National men’s hockey team player, Austin Smith, from Pinelands, says he is proud of the men and women’s teams for securing spots at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Both teams were crowned the continental champs at the African Championships in Stellenbosch last month after a 3-2 win over Egypt and a 6-0 win over Ghana respectively.
Smith, 34, who attended Pinelands primary and high schools, says they had a shaky start to the championships, but managed to pull up their socks and finish as deserved victors.
He plays in the Hoofdklasse Hockey League in Holland and teaches at the International School of Eindhoven three days a week.
This will be the third time that he will be representing South Africa at the Olympics. His Olympic dreams started in primary school after his teacher, coach and former SA hockey player, Murray Anderson, shared his experience upon returning from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“I was immediately hooked. It was at age 12 that I had the goal in my mind of becoming an Olympian and a teacher just like Mr Anderson. I was fortunate to have so many supportive teachers and coaches who helped me develop into a mentally resilient individual.”
Smith played for the provincial under-13 side in primary school before he was selected for the national under-16 and under-18 teams, in high school. In February 2004, he got the long-awaited call-up to represent the senior national team in a game against Canada.
He says he owes his success to a circle of people, including his parents and three siblings.
“I can remember the day I got called up to represent the men. My parents actually found out before me as the email had been sent to my mum. When I got home from university they said there was something on my bed for me. It was an emotional moment and I’m glad we could share it together because they have been such an integral part of my journey,” he says.
“My whole family played hockey and being the youngest of four I naturally looked up to my brother and sisters and what they did. I have my mum and dad to thank for the hockey genes as my dad represented England’s under-23 side before immigrating to South Africa and my mother played for the Western Province Ladies side,” he says.
In 2005, Smith took part in the under-21 Hockey World Cup in Rotterdam, Holland. In the same year, he was signed by the UK’s Reading Hockey Club. He won two Premier League’s with the club and reached the final eight of the European League numerous times.
Smith says one of his biggest highlights was in 2008 when he took part at the Beijing Olympics. Despite finishing 12th, his four goals enabled him to be SA’s top goal scorer. He was named SA Men’s Hockey Player of the Year, as well as Reading Hockey Club’s Player of the Year.
“It was my first Olympics and it was something I had worked towards for 10 years. The London Olympics were also special because we had a competitive team that caused a few upsets against top sides,” he says.
In search of a bigger challenge, Smith joined Den Bosch in the Hoofdklasse Hockey League, in Holland, in 2009. In the same year, he made the World All Star Team after he captained the national team to an African Championship’s victory, securing a spot at the 2010 Men’s Hockey World Cup in India. He has played for more than six clubs, including Pinelands Hockey Club.
“I left to play abroad in 2005. I was advised to get some international experience by the current coach at the time, Paul Revington. I spent four years in England and then decided to make the step over to playing in the Netherlands, arguably the best league in the world.
“It didn’t go quite as easily as expected. I contacted all of the clubs in the league and only a handful replied, all saying no. It was only a month after that Den Bosch contacted me asking if I was able to play central defender. I was so desperate to play in the Hoofdklasse that I agreed to it and I’ve been playing in the defence ever since,” he says. Smith turned his passion for the sport into his career. “I love hockey and the fact that I can now make a living from doing it still baffles me a bit. I think hockey is an extremely skillful and tactical game. It demands a lot on your body and requires a high level of concentration. That is one of the main reasons I like it, because it’s difficult to master and there is so much going on during a game.”
“The challenge of playing well pushed me to play better each week. The fact that it’s a team sport also means a great deal to me, I love being a part of teams, especially the national side. We have a great bunch of guys in the squad and it makes touring a lot of fun, which relates to great camaraderie on the field,” he says.