Katie Mullan and Ireland's women's hockey time ready for a brighter 2021

Lidl brand ambassador and Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan is confident the Tokyo Games will go ahead next year
Lidl brand ambassador and Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan is confident the Tokyo Games will go ahead next year

FOR the last two years, Katie Mullan and the Irish women’s hockey team were riding the crest of a wave with everything they had.

Silver medallists at the 2018 World Cup in London and a nerve-shredding night in Donnybrook 13 months ago that saw them clinch their place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Irish girls had won the hearts and minds of a proud nation.

If ever there was a group of players in their absolute prime for a crack at the Olympics, it was them.

Only it didn’t happen. Not yet anyway. Like thousands of elite athletes across the globe, Ireland’s new heroes have had to wait an extra 12 months to make their Olympics debut.

Launching the international supermarket chain Lidl’s Community Works project for which she is an ambassador, Mullan reflected on how their Olympic dream was in danger of extinguishing earlier this year.

“When we went into the first lockdown the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo were going ahead,” said the 26-year-old Ireland captain and Ballymoney player.

“So we were still training all day every day to make sure come July of this year we were going to be ready – and I think the day the announcement came through the media that Tokyo was not happening this year, it brought everything to a halt.

“I know everybody have had huge upheavals in their lives but, for me, that was definitely the hardest. When you’re a team sport athlete you go through the low moments together.

“But we were at opposite ends of the country. The only people who knew how you felt were your team-mates – you couldn’t see them, you couldn’t lean on them, you couldn’t support them. The challenge itself was hard, but going through it as an athlete on your own and the best you could do was Zoom your team-mates, that was probably the hardest mental challenge.”

The days of last March were as grim as the world could ever imagine.

As our first ‘Covid’ Christmas approaches, there is more than a bit of light at the end of the tunnel following the British government’s announcement on Wednesday that a safe vaccination had been found and will start to be rolled out before the end of the month.

Olympic organisers had already given a firm commitment that the Tokyo Games would go ahead in 2021 with all associated Covid protocols strictly observed – but there is now the very real prospect that stadiums may have spectators.

Mullan, who works as a visualisation engineer and provides 3D printing for the medical profession, says she would have no hesitation in taking the vaccine.

“As someone who works in and around the medical world I think I would - and I understand the fears that people have in terms of how quickly things have been passed.

“But that is also a reflection of the amount of time, money and resources that have gone into it. Of course it’s going to be accelerated and I fully believe that no hurdles have been pushed aside.

“For me, I’ve heard some stories about ‘long Covid’ and its impact – so that would concern me more than potential issues with the vaccine.”

For elite athletes there have been many salutary lessons to come out of living during a global pandemic.

“This period of time will give us huge confidence and just an appreciation for the game,” she said.

“The seasons roll into each other and sometimes you get lost in it. But when the brakes get slammed on and you’re away from it, you realise how much you really love it and how important it is to you.

“I have played a number of times in an Irish jersey but I’m just itching to pull the shirt on again and I’ll never take another game in green for granted.”

The attacking midfielder, who has clocked up over 180 caps for her country – and is hot on the heels of team-mate Shirley McCay’s 200-plus tally – is confident the team will be even better than had the Olympics gone ahead as scheduled last summer.

“In our sport, the Olympics are the pinnacle and it’s something when you start out on this journey you commit to a four-year Olympic cycle. For me, it’s been eight years and for some of the other players in the team it’s been even longer.

“It is the ultimate goal but I think the biggest thing is having the opportunity to back up what we did at the World Cup [in 2018], and we’ve said a number of times that we just don’t want to be that one-hit wonder team, we want to go to the Olympics and compete, getting there is not enough for us.

“We’re very driven to back up what we did in 2018 and to continue to push up the world rankings [Ireland are currently 13th].

“It’ll just be for all the sacrifices, all the commitment - not just me as a player, but it’s my coaches from a young age, it’s the past Irish internationals that committed 12 or 13 years of their lives to help build the foundation which has allowed us to get to an Olympic Games and the sacrifices our families have made it possible. Hopefully it’s in a packed out stadium.”

She said: “In terms of the technical side of the game I think we’re in a much better position. Fitness-wise, we’re in a really good place. I think the break helped as there were some players going 10 or 11 years flat out.

“I would say the hardest thing was we still hadn’t spent any time together. We’ve been training in a very safe way and in a very safe environment. But we haven’t been able to sit and have a coffee together or have a meal together.”

But as the sun peeks over the horizon at the tail end of 2020, Katie Mullan is ready to dream again.

The Olympic Games are coming. So, too, is the Irish women's hockey team.


LIDL'S Community Works is giving 40 secondary schools across Northern Ireland a chance to win £3,000 worth of vouchers to invest in essential sports equipment (one school for each one of their stores in Northern Ireland). This represents a total investment of £120,000 by the retailer.

To enter, visit your local Lidl store and use the 10-digit code on your receipt to nominate the school of your choice at Entries are open now until Friday December 18.

The programme is designed to encourage young people to make the most of physical and mental benefits of sport participation, which provides young people with a boost to social skills, self-esteem and body confidence as well as a lifelong support network of mentors and friends.

Captain Katie Mullan commented: “For me, sport in school was a huge part of my growing up and I feel quite strongly about kids having the same opportunity no matter what school they go to, that they have the same access to facilities and equipment across the board. The initiative by Lidl will help in a big way.”