SO challenging was Sarah Robertson’s first taste of an Olympic cycle, it pushed her to the verge of retiring from elite hockey entirely.
The 27-year-old first broke into the GB squad in 2014 but her first couple of years in the programme were so tough, she seriously considered hanging up her stick for good.
However, Robertson’s story is the perfect example of how fortunes in elite sport can be turned on their head and having gone from wanting to quit the sport she loved just a few years ago, she is now a regular in the GB team and has her sights set on making her Olympic debut in Tokyo next summer.
When Robertson, who hails from the Borders, was invited to join the GB set-up, it was a far cry from the life of luxury many envisage elite athletes enjoy. She relocated to London but was forced to survive on only £800-odd a month in a rented flat-share with some fellow hockey players.
Having left her life in Scotland behind, she admits she failed to recreate the set-up she thrived in back home and then came the bitter blow of missing out on selection for the Rio Olympics.
When the GB team won Olympic gold in 2016, Robertson admits she felt a real mix of emotions and in the end, came to the conclusion that her life as an elite hockey player might be over almost as soon as it had begun.
She returned to Scotland to finish her law degree at Edinburgh University and during that time, rediscovered her love for hockey.
And so, having recovered the mindset that had taken her to the top of her sport in the first place, when the call came to return to the GB set-up in 2017, she jumped at the chance.
“When I was back in Scotland for that year after Rio, I started to build myself back up again. I went back to playing for Edinburgh Uni and then Scotland and I was getting on really well in those environments,” she says.
“Then after I graduated, the opportunity came up again with GB and at that point, I felt better than ever and I had started to believe in myself again.”
Since returning to the GB team, Robertson is thriving. In November, the attacking midfielder won her 50th GB cap in a 2-1 win over Belgium in the FIH Hockey Pro League, scoring her side’s opening goal in the process.
While no player can count on selection for Tokyo – only 16 players will make the cut from the current squad of 31 – Robertson is making an extremely compelling case for her inclusion.
And while that first Olympic cycle came close to breaking her, she fully admits now, with the benefit of hindsight, that having to overcome the challenges she did has made her a much stronger person as a result.
“I’m so glad I went through everything I did before Rio – it was tough and it was character-building but I learnt so much in that time, and it’s stood me in much better stead for this cycle,” she says.
“Having that time away from GB made such a difference because now, I’ve made a conscious decision to be here.
“I had to think about if I wanted to go to the Olympics and if I believed I was good enough to get there. So making a conscious decision to be there does change your mindset because you don’t feel like you have to be there.”
Robertson’s summer was disrupted in the same way everyone’s was as a result of the pandemic. The postponement of the Olympics was a bitter disappointment and her initial reaction was utter despondency but after some reflection, she realised an extra year of preparation would improve what is a young GB team.
Getting back playing competitive hockey in the past few months has helped Robertson return to some kind of normality but it also serves as a reminder that the Olympics are edging closer and closer.
Having already experienced the agony of missing out on Olympic selection at the last moment, she could be forgiven for being obsessively focused on making the cut this time around.
But while she admits it’s not always easy to banish thoughts of securing a place in the squad from her mind, the GB coaching team continually drill into the players that the ultimate goal is performing well in Tokyo, not merely getting a seat on the plane.
“It’s really difficult but you have to just act like you’re going” Robertson says.
“Our coaches always say they don’t want people to only think about getting selected because then we might not be achieving our full potential whereas if we’re all thinking about going to the Olympics and potentially winning a medal, that means we’ll have the best team in Tokyo.
“So for now, the main focus is coming back fit after Christmas and hitting the ground running in the new year.”
The Herald, Scotland