Lily Owsley: Rising star on hockey award & Olympic dream

Lily Owsley celebrates after scoring against the Netherland at the European Championships
Owsley celebrates after scoring against the Netherlands at the European Championships

Great Britain and England hockey strker Lily Owsley has capped a roller-coaster year by winning the sport's rising star award.

Owsley beat stiff competition from players in Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand to take the global young player of the year honour.

After the heartache of narrowly missing out on a Commonwealth Games gold medal, and suffering serious illness, it completes a remarkable turnaround.

Here the 21-year-old tells of her surprise at winning the award, how she opted for hockey ahead of athletics and football, and going from Olympic spectator to competitor.

Listen: Owsley tells BBC World Service about her 2015 dramas

Lily Owsley celebrates European Championship win with England supporters
Owsley celebrates her European Championship win with England supporters

On top of the world

Owsley won the female Rising Star of the Year award, given by hockey governing body FIH, after votes cast by fellow players and the public.

She beat competition from fellow shortlisted contenders Xan De Waard and Maria Verschoor (both from the Netherlands), Charlotte Stapenhorst (Germany) and Rose Keddell (New Zealand).

So how did the University of Birmingham student find out about the accolade?

"I was just on a train on my way up to Nottingham having a coffee and I just looked at my phone. It blew up a bit. The support and messages I got after were just amazing," she said.

"I was in a carriage and people were kind of looking and I just went: 'Yay, I'm so happy' and let it all out. A few people were looking at me like: 'Can you be quiet? I'm trying to get to work here.' I was annoying a few people, I was in shock."

Reliving that European triumph

Less than a year ago, the forward was hooked up to a drip in hospital after contacting meningitis. Within six months, she had fully recovered, helped Great Britain to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and England to win the European Championship.

"Just like all quite serious illnesses, you don't know what's going to happen, but it was very short-lived luckily and no bad repercussions. It wasn't the best thing to get and not great timing but it feels so long ago now," she recalled.

England hockey players celebrate winning European gold
England's hockey players, including Owsley (second from left) celebrate winning European gold in 2015

In the summer of 2014, Owsley put England ahead in the Commonwealth final and they were 11 seconds from gold before an Australia equaliser and defeat on penalties.

Fast forward 12 months, and she equalised for England in the European final before they won gold in a penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands.

"It was unbelievable. I can't really describe it. It's got to go down as my all-time favourite moment of my career when Maddie [Hinch] made the last save and we all went mental. I probably reached my highest speed running to celebrate," she said.

Olympics - from spectator to competitor

"I was watching in the Olympic Park and thinking these girls are just ridiculous. I thought I would never, ever, be as good as these girls."

Owsley is talking about the last Olympic Games, in London, four years ago when GB's women won Olympic bronze. Now she is preparing to compete herself at the Rio Olympics this summer.

"I'd never watched senior hockey before because I was a bit of a football 'hooligan', always watching football, and it was absolutely incredible to watch them - they were athletic, skilful, at the peak of their game.

"You get to realise when you're in it that they are talented but they work that bit much harder, they are up earlier, training, faster, fitter, more skilful. It is completely doable, and possible to be like that."

Getting into hockey

A talented footballer, Owsley played for Bristol City's junior women's team, and was coached at one staged by Mark Sampson, who went on to lead England to a historic third place at the Women's World Cup last year.

"It's Bristol, we breed 'em," she joked on mention of Sampson's own recent spell in the limelight, shortlisted for coach of the year at the Fifa Ballon D'Or awards.

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GB hockey women on tour in Argentina

"I played under Mark for quite a long time and he's such a great guy, such a good coach, which has been shown through what he's done with the Lionesses. I'm glad everyone has seen what he can do."

Owsley, who had also excelled as a middle-distance runner, took up hockey when she moved to a new secondary school aged 13.

"They chucked a stick in my hand and I was terrible. I was awful but after three or four sessions, I slowly moved up the ranks. This much later I am still obsessed with the sport, I absolutely love it.

"For young people to try to get inspired by a sport, you just have to try everything. Everyone has a different preference and skill set, you're bound to find somewhere you do belong. Don't try to specialise too early.

"Hockey needs fitness, speed, skill - it's everything in one game. It's fast, athletic and on top of that you have to think under fatigue and pressure. It's such a big range of skills."

Typical Monday training routine
Morning: Gym work followed by pitch speed drills and running sessions
Afternoon: Lunch, nutrition briefings, physio, group video or discussions then two hours on the pitch including defence and shooting practice

How tough is it?

"If you get knocks, bruises, cuts, it's not until you get in the showers after games that you realise: 'Wow that hurts.' It is rough," she admitted.

"I do now wear a mouth guard. I was told I had to. It's so dangerous and so many people get hit in the mouth, it's not worth it. It took me about 10 years to realise a hockey ball was harder than a football."

Family fortunes

Younger brother Freddie, 19, is also on the path to sporting success, having plumped for athletics over rugby union, and joined a sprint group headed by top coach Tony Hadley, as he bids to reach the world junior championships this year.

Lily Owsley on twitter
Owsley tweeted her brother on his 19th birthday earlier this month

"I actually live with him. He's an inspiration to me - he's so dedicated and determined to make it in his sport. The 400m is his event, where inches and centimetres make all the difference. We really spur each other on," said Lily.

"There's a massive family competition rivalry. If I can do something, he will try to top that. We really push each other on. It's kind of unbelievable to watch him change from this teenage boy to this mature professional athlete.

"He's got his eyes set on the 2018 Commonwealths on the Gold Coast. It would be a dream come true to be in a competition with my brother. The rest of the family would be immensely proud. To watch him and compete in the same tournament for the same team would be unbelievable."

Going for gold

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Lily Owsley targets Rio Olympics gold

Before that Owsley and her Great Britain team-mates will go to Rio as genuine Olympic gold medal contenders.

"If any year has, 2015 has shown we are a team to be reckoned with," she says.

"We've proved that through the Olympic qualifiers [by being] unbeaten, then the Europeans unbeaten. I think in the last year we have beaten every top team in the world.

"The Olympics is a chance for us to show we are the best team in the world and we can win gold."