Durban - The South African women's hockey team was recently lauded for joining their soccer counterparts in qualifying for the London Olympics. Government threw its support behind the two teams and the rest of Team SA by setting aside over R34 million for preparations for the games.
Last month, both the soccer and hockey teams paraded the streets of Dobsonville and Orlando to receive support from fans. BuaNews caught up with the members of the women's hockey team and coach Giles Bonnet.
Having already participated in two Olympic Games, Captain Marsha Marescia said the parade with Banyana Banyana was "special".
"For the first time we were recognised for what we had achieved and also to celebrate the impact that we can have on South African sport and in the average woman's life," said Marescia, who is based in the Netherlands where she plies her trade for the Rotterdam Hockey Club.
South Africa qualified for the London games in February with a successful tournament in India.
"The Olympic qualifier was a tough tournament for the Investec ladies' hockey team. We had an intense preparation period with a number of international games, which paid off in the end as we entered the final being the most prepared team for the event.
"It was tough because psychologically each player knows that we would only get one chance to qualify. But once we had done it, we were thrilled. We feel that we deserve to be in London and our results prove it and now that we have the chance to participate in London, we are looking forward to another tough tournament but hope to do better than we have done at past Olympic Games," she said.
Playing for South Africa means a lot to the veteran skipper and teammate Kate Woods.
"Representing your country in itself is a great honour but once you have competed at Olympic Games, it really does take your career to an all-time high. It is an experience of a lifetime and I will cherish the memories forever. One was incredible, two was overwhelming and three would just be an absolute dream come true," said Cape Town based Woods.
Woods also represented South Africa twice at the Olympics and has continued to work hard for a place in London.
"I always want to make a difference on the field and contribute towards our performances. If I am not doing this then I shouldn't be there anymore. To be training for a goal such as the Olympic Games makes all the training, hard work and sacrifices worthwhile," said Woods.
The team finished 11th at the Beijing Games and with their assiduous efforts would like to make a drastic improvement in London.
"A top six finish would be a fantastic result. It will be incredibly tough to achieve but I think it is within our reach in London. Personally, this will be my last tournament for the national team so I would love to finish on a high," said Woods.
Marescia added that experience would help the team in setting their goals and managing their expectations.
"The experience definitely helps us to focus on the job at hand. While we spend a lot of time focusing on ourselves, we also spend hours analysing the opposition and their structure, the style and their key players and set pieces," she explained.
Coach Giles Bonnet, who took over as coach in 2010, agrees that experience will help in the preparations.
"Thirteen of the 28 squad members have been to an Olympic. It is more about the distractions around the hockey matches that exist at an Olympic games and having a large proportion of players who have experienced all the distractions will make a difference.
"Technically, an area of major focus will be leading and receiving skills. A secondary focus but by no means less important will be passing out of the run with lifted skills. We will also continue developing specialist skills by area, like goal scoring and passing with deception," said the coach.
Bonnet added that the qualification process they have been through has developed the players' mentality.
"Linked to this is the excellent programme that we have in place to prepare us for London. In combination with these factors is the work we are doing on 'peak performance' - searching for the detail in the process to win games."
A few factors have helped the team become stronger - key support staff, specialist interventions, change in the methodology from process to performance and the work ethic of the players and their commitment to excellence - have all been contributing factors.
"Working with Giles has been amazing. He is extremely professional and manages the team well. His hockey knowledge and experience is unbelievable and he has introduced a more competitive environment to our group," said Marescia.
And Marescia's philosophy of leading by example is one of the things that have kept her at the helm of the team.
"I am extremely passionate about South African hockey and I think this show in the choices I make and the dedication that I have towards to the team.
"On the field, I just want to play and make a difference. Sometimes making the difference means being the supporter of the others when they are playing well and sometimes it means standing up and making the difference myself.
"Playing for South Africa is extremely special. It is something that I treasure and will always work hard to ensure that I never miss out on the opportunity to put on green and gold and sing our national anthem with pride," said Marescia.