Helen Richardson-Walsh, MBE
Posted on January 04 2017
This week's Wednesday Woman is the inspirational Helen Richardson-Walsh, MBE. An Olympic Gold and Bronze hockey medallist and European Champion who overcame serious injury to go on and win Gold with the GB team at the Rio Olympics last year.
Here's her story, how she fell in love with hockey, and why she thinks more needs to be done to increase visibility and earning power of women in sport.
Bardega: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, what were you like growing up?
Helen Richardson-Walsh: Being born the youngest of four, with three older brothers and parents with sporting backgrounds, sport has played a significant role in my life since day one. My childhood is flooded with memories of dashing from school football matches to tennis lessons, long summer days playing 'test' cricket in the garden or formulating table tennis competitions with my brothers. I loved every single minute, except when I lost!
Competition was important and I hated losing. I always gave as good as I got, and some. My mum says I was always very determined and strong-willed; I'm not sure I would've survived if I hadn't been! So I definitely recall knowing my own mind, often questioning the status quo and, in the process, testing a few boundaries at school - I was never one to follow the crowd.
Sport though always felt like my safe place. I worked hard and enjoyed being challenged, it gave me so much confidence to be myself and express my opinions, and I was never happier than when I was part of a team and having a laugh with my teammates.
Bardega: And what first sparked your love of hockey in particular, and how have you found pursuing sports as a career?
Richardson-Walsh: My family. My dad played hockey and I got my first stick when I was just three years old. I joined my local hockey club in Nottingham with my three brothers when I was seven and we would walk to the club every Sunday morning come rain or shine. It was a men’s club at the time but they welcomed me like any other.
As I got older and started to play in the 7th team, the biggest challenge was finding somewhere to change - the ladies toilet was usually where I ended up! I’ll never forget the smell of stale beer though and the buzz of the clubhouse on a Saturday afternoon as each team returned with tales of their game. I felt part of something and I’ll be forever grateful to West Bridgford HC. I love the sport, it has so many different elements and requires a lot of skill but it was the people and the team aspect that kept my interest long-term.
I find it hard to believe I’ve actually had a career as a hockey player. It was never an option when I was growing up and even though financially, it’s been a struggle, including times when we had no funding at all, I still found a way to train as if I was full-time by working some mind-numbing jobs or by coaching to earn a bit of cash. Looking back, the fact that ii's not been easy does make it extremely rewarding.
The challenges have also made me think quite deeply about myself as a person, and taught me awareness and acceptance of the differences in others. It has left me with no house to call my own and zero pension, but a desire to have a purpose in life, a passion for psychology and an appetite to help others realise their potential.
Bardega: What has been a big obstacle you have faced in your career or life and how did you overcome it?
Richardson-Walsh: Injuries, without a doubt. In 2003, I was 22 and ruptured a tendon in my ankle and was told by one consultant that I'd never play hockey for GB again. After three operations, two years out of the game and a lot of hard work, I made it back. It was absolutely devastating to hear those words, and at the time everything I'd ever known was challenged. However those two years were nothing compared to when one of my vertebral discs ruptured in 2013. Little bits of the disc were floating around my spinal cord, and with excruciating pain down my leg and nerve damage resulting in a dropped foot, I was rushed into surgery. After intense rehab I got back but unfortunately eleven months later the same thing happened, leaving me with no other option but to go back under the knife in 2014.
I found the back injury, in particular, very difficult to deal with. Firstly your back is involved in every single movement you make, so the injury itself, physically, was extremely debilitating. Secondly, the timing of the injury was significant in so many ways - it was twenty weeks away from a World Cup, but not only that, at 33 and with a new coach, it seemed like my goal of becoming Olympic Champion was all but dead and buried. I was in pain every day for months on end and my identity as a hockey player was in crisis; I was depressed and my self-esteem was at rock bottom. But I found blogging about my race to be fit for the World Cup, and subsequent failure, a cathartic process.
However it got to the point where I needed to take a physical break from the environment that was now mentally destructive so, I did some voluntary work and ended up in an untouched part of Bali, teaching some of the local kids English, which, along with some mindfulness thanks to Headspace, gave me the space and perspective I needed to revive me. With support from a lot of people, I came back stronger, and from being back on the pitch in January 2015, I didn’t miss one session all the way through to the Rio Olympics.
Bardega: You won Gold at the Rio Olympics and it seemed the whole nation was talking about the GB Women's Hockey Team, How important do you think visibility is in terms of getting more women into sports and ensuring that women in sports are paid equal to their male counterparts?
Richardson-Walsh: It’s critical, absolutely. The more visible female athletes are, and from a greater variety of sports, the more it will be routine for girls and women to play sport. It will also help evolve perceptions of female athletes, not only in girls but also critically their parents. What’s great about our hockey squad is that there are lots of us, and we’re all very different. In order to encourage a greater proportion of girls and women to identify with the athletes and sports, this should be celebrated and promoted.
In terms of engendering equal pay, visibility clearly has an important role to play in increasing value, especially when it comes to corporate sponsorship of events. However, it seems to me that it will take more than visibility because even though the women’s GB hockey team has been more successful for a number of years, and in doing so generating greater visibility, through a variety of channels with the help of our team sponsor Investec, there is still a huge financial disparity in the sponsorship of individual players, even when the female’s achievements and commercial value far outweighs that of her male counterpart. Greater visibility will help, but we need changes in attitude too.
Bardega: You are a role model for many young girls but who are your role models and how have they inspired you?
Richardson-Walsh: My mum taught me that women are strong and resilient. Paula Radcliffe inspired me to come back stronger from my injuries. Katherine Grainger inspired me to never give up on chasing Olympic Gold. My teammates inspire me to challenge myself. Serena Williams inspires me to be myself, to love myself and express myself.
Bardega: Finally, what advice would you give a younger Helen?
Richardson-Walsh: I think a younger Helen could possibly give me some advice! But I would tell my younger self to read more, be inquisitive, worry less, laugh lots (even at yourself) and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and lots of them.