Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘I came off after umpiring a Pro League men’s game – it was such a rush for me’

Hockey umpires remain without funding while rising official Rachel Williams also funds her own training, reports LAURA HOWARD

Rachel Williams, one of England’s leading hockey umpires, wakes up at 4am Monday to Friday and takes unpaid leave to attend tournaments. “People look at you and go, why are you doing it?” she freely admits.

“As an umpire, we don’t get medals, we don’t get the funding, but we can inspire other people to enjoy their hockey,” she adds. It can certainly be said that Williams’ past year has been nothing short of inspiring.

With seven tournaments in seven months, 2022 was a tour de force for Williams, who finds it impossible to select a highlight.

Such a dilemma is unsurprising. In June, Williams became the first woman appointed to umpire India v Pakistan as part of the inaugural World Hockey 5s. She then got to experience the atmosphere of a home Commonwealth Games, before umpiring at the EuroHockey League, her first men-only tournament.

Such a dazzling year of appointments culminated in an upgrade to the Pro League for which Williams was greeted by the passion of the Argentinian supporters. “I’ve never seen fans like that before. I’ve never been asked to sign autographs or have photos and selfies done after a game.”

Rachel Williams at the Indoor World Cup PIC: WorldSportPics/Frank Uijlenbroek

For Williams, however, it’s the journey that is most rewarding, “I’ve spent years and years getting to the point that I’m at and, whilst it’s incredible to say, oh, I’ve done this tournament and I’ve done that tournament, and 2022 was amazing, it’s seeing the progression within that for me.”

It was in a voluntary role on the England Hockey Board Youth Panel where Williams first picked up the whistle. “Jane Nockolds, who was the officiating manager for England Hockey, was like, ‘Oh, you can umpire, you’ll be all right.’ So it was almost by accident,” she reflects.

Her journey since, however, has not come without its challenges. Umpires remain without funding meaning hockey commitments have had to fit alongside a full-time career.

“I’m trying to keep up with the athletes whose full-time job it is to play hockey, to understand hockey, to be fit. But then I’m also excelling in a career that has physical, emotional and a lot of time demand as well,” she says.

As Williams finances her own training, she has had to find cost effective ways to emulate the hotter climates, such as Pretoria and Mendoza, that she umpires in.

“I’ve bought myself a greenhouse and I’ve got an indoor bike trainer,” she laughs. “So, I’m training in a greenhouse, inside a shed with my bike and a heater.”

The deficit in funding means that, whilst she may be used to making tough decisions on-pitch, Williams has found herself also having to make them about her future.

Williams revealed to The Hockey Paper: “I’m taking a career break; I am going to become a student again.”

“It will give me a lot more time to train, to umpire hockey, to understand hockey, to do the research, and get myself in a different mindset,” she says. “I think you have to invest in yourself in order to provide the best opportunities you can.”

With the Indoor World Cup in Pretoria, coupled with Pro League and EuroHockey Championships appointments already scheduled for 2023, Williams hopes this decision will aid her chances of a pinnacle appointment at Paris in 2024.

“I think overall, everyone involved in their sport at an international level, hopes and dreams for an Olympic games,” she admits.

More than her own personal progression, it is the growth of the game and ability to inspire wider participation in hockey that motivates Williams.

“I want people to feel like they can be,” she says. “That doesn’t mean going to an Olympic games and doing the final or any of that stuff. It just means feeling empowered and able to be your best self.”

“I came off the first men’s game I did at Pro League, and it was such a rush for me. There was an Argentinian media lady who came across to me and said, you’ve got no idea how many young girls you have just inspired. And I actually cried. That’s what it’s about for me.”

It is these moments that provide one of England’s leading umpires reason to go back again. Williams may not win medals, but she can certainly inspire.

Total Hockey

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