Timing is everything and Leah Wilkinson says she’s delighted her teaching sabbatical has been extended to allow her to chase a spot on Team GB’s women’s hockey squad at next year’s rearranged Olympic Games, writes Tom Harle.
The defender took a year out from her role as a head of Year 10 and a history teacher at Ewell Castle School in Epsom to pursue a place in the 14-strong squad for the Games.
When the Olympics were postponed Wilkinson had to fall at the feet of her employer and to her relief was granted a year-long extension to her sabbatical – meaning it’s still all go for Tokyo. “I’ve had to take a backward step this year in terms of career prospects, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” said the 31-year-old.
“When I heard the Games were postponed, part of me was devastated with the fear of it not going ahead at all and uncertainty about having to go back to work. But now the new Tokyo dates are there and thanks to my school being incredible, I’ve got the chance to play and train full-time for another year, it’s pretty great.
“I’m probably going to be a teacher for the next 30 years, so I’m feeling quite smug about having another year of playing the sport I love! To be a part of Team GB would be incredible – it’s not just the medals they’ve won, it’s the fact that there are so many people who have represented them who are role models to me.”
Wilkinson holds the accolade of the most capped sportsperson in Wales, qualifying through her Swansea-born mother and wearing red in no fewer than 169 international games. The Burton-born ace only made her Great Britain debut against India in October 2019, rewarding a 15-year career at the highest level, and she has featured nine times since then. “The Olympics wasn’t something I thought would happen after all that time playing for Wales,” she said.
“Going to Tokyo would be the cherry on top to my international career – I’d be incredibly fortunate to get the chance to go. It means a lot for any sportsperson to go.”
Wilkinson missed out on Great Britain’s Pro League tour of Europe last month as they won six points from a possible 12 in games against world champions Netherlands and Belgium. A foot injury kept her on the sidelines for ten weeks and watching her team-mates from the comfort of her sofa was an almost equally painful experience.
“It was pretty devastating, because I’m coming to the end of my professional career and every game is an amazing opportunity,” said Wilkinson.
“I really missed it and found it a struggle at times to watch, because you do feel like you’re missing out with something you can’t control. Hopefully we’ll be able to play plenty of games in the next year.”
It was doubly tough for Wilkinson to watch on last month because her partner Sarah Jones was one of the travelling party.
The pair met while playing for Wales and have been together for seven years, buying a house together near Wilkinson’s school which, after several happy years, they are currently selling through Purplebricks.
Wilkinson admits it took time to get used to seeing the same face at training and at the kitchen table – but there’s never been a paint roller raised in anger. “We haven’t always been great at keeping home and hockey separate,” she admitted. “These things take time to differentiate and now it’s just nice to come back to our shared home and be able to relax in our surroundings.”
Purplebricks is the UK’s leading estate agent and is open for business for in-home or virtual appointments. As the Official Estate Agent of Team GB, they are encouraging the nation to get behind the national squad and show the value of home support in the build-up to Tokyo. For more information visit www.purplebricks.co.uk.