Tokyo 2020: ‘Going to Olympics with your other half is incredibly special’

Sarah Jones and Leah Wilkinson
Sarah Jones and Leah Wilkinson have been together since 2014.

Wales and Great Britain hockey players Sarah Jones and Leah Wilkinson say they cannot wait to go to Tokyo 2020 together after all but giving up hope of ever reaching an Olympic Games.

The couple played for Wales together for almost fifteen years before both got onto the Great Britain programme.

Now they have been included in a 16-strong GB women’s hockey squad for Tokyo.

“It’s just a bit mind-boggling,” Jones told BBC Sport Wales.

“There are little moments when someone will say you’re going to be an Olympian or you put on the Team GB shirt and you think ‘how did that happen?’.

“It’s now difficult to imagine doing the whole thing without Leah, if I’m honest. Because she’s been there throughout my whole Welsh journey and for the last two years of GB.

“So it’s a very big deal to be going to an Olympics but to be going with your other half is incredibly special..”

The pair – who have won a combined 265 caps for Wales – are the first Welsh women selected for an Olympic Games since Sarah Thomas in 2012.

Dreams can come true

Both players had trials for Great Britain in 2017. Back then only Jones was successful, while Wilkinson missed out.

So as Jones made her GB debut and established herself in the squad, Wilkinson carried on with her day job – teaching history to sixth form students at a school in Epsom.

But two years later, just weeks before the Olympic play-offs, Wales captain Wilkinson was offered another chance and grabbed it with both hands.

After helping Great Britain qualify for Tokyo, she was offered a full-time contract and opted to take a sabbatical from teaching.

Wales’ most-capped international athlete admits though she thought the chance to go to an Olympics had gone.

“A hundred million percent, yes!” she said.

“It’s been 17 years since I got my first Welsh cap and it wasn’t until I was 32 that I got my first GB cap. I definitely did give up hope to be honest.

“This opportunity’s incredible. It just shows if you keep going, keep trying your best and keep playing as hard as you can and training, even when you have no hope, it really can still come true.”

Now the couple – who got engaged in 2019 – travel together to GB Hockey’s elite training base at Bisham Abbey four days a week.

They can concentrate entirely on their training, strength work and recovery. Though Wilkinson chooses to still teach one day a week.

Their current programme is a far cry from the setup in Wales. A programme that in recent years has punched well above its weight but whose athletes must train and play alongside their full-time jobs.

“You have to pay to play for Wales,” continued Wilkinson, who has played 169 times for them since her debut in 2004.

“There are funding differences between the home nations. That’s just how it is. But I don’t think any player in Wales lets that hold them back.

“Yes we did train before work, after work. But I genuinely think that makes us so strong and makes us really love our sport. Because once you’ve got up at 5am in the morning to go and run in some horrible messy field somewhere and then worked and then done gym afterwards, it makes you never take anything for granted.”

Leah Wilkinson, Rupert Shipperley, Sarah Jones and Jacob Draper
Wilkinson, Rupert Shipperley, Jones and Jacob Draper are the Welsh representatives in the GB Hockey Olympic squads.

Wales will have four players at Tokyo 2020 – with Rupert Shipperley and Jacob Draper selected in the men’s squad.

It is thought to be the most Welsh hockey players to be selected for an Olympic Games since the Wales men’s team played as a separate nation at the 1908 London Games.

“I just think it’s huge,” said Jones, who has won 96 caps for her home nation.

“I remember seeing Hockey Wales’ vision in 2016 for the next four years and one of their goals was to have four Welsh athletes at the next Olympic Games. I do remember thinking to myself – that’s a punchy goal. And they’ve gone and done it.

“It’s testament to everyone in Hockey Wales and at grassroots level. I really hope this demonstrates to people that it’s possible to be from Wales and to go to an Olympic Games.

“Go out and get it if you want it.”

The Tokyo Olympic Games begin on Friday 23 July. Great Britain’s women take on Germany in their opening match, while the men play South Africa.

BBC News

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