QUEEN OF THE TURF
In 2012, Anna Flanagan was named the best young female hockey player in the world. By then she already had a Commonwealth Games gold medal in her locker. Now, the pin-up girl of Australian hockey is a key player in the Hockeyroos’ bid to reclaim the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.
So Anna, of all the sports, why did you end up playing hockey?
My whole family played, so I started probably when I was about 4. And my dad coached me all the way through state, through club until I was 18 and had to move to the Australian Institute of Sport in Perth. So my parents played and I was born and bred into hockey.
I know that’s the traditional path hockey players, in Australia have to take, moving to Perth. But it’s a lot bigger than it sounds, isn’t it? I mean you were in Canberra so you’re moving across the country and changing your whole life in order to follow a passion in a sport that doesn’t really pay that much?
No, it’s huge and I think initially everyone does struggle initially. But there is a lot of support in place to make that transition easier. I moved from Canberra so I didn’t actually know anyone really which made things harder but there are senior girls that had been there, done that. They helped so much in that transition and now when we’ve got new people coming in, you’re automatically organising things outside just to welcome them to the hockey family over there cause that’s essentially what it is. It’s because we’ve moved away from their friends and family so we create our own family dynamic. I’d say after the first year they’re like your new best friends, you new family.
There are not a lot of sports that pay really well for women and hockey is definitely not one of them, is it? You kind of do it for the love of the game don’t you?
In terms of funding I think hockey is quite lucky. We get to go, we get to travel the world and that’s all paid for. And we get, I guess, a living allowance essentially. But yeah, you do get by and try to get money buy other means. So a lot of people work, study, but yeah, in the end, if you don’t love it, you’re not going to be satisfied through money at all.
The Indian Hockey League is opening up financial pathways for male hockey players and perhaps helping with player retention in the game. Are there opportunities like this for women?
I have heard rumors, in terms of ‘not sure if it’s next year’ and whether it would get the same response as men because for the men it was huge; the crowd they’ve got and India is such a hockey mad country and it’s just such an awesome experience when you go over there because there’s just so much hype. Same as in Argentina, the fans just love it. I think we’re not going to know if there is an opportunity until we try it so I really hope that something like that might happen for women. Even combining those events with mens events so we’d get some of the same fans would be great.
I guess what you can’t put a price on is being an Olympian. And London didn’t quite go to plan did it?
It didn’t. I guess in terms of where we were ranked, I think sixth or seventh and we came fifth; you always train for four years so winning Olympic gold is all you’ve got on your mind. You start to look back though and we finished above our ranking and we missed out on the final by one goal. So we lost one game and missed out the finals, which is devastating. But I think now we had a taste of winning, we’ve had a taste of that atmosphere and we know what’s it like and that’s what motivates. I think it will be that way every day for the next 4 years to chase that dream.
What does it mean to you being an Olympian?
Everything. I think that’s my everything. Yeah I love it, love it. I love the sport and the hard training and I want that gold medal and I want to be the best and that’s why a lot of us are training hard. Not only that though, I want to be an international hockey player for as long as I can be so I’d love to go to a couple of Olympics. So let’s see if I can get there.
The most Olympians will say that outside of competing in their sport the thing they love is just being surrounded by the elite of world sport. What was your dropping moment when you were in London?
I think my jaw was dropped the whole entire time. I get very star-struck. My highlight was we had a reception, an athlete reception with all the Australian athletes so I was going crazy taking photos with Lauren Jackson and Lleyton Hewitt and all these, you know, Dawn Fraser. Even John Farnham was there singing. I couldn’t believe it. But on the way out, Roger Federer was outside and I thought I was going to start crying because he’s one of my idols. And we got a photo with him and he was so nice. I find him really inspiring so that was one of the big moments for me.
You’ve got a photo with Roger Federer. How did this play out?
I walked straight past and then a girl behind me screamed.
This was another hockey player screaming?
Yes, there were five of us and we just stopped and said – ‘Yes this is happening’. And he had some security and we were like “can we get a photo?” and they said – ‘you can all get one’ like one of us all together so I bee-lined so I could get right next to him. Haha. So I made sure I had the prime position. And he was really friendly and just chatting and I didn’t say anything because I was just in shock. But yeah, that was a cool moment.
So, are you going to out the teammate who screamed?
Oh, um, yeah okay. I think it was Emily Smith, she screamed, yeah.
That’s pretty embarrassing Anna.
Yeah. Haha. Although I was almost crying so I wasn’t much better.
Everyone’s got that Olympic moment where they say “Oh, you know, I saw LeBron James! Or I saw Kobe Bryant …
Yeah, I got a photo of him. That was cool.
Haha. You got a photo with Kobe?
I think most of the female athletes in the Australian team seemed to get a photo with Kobe in London didn’t they?
Yep. Haha. Why not?
As far as on the pitch. Fifth-fifth-fifth at the last three Olympics. Hockey Australia would probably say we made progress in London to some extent but it’s not where we want to be is it?
No. Not at all.
So how do we turn it around? What’s the Adam Commens’ long term goal for Rio?
We’ve been with Commo for a bit over two years now and in terms of hockey, we have made a lot of progress, but so has every one else. We had a huge win over Germany, over China, over England and England beat Argentina who are ranked number two. Germany beat Holland who are ranked number one. We’ve beaten all the teams above us multiple times in the last two years. It’s just the big events that we really need to put it together. We’ve done a lot of work on our culture and just making sure that we tick all the boxes on, not just hockey, but in terms of our recovery and our nutrition, becoming these sort of ultimate athletes. That’s what we did prior to World League and then we have all these success. I think World League Four would be a huge task to see where we are at again after the good result and see if we are still heading in the right direction.
Before that of course we’ve got the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games
Yes. It’s a big year.
The Hockeyroos own the Commonwealth Games.
Yes. It’s been pretty successful tournament for us.
That brings pressure then I guess. Your predecessors have set this team some pretty lofty standards to aspire towards.
Yeah it does.
Because if it’s anything less than gold it doesn’t meet the previous best?
Yeah, exactly. For me, Commonwealth Games was sort of my breakthrough tournament last time. We won but it was tough. It was a bit of a dog fight. In our semi we beat England 1-nil, our final we won in strokes. I think it’s always going to be like that. We’re going to have big rivalries against New Zealand, England and they’re teams we have to beat but I think we do have that mentality that this is ours and no one can take this. Something we should be quite proud of. But in saying that for us, World Cup, in terms of ranking points, is our major focus. Publicly it doesn’t really seem like it because there is so much hype around the Commonwealth Games but come World Cup we really want to be making the finals.
Where do you think you need to be from a ranking perspective in order to leverage into an Olympic campaign? Does it matter where you’re ranked in the World Cup or does it all contribute?
It doesn’t for an Olympics but it does in terms of our other things. Like if we’re ranked high, we get more funding. We get more funding, we can play more games against high quality opposition. Life is easier with more funding. For our program, it just means we’ll be able to do more and that will make us better. That’s why our ranking is really important and, obviously, a pride thing for Australia. We wanted to be ranked as high as possible.
Nine-a-side hockey. Is it a good thing for hockey? I’ve heard you refer to it as hockey’s version of Twenty20 cricket?
Yes I have.
The cricket purists would tell you that T20 detracts from the premium version of the game. Is nine-a-side hockey a way forward for the game?
I think it’s quite similar to what you said about cricket. It’s different. It can be very exciting but I don’t think you can ever take away from traditional hockey. I don’t think that much will change. It wouldn’t be good for the sport if it just turned into nine-a-side. But I think as a supplement for hockey, I think it’s great. They put a lot of marketing into it. They got good crowds. It is exciting, it’s different but I just think it’s an add-on. It’s good practice for us and for the crowds they can watch a couple of games in the afternoon but I don’t think it’ll ever replace traditional hockey.
Does hockey need a shorter format? Jamie Dwyer was telling me about a tournament he played in and teams were down to six players. He said it was super-fast, constant goals, great for the crown. Does hockey need a shorter format in order to build its fan base?
Well, I think that was the aim. We have gotten really good crowds with nine-a-side and it has been aired on television. I think it still needs some tweaking. I think if they extended it to 20 minutes, instead of 15. As Jamie was saying, there’s six-a-side too. I think even that can make a difference because with us, we probably weren’t scoring as many goals as maybe they thought would happen. I think it still needs a bit of juggling in terms of numbers and sizing. Also, the bigger goals make it hard for it to be anywhere else because of the added cost. Whereas if they have normal goals and a smaller field, then you can play anywhere. It is different. I think we’ll see how it goes in terms of attracting more fans but again, you can’t replace traditional hockey.
Okay. Now to the really tricky questions. It started with Kate Hollywood. Then there was Casey Eastham. Now the baton’s been passed to you. Hockey has built its public identity around a couple of players and marketing you heavily as its glamour girls? Are you comfortable with that? Do you like it? Do you enjoy it? Or is it awkward in a team environment?
I don’t see it like that. I guess it’s flattering when people say that. In terms of the media, I think I’m quite proactive in that because I studied journalism. I wanted to be in media. I love doing this kind of thing. Also, I love promoting women’s sport. I love promoting hockey. I think I seek it as much as I might get it. I think it’s a positive thing as much as we can promote our sport. I think it’s good.
How is it in the team dynamic when a couple of you are getting the attention? We in the media are as much to blame for this that to the wider-public there are only a couple of recognisable faces in the Hockeyroos, and you’re one of them. Casey is another one, and then with all due respect to your teammates, the bulk of the public probably couldn’t name any others. So how is that around the team? Is there any element of awkwardness at all?
No, I don’t think so at all. I have so much respect for our captains and leadership group. It’s strange. But I think everyone knows where hockey sits as a minority sport. Again, I seek the attention. There are other players that don’t want anything to do with media and just want to play the game and that’s it. It’s about being proactive. There are players who don’t want that kind of attention or promotion and that’s an individual choice. Then if you do seek it like I do, then it’s also about going out there and finding it. There isn’t awkwardness. Everyone is really supportive and given that I want to eventually be in the media it ties in quite nicely. So yeah, the girls have all been really supportive.
Two more things, you’ve been an ambassador for stopping Binge Drinking. How does that come about? Is there a special meaning behind that for you?
Yeah Eddie Ockenden and I are ambassadors. There are 14 team sports involved. We just thought it would be good. One of our sponsorship managers put it forward and I was like yes, I want to do this. I think it’s a great initiative. It encourages you to be healthy, be active. It doesn’t say you can’t drink. I think that’s one of the main messages it’s not saying go cold-turkey. It’s just saying be smart, have supportive people around you. I think there’s a binge-drinking culture in sport and in athletes because, I guess, it’s harder for them to casually drink. It’s just about getting that message out there that not all athletes are technically like that. It’s about moderation. It’s not about saying no to having good time but just about being smart and making good choices.
It makes it harder for you when you’re on a night out and having a great time and you sort of have to stop yourself and remember that you’re flying the flag for a campaign?
Oh sometimes. But that’s the thing. With this initiative you can still have fun and have a few drinks but you don’t have to be the person lying in the gutter. I think it’s a really positive message that you can still enjoy yourself. You can still have a drink but you don’t have to destroy yourself at the same time.
And finally, you were the World Young Player of the Year in 2012. That’s a huge achievement. That’s you being told you’re the best player in your age group in the world! Obviously, the challenge now is to be the best in the world at senior level isn’t it? Is that what you’ve striving for?
Definitely. Always. Since probably I was about 10 or 11. I was like, I want to be the best in the world. I want a gold medal. But that quickly turns into I want our team to be the best and then I want to be the best I can and the best team. For me it’s all about team but, in doing so, I have to be the best that I can be and I think I’ve got so far to go and so much more to improve on but that is, and will always be my goal.
What does that pressure does that award bring? Has it brought any pressure. Has it caused you grief out on the pitch?
No. I was very shocked and not expecting it at all. It was very nice to be recognised but I always automatically thanking my teammates and my coaches. I’m so thankful for their support and their help. I think it’s an award for them and Australia as much as an individual award for all the effort that they’ve put in. But I don’t think it adds any pressure because there is still so much work to be done. I know that and my coaches know that. They’ll tell me that. Haha. They’ll tell me what I need to improve on. How far there is to go. It’s nice to be recognised but I still think it’s a beginning.