career, but I tend to focus on the ones ahead. It took a lot of hard work to get to where I am now, so I’m always working on staying there.
“There is lots of competition for my position, and there are very talented goalkeepers trying to impress the coaches. I can’t relax, otherwise one of these great players could take my place. That’s a daily challenge I face.
“I also find that I’m there to be shot down. When you play in my position, you’re judged on your mistakes. My game is often picked apart, so I’m always trying to improve. If an outfield player makes a mistake, they can move on almost straight away with a goal, a block or a great pass. When I make a mistake, it has the potential to cost the whole team.”
Maddie has ambitious plans for the immediate future
Maddie’s focus is on the next few years. She said: “The next big event on the horizon is the Commonwealth Games in Australia, and then it’s onto the World Cup in London . To be honest, I can’t really see beyond the summer right now.
“I do want to stick around until the Tokyo games, but I have to focus my energy on staying number one. Staying at the top requires determination, but you also need to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in your own abilities, no on else will. This is often the difference between the good athletes and the world’s best.”
Maddie has some serious advice for people starting their own sporting journey
Maddie’s story is inspiring, and it could be the catalyst for future successful careers in elite sport. But she also has some practical advice.
“If you’re interested in hockey, find your local club — it will become your family. I’d also recommend talking to as many people as you possibly can. Hockey clubs are tight-knit families, so there’s always someone ready to give you advice.
“But the best advice I can give anyone is to get out there and start playing regularly. Over time, assess your strengths and weaknesses — this will help you to work out your favourite position.
“Strangely, if I hadn’t been thrown in goal at the very beginning of my journey, I probably would have never tried it. Listen to what people around you say, as their advice could be very useful.”
Maddie Hinch is in the prime of her career. With a World Cup and a Commonwealth Games just around the corner, there are plenty more chapters of her incredible story still to play out.
What Do You Do?
I’m a full time hockey athlete. The GK for the English and British National teams
If you could have any superpower what would it be?
To see the future…pretty handy for a GK
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Who knows?! I can’t see much further past this year to be honest. I am taking things one year at the time these days. I could still be playing and pushing for another Olympic Games, or I could have hung up my pads and be on a whole other adventure entirely.