How Games gold changed a champion

Suzanne McFadden catches up with the veteran Black Sticks defender who's been promoted to captain the gold medal-winning team in their countdown to the World Cup.

Ella Gunson’s life has changed in a multitude of ways since she won Commonwealth gold barely a month ago.

For one, she’s now recognised by random drivers when she pulls into the service station after a Black Sticks’ training. “I go to fill the car up, and people are like ‘Oh, you’re part of the team. We watched the final, we know nothing about hockey, but we loved it’,” she laughs.

She’s been feted in a heroes’ parade, riding in an open-topped Ford Zephyr through the lined streets of her hometown Whangarei; walking through an archway of hockey sticks raised by kids from her old school, Kamo Intermediate. (They call it the Kamo Black Sticks Factory).

And now Gunson, who's strived for eight of the last 10 years in the New Zealand dress, has been made captain of the national side. This weekend, she’ll lead the Black Sticks for the first time, in a Tri Nations series in Cromwell against Japan and arch-rivals Australia.

But those aren’t the biggest transformations that have come attached to Gunson’s coveted gold medal. The most momentous is a new sense of belief. A belief that the Black Sticks can take on any team in the world – and win.

It’s a conviction shared by her team-mates since they resoundingly downed Australia 4-1 in the Commonwealth Games final on the Gold Coast, collecting gold at a major tournament for the first time.

“In no way are we cocky. But we now know that in those big games, we can step up, we can push through, and we can win them,” 28-year-old Gunson says. “That’s been our stumbling block in the past; we’ve got ourselves there to the big games, but we haven’t pushed ourselves across the line.  So it’s great to have that sense of belief that we can do it.

“In the final we were three-nil up and we were pretty safe. But as soon as Australia scored, you could feel the pressure was on us again. The wonderful thing was it didn’t last long. In the past we would have let it get to us, but this time we were mentally strong, thinking ‘No, it’s fine. We’ve got this’.

“The mental side of the game in the past was pretty underrated. But now we’re really embracing it.”

It’s that shift in attitude that Gunson and her team-mates need to maintain through to the women’s hockey World Cup in London this July.

"It’s a very huge honour and I’m really looking forward to leading such a wonderful group of girls."

- Ella Gunson

The Black Sticks have held firmly to their ranking of fourth in the world – one rung above Australia, but two below England, who they beat in a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out in the semi-final on the GC.

At the World Cup, they’ll also be up against non-Commonwealth nations who dominate the women’s game, the likes of world No. 3 Argentina, and No. 1 the Netherlands, who hammered the Black Sticks 3-0 in last year’s World Hockey League final in Auckland.

“Getting this Commonwealth gold medal has been incredible and we are all so proud of it. To us older ones, it was such a reward. But we want to be competitive and win a medal on the complete world stage,” Gunson says.

“The Games were missing some of the top dogs in world hockey. Our real dream is to win a World Cup medal, and an Olympic medal.”

In the last month, Gunson has also come to realise she wants to play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The steadfast defender has been to the last two Games, in London and Rio, where the Black Sticks twice fell achingly short of a medal.

“Tokyo isn’t too far away at all. I definitely want to continue,” she says. “We want to carry this momentum forward.”

Gunson has played an integral part in the rise of the Black Sticks since 2009, when the new national coach Mark Hager brought her into the national side as an eager 19-year-old. Hager (nicknamed “Horrible” from his Australian playing days) has been charged with turning around the Black Sticks, who’d finished an embarrassing 12th – and last – at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“We were ranked so low, but we aimed to make it up into the top four. I know the group has changed a lot since then, but the foundation is still there,” says Gunson. Sam Harrison, Anita Punt and Stacey Michelsen are also survivors from that original mob.

Michelsen, though, is out of this tri-series. Recently named New Zealand women’s player of the year, she’s taking a deserved breather, and has handed the captaincy over to her old intermediate school team-mate. Black Sticks vice-captain Sam Charlton is also missing, still recovering from knee surgery needed after an injury in the Commonwealth Games final.

“I was actually quite shocked,” Gunson says of the captaincy. “I hadn’t been in the [Black Sticks] leadership group of four or five girls before. But it’s a very huge honour and I’m really looking forward to leading such a wonderful group of girls.”

Gunson has been a constant in the team through the last decade, bar a two-year hiatus. Straight after the 2012 Olympics, she went to Boston University to continue her studies in nutrition. One semester turned into two, and when she returned home she'd "had too much of a good time over there, and wasn’t quite fit enough".

Ultimately, she was left out of the team that won bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. “But I wouldn’t give up that Boston experience for anything,” she says.

Although she now has her degree, she has yet to begin a career in nutrition. “Now that I’m in the centralised training programme, there just isn’t time. But I’m doing a business diploma. And, after my hockey career, I’d love to return to Whangarei and work with nutrition in the community there,” she says.

Now living in Auckland, Gunson tries to return home to Whangarei every weekend, and watch her old club hockey side, Maungakaramea, play. Sometimes she’ll turn out for them.

She hasn’t forgotten her roots, or the hardships the Black Sticks have been through to finally become gold medallists.

“It’s quite funny. When that final whistle blew in that final, all I felt was relief. We’d finally done it. I started bawling my eyes out," she says. “After so many years, it meant so much to us, knowing  the hard work and the heartbreaks were all worth it."

The Pioneer Energy Women’s Tri Nations in Cromwell starts on Saturday, with the Black Sticks playing world No.12 Japan, before the Commonwealth Games final re-match with Australia on Sunday.

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