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Hurdling on hold for Black Sticks wonder-kid

When Commonwealth Games gold medallist Amy Robinson had to choose between hockey and hurdles, it was a no-brainer. Suzanne McFadden reports.

A natural-born speedster, Amy Robinson has put her track and field career on hold so she can fully commit to being a Black Stick.

Over the last few years, Robinson has made a double sporting career work – playing hockey for New Zealand in winter, then switching in summer to hurdles, heptathlon, long jump and sprinting at national level.

Of course, it wasn’t always straightforward.

Last year, she spent a crazy 24 hours driving back and forth between Auckland and Hamilton – running her heats at the national track and field championships at Porritt Stadium on a Friday afternoon; returning to train with the Black Sticks in Auckland on Saturday morning; then rushing south again, to win bronze in the women’s 400m that afternoon.

Things had to change. After collecting a Commonwealth Games gold medal on the Gold Coast turf in March, and now heading to her first World Cup, in England in three weeks' time, the Tauranga sports teacher has turned her focus completely to hockey.

It’s a decision the 22-year-old has made of her own accord. She’s never come under pressure from Black Sticks coach Mark Hager to give athletics the flick.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Hager always encouraged wonder-kid Robinson to keep running.

“As a hockey coach I can’t teach speed. A lot of our speedsters, and those with the endurance, have done athletics. They’ve been taught to run with a good technique and that’s a massive plus for us,” he says, pointing out Robinson, Anita McLaren and captain Stacey Michelsen as natural runners.

“Amy has found a good balance. When we have down-time, she can do her athletics. If it’s cross training, and it helps Amy with her fitness, then that’s a bonus for us.”

But it’s not just Robinson’s pace that has cemented her place in the Black Sticks squad for the World Cup, which was named on Tuesday.

“She also has tenacity and the right attitude – she wants to succeed,” Hager says.

Yes, Robinson has dreamed of sporting success on a world stage ever since watching the 2004 Athens Olympics on TV, and making a collage poster from cut-out images of the myriad sports she was playing at primary school. 

“I wrote on it: ‘I want to go to the Olympics one day and represent New Zealand’. But I just didn’t know which sport I was going to do it in,” Robinson laughs

And when she first represented New Zealand, as a 16-year-old, it wasn’t in hockey or athletics - but beach volleyball.

Tauranga, Robinson's hometown, is a national stronghold of volleyball, indoors and out. “In fact, we have a bit of a laugh that all four of us in the Black Sticks who’ve come from Tauranga played volleyball at some stage,” Robinson says.

“I played beach volleyball with my best friend for fun, and we won some national titles.” They then went to the Vanuatu Junior Open and won bronze.

But volleyball ended there, and athletics took precedence as her summer sport. Because, at 17, she was being touted as a future Olympian in hurdles and the long jump by top athletics coaches. 

In 2013, she claimed three New Zealand secondary school titles. But she was happiest winning the 4 x 100m relay, over her two individual golds, because she loved being part of a team.  

She made the Olympics, of a sort... competing at the Australian Youth Olympics in track and field, and playing hockey at the Summer Youth Olympics in China in 2014. Switching between the two codes was perfect, she says, “because I never got sick of one or the other”.

But it was hockey that benefited from the crossover most. “Athletics has been so helpful for my hockey. It’s a sport with a lot of running, and thankfully I enjoy running,” the striker says.

This year was the first she hasn’t competed at the track and field nationals, although she turned up at the meet to run in a relay, but eventually wasn’t needed. “It was a shame because I was so excited. But, at the end of the day, I hadn’t competed all season… so I probably would have been terrible,” she says.

“I know I can easily go back to it, especially for the speedwork. Even if it’s just socially, I can run around the track with friends.”

It won't be easy to do this coming summer, though, as the Black Sticks play in the world’s first Hockey Pro League – involving the top nine women’s and men’s international teams in a home and away competition, spanning January to June.  

Earlier this year, Robinson missed out on selection for the Commonwealth Games: “the first tour since I debuted [in 2016] that I didn’t make. Then I just kept pushing super-hard to prove that I would be the next person on the list.” A week before the Games started, Robinson got the call to join the team on the Gold Coast, replacing Tessa Jopp, who withdrew for medical reasons.

“Getting that call-up, I had mixed emotions. I was upset because my team-mate wasn’t well, but it was also an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” Robinson says.  

She was happy with her performance on the Gold Coast; even happier to bring home New Zealand hockey’s long-awaited gold. And she knew when she returned home, and entered the Black Sticks' eight-week centralised training programme in Auckland, she needed to “keep pushing forward, keep getting better” to retain her place in the side for the World Cup.

Senior players like Michelsen, Olivia Merry and Sam Charlton have helped Robinson take another step up, she says.

Charlton, who’s played 219 tests, and Rose Keddell (176 caps) are also Black Sticks from Tauranga, who Robinson “grew up idolising”.   

She played her first years of high school hockey at Tauranga Girls, next to Frances Davies, who also became a Black Stick. Davies has played 50 games for New Zealand; Robinson 49. “It’s a pretty cool bond we have,” says Robinson. All four Bay of Plenty stars roomed together on the Gold Coast.

Robinson reckons playing representative hockey for Midlands, and having to train in Hamilton two nights a week, meant the Tauranga players were "more committed and determined" to succeed. 

The full commitment to the Black Sticks this year has, at times, been tough for Robinson. She misses her family and her job - helping to run sports programmes at her old school, Tauranga Intermediate.

But she knows she’s made the right decision. “When you’re given opportunities, you’ve got to take them. I definitely want to be here,” she says after a Black Sticks training at Albany. The team leave this weekend for Germany, and a warm-up Four Nations tournament.

Robinson knows she can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to play at the World Cup - like the Olympics, the ultimate prize in the sport held once every four years. “But I’ve been to a Junior World Cup, and I’m used to running in front of a crowd,” she says. All of the games will be played at London’s 10,000-seat Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.

The Black Sticks have been drawn in a pool with Australia, Japan and Belgium, which Hager simply describes as “tough”.

“But we have to be careful that we don’t just see the opposition as tough. We’re a good side too, and they should be looking at us and saying the same thing. They’ll be threatened by us. So we just have to take that on board and not play with fear,” says the coach, who reckons the Black Sticks could finish on the podium for the very first time.

Robinson would be happy with that. Her personal goals in London are to “play good hockey, make good connections and not be too overwhelmed by the experience”. 

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