Grace Stewart sets sights on Olympic gold after five-year rollercoaster

Tokyo will mark the second time Gerringong's Grace Stewart has represented her country at an Olympic Games. Photo: Hockey Australia
Tokyo will mark the second time Gerringong's Grace Stewart has represented her country at an Olympic Games. Photo: Hockey Australia

SHE was part of the Hockeyroos squad at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and has represented her country at both the world championships and Commonwealth Games previously.

But Gerringong's Grace Stewart believes the Tokyo Olympic Games will be her biggest tournament to date.

"I've been lucky enough to represent my country at all the big hockey tournaments around the world but these games will easily be the most special I would have played at," Stewart said.

"Over the past five years since Rio, I really feel I've cemented my spot in the squad and can make a difference to our results on the field.

"It's been a long journey to this point, so I'm really excited to be selected and have the honour to pull on the green and gold at another Olympics."

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As 24-year-old Stewart alludes to, she had dealt with plenty over the past five years in the lead-up to Tokyo.

She's been in and out of the Hockeyroos, was forced to train by herself (as the whole squad was) during the COVID-19 lockdown and even had a late injury scare thrown in the mix.

"In a club game for North Coast Raiders, I suffered a grade two tear of my left hamstring," she said.

"It was super annoying as I'd gone the past five years injury-free and just when the team is about to be announced, I hurt my hamstring."

This injury forced Stewart to sit out the Hockeyroos' recent Trans-Tasman series against the Black Sticks in New Zealand.

"It was frustrating to not be able to get out there and prove myself in what was pegged as our last Olympic trial," the Kiama High School alumna said.

"It was difficult sitting there watching all the other girls play well, while I had to bank on my previous training and playing performances."

Upon their return to Perth, Stewart and her squad continued Tokyo preparations before the announcement of the team.

"I don't think I've experienced a more stressful two weeks in my life, in the lead-up to that one day," she said.

"That morning was very weird, especially as I had to do my rehabilitation as normal, while the girls were out there training.

"With a group email being sent out to us at 11am, I decided to head down to the beach by myself, because I knew my housemate Mariah [Williams] was going to be in the team and didn't want to be around her if I didn't make it.

"At the beach, I was pacing up and down refreshing my emails until it came in.

"Similarly to 2016, I had convinced myself I wasn't going to make it - it would have been a devastating blow to miss out.

"When the email finally came through, I tripled checked it before excitingly contacting my partner Will and my family back home."

It was at that moment that Stewart had the chance to reflect on her journey to this selection.

"All the emotions I went through leading up to that showed just how much it meant to me," she said.

"Considering all the challenges last year, I'm extremely grateful to be selected.

"Honestly, having the games postponed by 12 months was a blessing in disguise for me because I don't know if I would have made the team in 2020.

"I've developed so much as a player over the past 12 months and believe I'm playing the best hockey of my career right now."

Grace Stewart (back row, fifth from right) and her Hockeyroos Olympic squad. Photo: Hockey Australia

Grace Stewart (back row, fifth from right) and her Hockeyroos Olympic squad. Photo: Hockey Australia

Next on the agenda for the Hockeyroos is two Pro League fixtures with New Zealand in Perth, which Stewart hopes would mark the end of her five-week stint on the sidelines.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back out there and playing my first international hockey match since March last year," Stewart said.

Following practice matches against the Australian women's development squad in Perth, the Hockeryoos, who are currently world number three, will head to Darwin on July 9 for a week-long training camp.

This will give the squad one week to acclimatise to the hot and humid conditions before heading to Tokyo on July 17, on a charter flight, via Cairns, with the Australian swim team.

"The heat and humidity are going to be huge factors at the games and we've been constantly working on strategies to best deal with those conditions," Stewart said.

Stewart is one of eight returning players, including Emily Smith who will be competing at her third games, from Rio's squad that bowed out in the quarter-finals to New Zealand (4-2).

"We have a much stronger chance of medalling this time around," said Stewart, whose squad also features eight Olympic debutants.

"Some of our more influential players such as Mariah, Steph [Kershaw] and Emily [Chalker] are all at the top of their games and this will mark the first time we've been able to field a side with all of them in it.

"As one of the more experienced strikers, it's imperative I lead by example and do whatever I can to help the team win.

"I'm definitely more appreciative of this opportunity compared to when I was a 19-year-old in Rio, where it all happened so fast.

"As a group, we've grown and developed so much the past few years and there's a feeling that we are peaking at the right time - we're all excited to see what we can do."

Another string to Australia's bow is coach Katrina Powell, who won gold in 1996 and 2000 with the Hockeyroos.

"I love what Katrina brings to the team - she's one of those inspiring people that when she speaks, everyone listens," Stewart said.

"She's achieved everything there is to achieve in hockey, including two Olympic gold medals, so she knows what is needed for our group to get to that level."

As such, when they arrive in the Japanese capital, there is only one goal focus for Stewart and her side and that's a gold medal.

"Obviously we underachieved at my first games but if I learnt anything it's that the Olympics are a completely different animal and anything can happen," she said.

"Great Britain got in a really solid groove and went all the way last year.

"But we know the Dutch, who we've actually had some recent success against, are the favourites, especially when you consider their form currently in the Euros.

"This games will obviously be quite different, as we'll be spending a lot of time in our hotel rooms trying to avoid contracting COVID-19 but that won't stop us from giving our all and hopefully bringing a gold medal back around our necks."

This story Stewart sets sights on Olympic gold after five-year rollercoaster first appeared on South Coast Register.

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