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Georgia Nanscawen: The road less travelled

Georgia Nanscawen for the Hockeyroos (fourthandfifteen - Hockeyroos 2013, CC BY 2.0.)
Expert
1st March, 2018
2

A pinch of persistence. A dash of desire. A sprinkle of sacrifice. A generous helping of hard work. And a whole lot of love.

These are the key ingredients in any elite athletes recipe for a long and fruitful sporting career.

And for the best part of ten years, Georgia Nanscawen cooked up a storm as a key member of one of Australia’s most cherished sporting teams – the Hockeyroos.

The resplendent redhead burst onto the hockey scene as a supremely talented 17-year-old, making her debut for Australia in 2009, and in doing so, becoming the third youngest women ever to pull on the Hockeyroos bodysuit.

More accolades and achievements were to follow as Nanscawen made her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games, won Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow in 2014, and took home a silver medal from the hockey World Cup in the same year.

She also holds the record as the youngest Hockeyroo to play both 100 and 150 caps for her country, with the Australian public watching her grow from fresh-faced phenom, to an established, experienced and respected member of the national team.

Nanscawen was cooking with gas.

Until one day late in 2017, after perhaps the most challenging and uncertain 12 months of a remarkable career to date, Nanscawen reached into the sporting ingredients cupboard and realised something was missing.

She had run out of love.

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“I just wasn’t enjoying hockey to the level that I used to or felt I should be,” Nanscawen says.

“And that was a worrying and distressing thought.”

She admits her disillusion with the sport had been bubbling away under the surface for some time, reaching troubling proportions during a Hockeyroos trip to Europe midway through last year.

“I remember being picked for the World League event in Belgium in 2017 and it wasn’t a selection of pure elation, like it perhaps used to be,” she says.

“That was a bit of a sign and I spoke to my family about it. I obviously tried my best and engaged as much as I could in Belgium, but I didn’t think it was really fair to the team to have those lingering thoughts around. But I didn’t know what to do at that stage.”

Mariah Williams

(Photo: Peter McCalpine)

So the girl they call ‘Pippin’ just kept plugging away, until a particular moment at the 2017 Australian Hockey League (AHL) was ‘the straw that broke the camels back’.

After initially being overlooked for selection at the Oceania Cup in Sydney, an event that was to immediately follow the AHL in Perth, an injury to teammate Karri McMahon during the tournament opened the door for another player to join the touring party.

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Nanscawen was a red-hot chance.

She wasn’t to learn her fate straight away though, with the decision to be officially communicated to the successful player after the AHL Final – a game Nanscawen and her Victorian teammates had progressed to.

In what was a thrilling finale, Nanscawen scored an equalising goal with only 14 seconds on the clock to to send the title match to a shoot out – where Victoria held their nerve and claimed a memorable victory.

It was Nanscawen’s second national title and emotions were riding high.

It was then, only moments after the match, and still in the hockey stadium tunnel, that Nanscawen was approached with the selection news – she was in.

And boy did it throw her.

After months of unease and uncertainty, coupled with the high-riding fortnight of AHL, the rollercoaster of national team selection and the all-encompassing expectations of the hockey program had become too much.

“It was then and there I told the coaching group I needed some time away to process a few things and assess exactly where my head was at,” she said.

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Nanscawen took three weeks off and had weekly meetings with team psychologist Vance Locke to try and work through her thoughts.

“I wasn’t actually missing training and that was a big sign, probably the telling sign to be honest,” she says.

And so, after a few weeks of soul-searching, Nanscawen made the difficult decision to step away from the hockey program for ‘at least a year’.

“I sat down with Goodas [national coach Paul Gaudoin] and said I wanted to take the year off to pursue some new things,” she says.

“He was very good about it. He said the door is always open should I want to come back, and I was very careful not to announce my retirement as that’s very definitive.

“I don’t know what will happen in a years time, so I’d like to leave that door slightly ajar just in case.”

Interestingly, 2018 isn’t an ordinary hockey year.

It’s the year in which the Commonwealth Games will be hosted in her home country on the Gold Coast, and the hockey World Cup will be played out in London.

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But Nanscawen understands the enormity of what she is potentially giving up.

“2018 is huge in terms of world hockey. A Commonwealth Games in Australia and a World Cup, if you’re a hockey player, this is the year to be around,” she says.

“I tried to think about what I really wanted and the thought of playing and training didn’t make me happy anymore.

“But I guess I just pushed these feelings of unhappiness to the back of mind for a while and was perhaps pretending I still loved hockey as much as ever.

“Hearing my alarm go off early in the morning [for training] used to fill me with excitement, but I just wasn’t enthused about the prospect of waking up to do that.

“When I wasn’t selected I kind of leant more towards ‘great, I can stay in Perth and work’, whereas when I was picked I wasn’t especially overjoyed”.

You see ‘work’ isn’t an activity commonly embraced around the national hockey program. Not many players have serious jobs, and when push comes to shove, hockey was usually the first mouth fed.

So when Nanscawen began a role as a part-time baker at New Norcia in Perth, her increased enthusiasm was another indication perhaps her priorities were changing.

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“The food stuff is a real passion now. I mean I’ve always loved eating food,” she laughs.

“But the cooking and preparing has really taken off in the past few years. I’ve never really been able to work and now that I’ve got that opportunity I really enjoy it, despite it being a 4am wakeup most days.

Karri McMahon Australia Hockey Hockeyroos Rio 2016 Olympic Games

(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

“But I really like the people, I like learning new skills and this is a whole new area of excitement. The freshness is probably similar to how I felt when I first started playing hockey for Australia.”

It was a welcome change of scenery for the 25-year-old, who unfortunately was one of many victims of a previous coaching regime this scribe believes was intent on denying them any real opportunities to grow and prosper away from the pitch.

Prior to Gaudoin taking over in 2017, the Hockeyroos program was in desperate need of a shake-up.

Actually that’s being polite.

Forget the shake-up, the womens program needed to be blown to smithereens.

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Training sessions were predominantly held in the middle of the day, which meant it became increasingly difficult for players to work and chase other opportunities.

Team ‘standards’ were also quickly introduced in a move Nanscawen initially thought would be ‘good for the group’.

She soon changed her opinion.

“Initially we had some fitness and strength standards, which were good to make people realise they can push for more,” Nanscawen says.

But ‘body fat composition’ was soon introduced as a box each athlete needed to tick to be considered for selection. A dangerous game to play with a group of mostly young and vulnerable girls, and one which Nanscawen confesses still gets the better of her to this day.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a perfectionist and like things a certain way, so I drive my own high standards, but I doubt I would feel the way I do sometimes if we hadn’t had the standards associated with our program under the old regime,” she says.

“They [standards] were good in a way, for a while, but it should never come back to body composition or how much you weigh. It’s definitely affected me.

“I still feel bad and guilty about eating and putting on weight. I never cared about weight and skin folds when I first came in. It consumed me and created huge anxiety.”

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The mental scars run deeper.

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“It’s much easier in hindsight, but looking back now it wasn’t a good environment. My mind is still always looking for moments of weakness, weakness according to the standards,” Nanscawen says.

“When the new program took over, we spent a fair bit of time going over the past few years and it’s only now that we look back in we think ‘Gee that wasn’t right’.

“We were just so caught up in it that we really believed what we were doing was right. It was a real regime of self-loathing.

“We all sat around in a room and shared stories, it was shocking. We didn’t even know half the stuff that was going on, and we felt so bad because we are meant to take care of one another, but we didn’t know about half the stuff that was going on.

But in terms of results, it was working.

The Hockeyroos surged to No.2 in the world on the back of improved performance, and were flying high heading towards the Rio Olympics.

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“I guess we thought that was what we had to do to be the best in the world,” Nanscawen says.

And that is where I believe many of the Hockeyroos – the darlings of Australian sport for so many years – lost sight of what really matters. And where perhaps Nanscawen started to run out love with the sport she once adored.

Was it a case of the Hockeyroos hierarchy ruling with an iron fist? Or did the team’s leaders fail horribly in their duty to protect and support the rest of their group?

Maybe that’s a story for another time.

Thankfully now, Nanscawen and many of her former teammates are trying to move on.

“I’m lucky my eyes were opened to the possibilities of work and food, as I’d be lost without that,” she says.

“I may have just held onto hockey a bit longer if I didn’t have another passion to pursue. But because I had something else, I felt confident to push off into foreign territory. This is a great time in my life to try some new things.”

And isn’t that what life should be all about?

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Pushing beyond your comfort zone in the pursuit of happiness.

How many people drift through life doing the mundane and ordinary not because they want to, but because they are fearful of what awaits them if they just tried something different?

It takes a brave person to start over. To be daring enough to try and find their best life, and have the courage to chase that not knowing what the outcome may be.

And for that, I tip my cap to Georgia Nanscawen.

During our conversation, she truly does seem at peace. And she smiles a lot.

“Actually a lot of people have commented since that I seem happier, which makes me worry what people thought before hand,” she laughs.

“But to be honest I have a real feeling of freedom, a feeling I haven’t felt a lot in nine years.

“At this relative early stage, I don’t regret my decision at all. I have watched some Hockeyroos games and although I wanted the team to do well, I didn’t really have a deep desire to be out there.

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And what does she have planned for 2018?

“My boyfriend David never really loved hockey so he’s stoked we can do other things,” she jests.

“We go out for kicks of the footy and do other stuff. We booked a trip to Canada for a month and I can go skiing for the first time in a long time. It’s a nice feeling to book something without worrying about hockey.

“I’d love to go and play some AFL as well, it’s always something I’ve loved. I’m from Victoria and I kicked with my Dad when I was younger. My mum always said she was glad I wasn’t a boy otherwise I would have been straight into football.

When quizzed on this potentially being the end of her hockey road, Nanscawen reflected on a wonderful journey.

“If my career finished now, I’d be very happy with what I achieved. And it’s not like I’m missing out because my journey started much earlier than most,” she says.

“At the end of the day, I am so grateful for the opportunities hockey has afforded me and I’ve been very lucky during my nine years with the program. There were obviously hard times, but they often made me happy – standards aside.

“But it’s time to go and experience some new things.”

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So in what direction does Nanscawen see the Hockeyroos taking without her?

“Hopefully a successful one,” she says.

“There has definitely been a shift in the dynamic of the group in the last few years. A lot of the girls I grew up with and played so many years with have moved on, and the friends and teammates were a large reason why I wanted to come to training,” Nanscawen says.

“And that’s not to say I don’t like the new group, there are a lot of lovely people around in the group now, it’s just different. And different isn’t bad.”

As for catching up with those old teammates, Nanscawen’s response is simple.

“A lot of the people I had or have close connections with I will still see, I can just do it at a café now instead,” she says.

“And definitely over some yummy food.”

Bon appetite’ Georgia.

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Nanscawen has her own food blog ‘Little Pippin Creations’ and posts a wide array of delicious and delightful recipes.