When GB Olympic star Crista Cullen visited Long Sutton Hockey Club back in January, she did so with a bronze medal around her neck... but on Sunday the popular athlete returned as a true golden girl.
Boston-born Cullen (31) could have been forgiven for wallowing in the post-Rio glory after being such a major part of the greatest ever performance in British women’s hockey, but instead she chose to come back to the family-orientated club to once again coach the juniors there.
The gold medal winner feels a deep affinity with the club after being asked to coach the club’s youngsters in the winter and this time, keen to capitalise on the legacy of Brazil, she offered to come back to Lincolnshire.
The likeable, bubbly star told the Spalding Guardian: “When I first started playing hockey back in Kenya as a nine year-old my ambition was just to go as far as I could in the game.
“But now it’s to bring people into the sport which has served me so well. The word legacy was thrown about so much, willy nilly, after the London Olympics, but I don’t believe it really emotionally captured people enough.
“But this time the British public really joined us on the journey and we won them over emotionally... it really was a dream.
“Right from that first game against Australia, when we beat the second best team in the world, people got with us and stayed with us until the final and the victory.”
Cullen was first introduced to the Long Sutton club by businessman and family friend Martin Hudson, and when she returned on a bright, sunny Sunday morning her fondness for the club and her love of the game was evident for all to see.
Looking tanned, toned and ridiculously fit, the effervescent star took delighted youngsters through two hours of drills, skills and training before returning to the clubhouse, where she signed autographs and posed for pictures for what seemed like an eternity, before talking about her Rio adventure and answering questions.
“I’m here because it’s important to give something back to the people who supported me and to give something back to the sport.
“The impact we made in Great Britain with our success was so huge that it was important for me to get out in the country and do what I’m doing today.
“We were in our own little bubble in Rio and we really did have no idea what was going on back home or the impact that we were making on people. When we heard that nine million people had watched the final and that more than once we had pushed the BBC news back past its time slot, that really showed us how unique the experience was.
“The first we really knew of how huge it was back home was when we landed at Heathrow. So many people were stopping us and talking to us and asking for pictures and autographs, that it took three-and-a-half hours to get through there.
“Our sport doesn’t usually get that kind of exposure and we don’t usually play in front of that many people, so it was unique.”
I’m here because it’s important to give something back to the people who supported me and to give something back to the sport.Crista Cullen
Cullen actually quit international hockey after getting a bronze at her second Olympics in London in 2012, when she was just 27, but came out of retirement last year to train for Rio.
She said: “It was my biggest dream to get a gold medal and I honestly thought after London that bronze was the best I’d get. Then I got a phone call that changed my life completely and ultimately led to me becoming a gold medallist.”
Cullen, who scored to help GB draw level 2-2 with the Netherlands in the final, said: ““Finals are often 1-0, drab affairs, so to have one which eneded 3-3 and went to penalties was fantastic. And for me, to have family there and Martin and his family too was amazing.
“At no stage did I ever think we were going to lose. We knew what we were capable of, no-one tried to be a hero and even when we went a goal down in the final I knew we would get back.
“And when it went to penalties I knew we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world. I knew we were going to win it.
“It was on my birthday too! As soon as the match ended I ran over to my mum and said ‘I’ve got a golod medal for my birthday’.”
Two days earlier she had won the nation’s hearts with her bravery in the semi-final victory over New Zealand, where she played on with eight stitches after incurring a forceful blow to the head.
“I was covered in blood after the ball struck me and I knew that if I had concussion they would let me take no further part in the tournament.
“So as soon as the doctor and physio came on the pitch and asked me what day it was, I said ‘It’s Wednesday, we’re in the semi-final of the Olympics and we’re winning 1-0!’ They knew then I was not concussed, they stitched me up and I played on.”
Cullen said the training for Rio was intense and the selection was brutal and continued during the pre-Olympics Champions Trophy in London, where the team looked and felt tired and won only one game out of six. The squad of 31 was whittled down to the 16 that flew to Brazil and even then, two of the squad got no game time and so returned without medals.
“We trained full-time, every day, we had a full-time nutritionist and we made sure everything was right. It is so important to have the right meals at the right times and get your body right.
“Even when the results were going badly at the Champions Trophy we knew we were on a journey and we knew it would end in Rio.”
Cullen has represented Leicester throughout her career and said it is a family club very much like Long Sutton, with mums, dads and children playing.
“In Holland you get lots of clubs like that, but in this country it is extremely rare so that is why it is such a privilege for me to come back here.”
She says it is extremely unlikely she will continue to play international hockey as she now has other goals outside of the sport and so is unlikely to appear in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But she does think the programme and foundations in place within British ladies hockey is good enough for more success in four years’ time.
However, she added: “We now put pressure on our athletes at a much younger age so they have to choose between a university education and making it all the way in their sport. You should be able to do both.”
And what is Crista’s message for the young hockey players of Long Sutton who, in their wildest dreams, imagine themselves emulating her success? “I was their age once and it’s always been about believing in yourself and taking opportunities when they are put in front of you.
“You may have setbacks and injuries along the way but you need to keep believing. When I was 15 a coach told me I would never be good enough to play hockey internationally. When I see him now, I shake his hand and tell him it worked out well in the end.
“This is a sport where you can aspire to be an Olympic champion. It’s obviously not easy, but if you work hard at something and it is your dream do not ever lose sight of it, especially when you have worked long and hard.”