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South African women’s senior hockey player Erin Christie says," Teaching is more than a profession, it’s a calling. As is her hockey."

A Teacher Driven By Life’s Lessons

A Teacher Driven By Life's Lessons
 

By Gary Lemke in Birmingham

Erin Christie likes to compare her hockey career to being in a long relationship. “It’s can never be all rosy, it’s not smooth sailing all the time. There are break-ups and there are make-ups. But you keep coming back and persevering and the good times far outweigh the bad.” Now 30, she is able to sit back and reflect on the ups and downs and appreciate that all the sacrifices have been worth it.

Which definitely would not have been the way she viewed life as a 21-year-old on the evening of Saturday, 18 January 2014. Having been picked to represent the South African women’s senior hockey team for the first time, her debut experience was soured when she sustained an injury in the defeat by world No 1-ranked side the Netherlands at Hartleyvale in Cape Town.

“You could certainly say that it was a baptism by fire in which I made my [international] debut,” she said as she prepared for Team SA’s opener against Scotland at the 2022 Commonwealth Games at the University of Birmingham. Team SA are in a pool that also includes Australia, New Zealand and Kenya.

“I made my debut in that match under coach Giles Bonnet, so I suppose my career has come full circle because he’s here as coach of Team SA in Birmingham and I have the same excitement that I had back then. I actually missed the whole remainder of 2014 after that first match, and missed out on the Hockey World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

“I returned to the national set-up in 2015 and have been around since then. So, while I have had a long career, there are others who have had longer ones than me.”

Christie (formerly Hunter) is a physical science teacher at Rand Park High in Johannesburg, where her students are Grade 8s to 12s. She also coaches the girls’ first XI at the school and admits that sometimes the role can be quite “challenging”.

“I find that especially after coming back from a national camp or an international event, I almost feel sorry for the girls for the first two or three practices, because the standard is understandably lower than what we have been exposed to, but the instinct is to try to expect similar. While on tour or camp, I sit down and write down drills, because we’re learning from the best coaches all the time and we’re at an international level. It’s our duty to pass on the latest trends to the future generation, which also helps them keep up. That’s where it’s challenging.”

Birmingham 2022 is her second Commonwealth Games and she was also at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) and for someone with her talent, experience and longevity, one might have expected her to have racked up more. “Glasgow [2014] and that year’s World Cup were ruled out through injury, while in 2016 a women’s hockey side wasn’t sent to represent Team SA at the Rio Olympics.

“So, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast were my first big event, over four years since I’d first been selected at senior level for South Africa. The difference between Gold Coast and Birmingham is that I was struck by all the bells and whistles. Being in an athletes’ village with all the other sporting codes, with a dining hall open 24/7, was a real eye-opener, especially for us non-professional athletes. Your eyes are opened really wide for the first time you experience that.

“The Tokyo 2020 experience was different for so many reasons. Being able to represent South Africa at the Olympics is definitely something that I will always hold close to my heart; I regard it as a massive achievement and it’s the pinnacle of any player’s career. To finally get there was such an emotional rollercoaster. We had the whole Covid-19 pandemic and uncertainties to deal with and the goalposts seemed to be shifting all the time. We lived in fear of Covid and we had players testing positive in the buildup. I’ve had Covid twice and, especially in its early stages, we didn’t know what to expect. After the disappointment of not going to Rio in 2016 there was a lot of tears about whether or not Tokyo would happen.”

Now Christie is in Birmingham as one of the more experienced players in the squad, a former national captain and a player who knows she has to do more than simply pitch up and play. “Giles was reappointed national coach in March and he has reignited the fire inside of me. It’s fair to say that I was feeling a bit stale and not loving my hockey career that much, but since he has been back it’s like a new beginning for me.

“We have to be realistic about what our chances are here at these Games, though. He has only had a few months in the role again, which is not a long time to prepare us. But he’s been upfront about what he wants to implement and he has accelerated the process. We are confident that we can produce some exciting hockey.

“Giles has added a different dynamic to the squad and he has shared with us his plans for the next 24 months. I’m loving playing again. I’m looking forward to the tournament starting for us on Friday to see what we can do.”

And in terms of expectations from Team SA at these Games? “We want to be able to set a standard for ourselves and meet that standard. We see our potential, we know what we’re capable of. A lot of times in the past we have not been able to display our true potential. While we are realistic about where we are in the process, we have high standards. We do want to give an account of ourselves and walk off the field and be able to say we’ve played our hockey. I want to be a big part of that.

“As one of the older players I know I have to lead on the field and be the example for the rest of the team, the catalyst to spark the standard that this team wants to meet. These are not my first major games. I want to enjoy it and, while on-field performance is most important, I want to take some moments of being here, enjoy the opportunity and keep reminding myself of how privileged I am to be here.”

And after these Games, it’s back to school, where she knows that there is some “extra marking” for her to do to help pay back those teachers who are filling in for her. But, even as a teacher, she will never stop learning, nor giving back. Teaching is more than a profession, it’s a calling. As is her hockey.

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