This interview first appeared just after the London Olympics. Rio coming very soon, thought a revisit might be in order!
As part of our series of interviews with some of the world’s top athletes from Team GB we speak to the “defensive powerhouse” of the women’s hockey team, Crista Cullen. We ask her about the decision to take up hockey as her first choice sport, about her passion for conservation, and an open invitation to Bear Grylls or the Top Gear team to go on some mad 4 x 4 lunacy in Africa (but all the name of a very good cause).
As well as being a Hockey player you were at one point interested in doing the 200 metres. What prompted the move from the 200 metres to Hockey? What was it about Hockey that you found irresistible?
I think what happened was that I had a choice on one day. I had trials for the 200, internationally, and then also, international trials for Hockey which fell on the same weekend, so I decided I wanted to go down the more team sport aspect, in that I wanted to be a part of a team experiencing everything together. Having my peers alongside me was very important to me. So that ultimately helped me make the decision. Being a part of team. So that’s what pushed me towards the hockey trials.
I saw the incident where Kate Walsh suffered an accidental hit to the face, and I must admit, I cringed at that. How is she doing, and just how tough can a hockey game get?
Well, it’s an international standard match, obviously you put your body in places, positions, where you know, you’re willing to put your body in front of the ball because you want to win that gold medal so badly. So internationally, it’s very different potentially to other hockey matches. Kate is doing incredibly well. It was a testimony to her that she was able to get back on the pitch after suffering a fractured jaw. Unfortunately that’s the nature of international sports sometimes, there are injuries of that calibre and it’s just part and parcel of what we do. And being a defender you put your face into that sort of position that causes everyone to wince as the seemingly inevitable is about to happen! So yes, she did incredibly well to get back out on the pitch. It just happens sometimes.
Are there other hockey players you have an admiration for or maybe even a begrudging respect for?
Yes, quite obviously there are other players in other teams that are incredibly talented, and it might sound clichéd, but Luciana Aymar who’s in the Argentinean team got world player of the year several years on the trot and she’s an unbelievable player, she may not score lots of goals, she does score them, but it’s her ability to carry the ball and commit huge numbers of people, and then lays it off to other players who are in acres of space, in order to score the goals. I think she’s an incredibly talented athlete and she’s done very well for Argentina.
You’ve got a Business Studies Degree from Nottingham Trent University, just wondered what sort of business would you like to run and are you close to perhaps realising that?
Well, honestly, I haven’t really thought about exactly what it would be yet. I would love to run my own business one day I just don’t know exactly what yet. I have a number of ideas I’ve sort of been playing with, we will see what the future holds! I’ve done a lot of work in marketing, and that’s because I needed the flexibility around my sport, so marketing tended to be the one I was more able to do project based work away from having to actually go into the office, and I was able to do that in and around my sport. So for the last three years I’ve been working on a marketing team for a company called Sports Recruitment International, based in Farringdon, so that’s been really cool, I’ve got a little bit more experience. I think you’re sometimes a bit naive being an athlete, funding isn’t enough to live in London, and therefore you have to be capable of financially supporting yourself. And also you could sustain an injury such as a cruciate ligament and it’s over for nine months or whatever and you’ve got to find a way to make ends meet. A bit of both really. But yes, ultimately I’d like to run my own business, there are a number of opportunities out there. Be the next David Attenborough, travel the world and talk about animals. That’s something else I’m hugely passionate about. I guess the future is “wait and see what happens” really.
The interest in animal conservation came from living in Kenya?
I live on a sanctuary / ranch. It’s still home. My whole family still lives there. I’m actually going back there in about two weeks. Animals have been my life growing up, and I’m hugely passionate about conservation, and actively doing a lot for it. So that’s where my passions lie. Ultimately when I do end up back at home in Kenya, that’ll obviously be a part of what I choose to do. Charities such as the rhino ark etc are hugely inspirational, if we are to protect some of the wild habitat of this world we have to act now!
You sort of answered the next question I had about it being common for Athletes to also have jobs, but how hard is it to balance all of those commitments?
Well it’s obviously easier when you’re further out from the Olympic games, so 2009 / 2010, I was able to do the two day a week at work because we were training three times a week. But even on the two day a week work schedule it’s still difficult because you have gym sessions early in the morning. So I’m in the gym at 5:30am, get my session done, and then I’m either running or something after work in the evening. And in London you work from 8:30 till 6:00 maybe 6:30, so then you’re running in the evening. So yes, it’s a difficult lifestyle to have because you obviously don’t have any time to do anything else at all, and of course you’re tired from your training, because you’re training as a squad on the pitch for three days a week, to then do your full days work, and training. It is hard. But you do have to financially support yourself. I was wanting to get on the property ladder, I was wanting to come out at the age of 27 with some things that other 27 year olds have. So I decided to buy a house and take that risk, and I have to work as a consequence of it.
You like your Kite Surfing, your water skiing, and you take part in the “Rhino Charge”, would it be fair to say that your team coach probably gets a bit stressed at some of your hobbies and activities?
I’m sure he probably worries whilst I am back home in Africa with what exactly I’m getting up to, and there’s almost a sense of relief when I come back in one piece! But that’s me, that’s my lifestyle, that’s the way I’m built and that’s who I am. And I’m sure he wouldn’t change it for the world. I do have that adventurous streak, and as I said, I’m passionate about conservation and the “Rhino Charge” is a testimony to that. It’s just the most amazing cause, raising money to protect huge sanctuaries of Africa that pure human encroachment is taking over these habitats for the wildlife. So they’re frantically fencing, and we’re raising funds to try and fence these areas to protect them, so I’m hugely passionate about the cause. It’s an amazing event.
It uses off-road vehicles doesn’t it?
Yes, it’s a 4×4, well, we’ve got a modified 4×4 vehicle, and then you’ve got fifteen check points that you have to get to throughout the day through some of the hardest terrain you’ve ever seen. And you don’t find out that terrain until the night before. You get started on a certain checkpoint and there are sixty five other cars entered, and it’s the most direct route. So it’s not the quickest, it’s who goes the most direct between all the check points, and it pulls in all of the data from GPS tracking. They have gauntlets in the way, and you have to make the choice as to whether you lower the car into the gauntlet, or you go around it and take the extra points because of course you’re travelling further. It’s a really exciting day! It’s just the most amazing event, and as I said, such a great cause too.
I’m surprised you haven’t invited the Top Gear team since it sounds all very Jeremy Clarkson like!!
I think that or someone like Bear Grylls would be amazing to get them out there and supporting that cause. That would be unbelievable to get them involved!
Getting back to the Olympics, how did it feel to walk out in that opening ceremony?
Oh, you know, the opening ceremony was just stunning. It was just amazing. You walk out, there were all these flashes of light, the stadium was so full, you just can’t describe it. As an athlete it’s such a privilege, to walk out in any opening ceremony let alone your home Olympics opening ceremony. I made a conscious effort this time though, because last time I carried my camera and I was filming the whole time in Beijing as we walked out, and I thought to myself “Well I got some great footage, which I never look at, and I was looking at my camera the whole time”. So I decided to literally put my camera away and just take in the whole experience, which was mind blowing walking out and seeing what they did with the opening ceremony, and the closing ceremony. It was such a brilliant success. For all the skeptics out there, it was so great they did so well.
A lot was said about the support from the fans during the Olympics, just how much of an impact did they have on your performance, and were there perhaps things that caught your attention?
Well, we’ve never played in front of 16,000 fans before all shouting for us, so that was a pretty unreal platform to perform from. It’s weird though because you pick out certain voices, people you know. When my brother finally arrived, it would almost go silent, and I could hear him shout. It’s just very weird, it makes you feel so warm, with everyone willing you to do well. I’ve played in front of big crowds in countries like Argentina where you get the ball, and it’s “Booo”, because they’re obviously cheering on the home team, but it was just a constant echo of noise. Typically British, who would normally be quite quiet crowds, but what we experienced at the Riverbank Arena, was people, adrenaline fueled, so behind us, it was an extra man on the pitch. It gave you an extra lift or push. You’d win a corner and the place would literally erupt. It’s not even a goal, and everybody was on tenterhooks. It was just the most unbelievable atmosphere. It was electric, it was so cool, it was just amazing to play in front of.
Yes, I think you got caught up in it too! The penalty corner, and you smashed that shot in against Belgium, your celebration reminded me a bit of Stuart Pearce. Total commitment, pride and passion, but which for you were the most memorable?
Hmm, I think I can give you both the positive and negative for that. The negative one was obviously us going out in the semi finals in the way which we did, I think that was incredibly tough circumstances. I think the second goal was slightly controversial, and that was quite a hard pill to swallow in a semi final. There were a lot of people after that match who thought because of the way we lost it was so tough, they’d almost written us off. I remember having a press conference afterwards, chatting to the media, and they were asking questions like “So, do you think you can turn it around?”, “Do you think you have a chance of getting a medal?” and I just turned around to them and said, “I know my team, and I know they will fight with every ounce they’ve got, and we will go home with a medal, under no circumstances are we leaving without a medal”. So in some ways that was one of the hardest moments, and yet that was one of the most defining, proudest moments too. I knew that even with everything we had been through, all those emotions, that it was going to be so tough for those twenty four hours, I knew that the Kiwis really had a fight on their hands. We wouldn’t give up. So we ended up with medals around our necks, that’s what we went out and demonstrated the type of resilience that our team has. It’s a credit to every single one of those girls who stood on that pitch having had that emotional roller coaster, to then come out and put in a performance of the calibre that they did to win that bronze medal, it’s something to be really proud of.
You can find out more about the awesome Crista Cullen here: www.cristacullen.co.uk
Photos courtesy of GB Hockey/Ady Kerry