Quek, 27, arrives at our studio in east London looking relaxed: it’s her week off. Straight off the back of three weeks’ intense physical training with the Great Britain hockey squad, and before she heads back up north to The Wirral for family time, Quek’s here to do something she finds far more fun than leg day.
“My mum always said that since I was small, I’ve been in front of a video camera or pretending to sing with a tie round my head,” she says. “I’ve always loved that kind of stuff. I did a bit of media work after 2012 and really enjoyed it.”
Good news for Quek; the four-year cycle that dominates the lives of many athletes has hit Olympics time again.
After the heartbreak of missing out on selection for Team GB at London 2012, Quek has since become a key player on the international team. She was named player of the match in the final of last year’s European Championship, which England won on penalties after coming back from 2-0 down against the Netherlands (who are class).
As Team GB is largely made up of English women, England beating the world’s number one team a year prior to the Olympics bodes well for improving on London 2012 bronze in Rio come August.
“We’re training for gold with our programme,” Quek says confidently. “The only thing that we expect from each other is gold.”
There’s a matter-of-fact belief in the way she speaks about the squad’s preparations for Rio. She’s not cocky, just assured that they’re doing all they can to get it done in Brazil. They train at Bisham Abbey for four hours every day, on top of club commitments (Quek plays for Holcombe in Kent), and have just finished a three-week phase of high volume strength training, after which “you get home and you’re knackered, all you want to do is sleep, rest, eat”.
Quek explains that they are conditioning their bodies to be able to play seven matches in 13 days in Rio. The group stage itself has only five games, but at no point does she even consider just five games a possibility. They are going out there to win.
Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre installed a £1.2million water-based hockey pitch 18 months ago. It’s identical to the type the teams will play on in Rio, and has made their base a popular tourist destination for hockey. “We’ve got quite a few teams coming over to play us before Rio. India, Japan, Spain and Belgium are all coming over to play on it.”
They have up to six pitch sessions a week, playing full games, five-a-side games or just concentrating on set pieces and short corners. Then there are gym sessions, tailored to each individual and what they need to work on – power, speed or strength. “I’m working on my power and strength at the moment. I’m doing a lot of Bulgarian squats and hip thrusts. A typical super-set would be a heavy leg extension for six reps, then I’ll go into Bulgarian squats for about 20 reps.”
Monday is often speed day, when they bring in “speed specialists” who put them through a lot of A skips and B skips, lunges and short sprints, ranging from five to 30 yards.
Then there are “Thinking Thursdays”, which sounds like a squad favourite, when the players have to overcome a series of problems or challenges that could crop up in a match situation, like a 3-on-2 during a counter-attack. They sound a bit like the scenario modes on PlayStation football games. On top of that, they’ve got regular nutrition and psychology sessions with a bit of video analysis in between.
Weeks, days and hours are laid out with military efficiency, so Quek knows exactly what she’ll be doing on which day. “Our calendar and weeks look the same,” she says. “It’s just the content that changes. We train this way so that when we get to the Olympics, our bodies are conditioned to handle it. We’ll just be playing matches, with no heavy training in between, and our bodies will be ready for that.”
As a defender at right or left half, Quek must be able to make lung-bursting runs up the pitch to support an attack, and get back just as quickly if the possession switches. It’s a shame she absolutely hates running, really. “When I stop playing hockey, it’s going to be a nightmare to keep fit. I know it sounds silly, but running after a little white ball helps!”
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We wondered before the shoot if playing all that hockey and doing all those pull-ups makes for rough hands. But Quek tells us about the gloves that players wear on their left hand to protect them when they touch the floor. “I’ve got one really nice soft left hand,” she says, laughing, “and the right is a bit rough and exposed to the elements.”
When they get to Rio, the Olympic village will be home for two weeks. They will eat, sleep and hopefully party at the end of it, all in a purpose-built town for elite athletes. “It’s very self-contained, only the athletes can get in. You have a big food hall with every food you can think of and every athlete is there. You can just be walking round and see people from Roger Federer to Usain Bolt. Which is a great experience for us hockey players because we’re not used to that type of thing.”
Talking of that man Bolt, he tweeted a picture of himself with three of the Swedish women’s handball team after winning the 100m at London 2012. Elite athletes must need a release, and won’t this be the first summer Olympics since Tinder was invented?
Quek has a boyfriend, and so is quick to dispel the notion of a Tinder Olympics.
“You’re in close proximity to a lot of people for two weeks, so it’s not like there’s a lack of opportunities to meet people,” she explains. “Everyone’s got tags on, too, so you already know their names – it makes Tinder kind of unnecessary. Most of my teammates are taken anyway, so they’d be in a lot of trouble when they got home!”
On the hockey pitch, much is expected of them. “Team GB is quite keen for us to strike while the iron’s hot,” Quek says. Success in Rio, and the idea of shining a spotlight on the women’s hockey team, is something that excites her. “If we did well in Rio and had the chance to boost our profile, I think it can only be good for hockey. We set out to be role models for our sport, so that would be a positive thing for the young girls coming through.”
The way Quek talks about her team and all the time they spend together would suggest that they have a very close bond. After training, playing matches and travelling together, there can’t be many hours in the day when she’s not with them. Until recently, Quek even shared a house with four of her teammates.
“We are in each other’s pockets 24/7,” she explains. “When you go away on a trip together for a month, you get to know each other very well. You know if someone is feeling a bit moody and needs their space – they don’t need to say it, you just know. I’ve got some of my best mates in the team, who I’ve known since I was 15 through hockey. It’s brilliant, it’s such a laugh just being part of the team with your mates.”
In her student days at Leeds Met, playing for a club side as well as her university side meant that Quek swerved the post-match drinking culture that student sports teams are famous for. After each match, there was a “beer circle”, but Quek was already on her way to Manchester for two hours’ training until 8pm. Every so often, though, she’d catch up with them in Oceana.
“You have to be a human being,” she says. “And find a balance and meet up with your friends. People want to know you off the pitch as well as on.”
Understandably, there are no beer circles at GB hockey, but team bonding does extend to initiations for new players. “Some of us like to have a little joke around, so we might give them a bit of banter and make them collect the balls or carry our luggage at the airport. One time, one of our friends from when we were kids joined the team so we tied her to a chair with masking tape.”
While it sounds fun training every day with some of your best friends, eventually the squad must be chopped down to 16 for the Olympics (a squad which Sam has been selected for), so rivalry for places is strong. Quek says the balance between being friendly and competitive can be a difficult one to strike and things get tense around selection time.
“Before selection, you can tell there’s a bit of anticipation and people might be a bit tense and going harder into tackles. It’s good, though, because it’s the type of competition and intensity we need if we’re going to win gold medals. It’s just business when you’re on the pitch.”
First-choice players know from watching videos with the coaches that they’ve got two or three people biting at their ankles for their position, and they have to work hard to stay there.
Having beaten the competition from within, the squad of 16 then get to take on the rest of the world. Australia and the Netherlands have strong teams, as do Argentina. “Rio’s as close as [Argentina] could get to a home Olympics. Hockey’s huge in Argentina, their team are called Las Leonas and they’re all minor celebrities. So it could be tough.
“In the Olympics every match is a tough one, though” she says. “You have to be on top of your game for every single minute that you’re out there. We’ve got the talent, and we know we’ve got the right training programme, tactics and coaches behind us. All we need to do is believe we can do it.”