A passage through India
Snow is on the ground in parts of chilly South Delta in mid-January. But a trio of elite, Tsawwassen field hockey players is thinking more of the oppressive heat of New Delhi, India, a stadium filled with thousands of screaming fans, and the dream of securing for Canada a 2012 Summer Olympic games appearance in London, England.
Veteran Rob Short, 39, and Mark Pearson, 24, will be in New Delhi Feb. 18-26 as part of Canada's men's team, while newcomer Sara McManus, just 18-years-old, is in the running for a spot on the women's side of the tournament which serves as a last chance shot at Olympic qualification.
All three athletes have unbridled passion for field hockey. And each of them got their basis for what is termed the "greatest game on turf" playing at the same community club—the Delta Falcons.
Part of the Falcons 'family'
"A lot of good people work in hockey in Tsawwassen. A lot of good people," says Short who plays professionally for HGC in Wassenaar, Holland. "The Falcons is a family club, and they've always put in so much effort. That has made the difference. Some of the volunteers are parents. But some are also people involved just for the love of the sport. And you've got to thank them all for it, their work and their hours."
"It's an awesome club," says Pearson who played pro for Der Club an der Alster in Hamburg, Germany for the past two seasons. Last year, the team won the German Championship Gold Medal. "I owe everything to the Falcons. I started playing in Victoria, but I moved to Tsawwassen when I was 11 or 12, so all the important years when you are developing your skills were spent on that grass pitch at Winskill (Park)."
The story is virtually the same for McManus who despite her youth has already earned 16 caps (national team appearances) for Canada.
"I think we get some good basics in Tsawwassen and from there we're introduced to more coaches and the whole club is very supportive of it (developing young players)," she says. "They like to see us go off and learn more, come back and play in the (local) league again."
McManus started playing when she was around 10-years-old. A soccer player first, she decided to give field hockey a try when some of her friends opted to pick up a stick.
"I was really athletic growing up and wanted to try all the sports," she says. "And when I realized I was getting better at field hockey I thought why not just continue on with it."
Her progress caught the eye of national team staff who picked her to play for her country's senior team at the tender age of 16.
"It was pretty young, especially for me since I am a defender. Usually there a lot more experienced players back there."
But the challenge provided McManus with the determination to continue developing—it's something she hopes will rub off on younger players at the community level.
"I think the young girls can definitely look up to us and see that it's possible, you know. It's within their reach," she says. "It's probably a bit more motivating when you see people who you know succeed. I know, especially at my old high school, (South Delta Secondary) it's good because they know me and if I can get there, so can they."
Beginnings start with an end
For Short and Pearson, the start of next month's journey to India began with a bitter taste of defeat at the end of the Pan American Games last October in Guadalajara, Mexico. That's where the Canadian men fell in the tournament final to their arch rivals from Argentina who, as Pan Am Games champions, got an automatic berth in London.
Placing second, Canada was then lumped into a group of six teams (India, Canada, France, Poland, Italy and the United States) from around the globe that have been given a second and final shot at making it to the London games.
"It wasn't much fun," says Short, who has suited up for Canada 340 times during his national team career which started in 1993 with a match against Cuba. "I think most of us agreed that we didn't play well in that final game. That was the most painful thing. You don't mind losing to a better side when you're playing a good game. But we played really poorly, and we feel we left a lot on the field. We should have done more."
Pearson echoed his teammate saying the loss to Argentina was tough to accept.
"But the bright side is we have this secondary qualifier coming up, so guys took a week or so and refocused. Now, it's (Pan Am Games) in the past, and we're just looking forward now and can hopefully get the job done in India."
But they were so close to going straight to the Olympics.
"The first half we're sitting in the dressing room leading 1-0, although we couldn't rest. We had 35 minutes left, but it sorta fell apart," Short says.
Argentina scored scored three unanswered goals to win 3-1.
On familiar ground
Then came the wait as organizers assembled the remaining teams and decided on a venue to host the winner-take-all tournament.
"It was all up in the air. We weren't sure where we'd have to go during that first week after the Pan Am Games. It was all up to who was left to qualify, and who gets to host it," Pearson says. "So, you know, when we first found out we were going back to India we knew it was going to be a hot climate and tough conditions. But we've been there twice now in the last two years (2010 Commonwealth Games, 2010 Field Hockey World Cup), so we feel pretty comfortable with the set up there and have at least a bit of an advantage over some of the other teams."
"Well, I'm used to the 'Delhi belly' by now," Short quips, referring to the bouts of digestive illnesses some visitors encounter when visiting the city. "No, we've been there and know we can beat India. So, it's going to be tough. It's a brutal road. There are some good teams in there. But I'm confident we have a shot."
Right out the the gate Canada has to play the United States Feb. 18.
"It's a good opening match for us," Pearson says. "The U.S. is a team we are familiar with and obviously have played a lot. They're good opposition and a good young team, fit. But I feel we've got a handle on them and know what they're about."
In game two on Feb. 19 Canada faces Poland. Italy is up next on Feb. 21. And in the last match in pool play on Feb. 22, Canada takes on powerhouse India.
The top two teams meet in a tournament final on Feb. 26.
"It's probably India or us," Short predicts. "Although, I guess all the other teams are also thinking they're going to be there. But we're thinking straight ahead. We're planning to beat each team as we go and hopefully meet India in the final."
While that my be the plan, executing it is not exactly a casual walk in the park.
"There's no easy games in the world," Short says. "In hockey there used to be 12 good teams. Now, there's about 30. It's really changed. The sport is really growing around the world that other teams are catching up to the top 12. And we've dropped out of the 12 for the first time since I've been around."
Currently, Canada is ranked 14th by the International Hockey Federation. India is in 10th spot.
"That's a shame," Short adds. "Based on our last few tournaments we haven't done so well."
Meanwhile, in the women’s tournament, the participating teams are South Africa, India, Italy, Canada, Ukraine and Poland. The women's final is set for Feb. 25.
South Africa is the top-seeded team with a number 12 spot in the world rankings. Canada is placed in 20th.
"It's going to be tough, but I definitely think we can do it," says McManus. "We are doing a lot with our fitness, nutrition, and mental training as well," she says. "It's kind of getting all the different elements together to succeed."
Then there's dealing with unfamiliar territory. McManus has never been to India before.
"I am told it's going to be very hot, I believe. And we have to be very careful about what we eat and drink, and make sure we stay healthy."
But the payoff if they are successful will be considerable.
especially for Canada's women who didn't qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
"Our last Olympics was a tough one," Short says of Canada's 10th place finish in 2008 when Germany won the men's gold. "We hope to have the chance to show that we're better than that. I really hope to get the chance. It would be a dream come true.
"I think we've all thought about it every day for the last four years. Let's hope it happens."
"There will be a lot of tears on that field if we do get back there," adds Pearson, who was also part of the team in Beijing. "It's been a long road now. And Rob is born in England, I've got lot of family who live there, so it would be extra special for us."