The European Championships – My Experience (Part II)

The training camps have been & gone and the programme was gathering momentum. It was as if we were all cheated of time and everything was happening so fast.

Cementing a playbook, repping it out and having the upmost confidence in every call is paramount to success. First rep to last rep they all count, performance cannot dwindle and accuracy is key. This sort of on point accuracy take months to install and we literally had weeks.

I felt tired constantly and worried that I might relapse, get ill (I personally suffer with MS) and not be able to succeed as part of the team. I was thinking about plays, anatomy, my future and nutrition constantly and almost had a feeling of drowning but somehow I kept it all together. Planning and preparation being the key.

Writing down all I had to do and then giving myself smaller bite size targets was the only way forward. The bigger picture was too much for me at this stage. I was training hard and hitting some big lifts, I felt faster, I was stronger and I had the playbook pretty much nailed but all the time I still had doubt – what if I forget it?

A few weeks before we were due to fly out I aggravated an old shoulder injury and I felt so anxious about addressing the issue and highlighting it to the squad. I was worried it would hamper me in Granada and perhaps relegate me to the bench. I had performed well in all the camps and knew if I continued the way I was, that I would start. Saying to a coach “actually, I am not quite 100%” is a big thing. I was in physio regularly right up until the day before we flew.

With my shoulder strapped, bags packed the time had come, we were off to Granada. Half the team from Stansted the other half from Manchester. Trying to fly out a party of 60 during the summer holidays all with extra luggage proved a challenge but our fantastic support team somehow got us to Granada.

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Even upon arrival it just didn’t seem real, dream like and as if this couldn’t be happening to me. Our schedule for the day was posted and we had an entire wing of the hotel for Team GB. All the other countries were in the hotel and this would be our first glimpse of the opposition in the flesh. To say team GB is small would be an understatement. We were dwarfed by many of the players from across Europe but one in particular, the German Offensive Lineman who we had anticipated to stand and face me. She was 2metres tall so 6ft 6 – and me being 5ft 5 – left me towered by this giant. She wasn’t an anomaly though, everyone seemed bigger, stronger and harder.

No time for rest we had practise scheduled, meetings and rehab. Now playing football at the best of times is hard, hot and long. But playing in 40degree heat, direct sunshine, no breeze was something else. Preparing for this sort of atmosphere was impossible. Couple that with expectations, nerves and excitement it felt as if you couldn’t breathe. Literally having to have a team mate pull your jersey from your skin after practise as it had stuck with sweat. Not being able to focus on your own hand in front of your face. We were drinking close to 6litres of water a day, plus hydration drinks and gains protein and yet still you felt thirsty.

We were weighed pre and post practise to make sure we had taken on enough fluid. Many of the players suffered in the heat. Suncream, ice and cold towels were always on hand. Our meal times through to structured rest was all planned and coordinated. Nothing left to chance. What we wore, ate and did was deliberate.

Our first challenge was the German side. Strong, powerful and the longest formed women’s tackle football side in Europe. With over 20 years experience. They had openly told us they would win, they were confident, but we had a plan.

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Stepping out on to the field to open the championship with 44 players and 15 coaches/support staff was electric. Nothing can explain what goes through your mind and the turbulence of emotion as you walk out knowing you are about to face pain, joy, excitement and all whilst executing your play to perfection for the team. I had shed a tear many times over the course of the programme but standing side by side my team mates before we walked out that day I was crying again.

Some of those tears were fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the hurt, fear of letting someone down. When the anthem sounds and you realise its game time the tears become focus. Robotic and deliberate. Kick off fast approached. The game was a whirlwind and to go in at half time 7-6 up was more than we could of ever expected. We had silenced the Germans and opened the eyes of all the other teams and supporters at the tournament. We had a saying that once you get your hand round the neck of your opponent you don’t let go. No mercy. We had our chance to win a game. We had done our homework, we had prepared and we had shocked the football world. Rank outsiders, the rookie team of Europe had beaten the 2nd seeds. Score finished 17-6. We were guaranteed a shot of the bronze medal in a third v fourth playoff game. We had already smashed expectation out the water.

Two days to prepare for Sweden. Waking up and feeling like you have been hit by a bus that then reversed and ran back over you is the only way to describe football. But you feel good that you survived that your body was strong enough to withstand the pressure and impact on your opponent. The schedule for the day ahead – practise, team stretch, rehab, meetings, mini meet, film review.

There was no time to feel sorry for yourself or wonder if you were fit enough. Next up Sweden.

We have developed a bond with Sweden over the past year as they have helped GB progress the squad and have given us the opportunity to play them in exhibition games and our first 11v11 friendly in Stockholm last year. A fantastic side with experience and a quarterback with one of the best arms in the game.

Don’t change the plan, play our game and dare to dream. We had nothing to lose yet I felt far more nervous than when we had played the Germans. If we won this game we would go to the final. Who would of ever thought this underdog side who previous to the tournament had played only 2 games together as a team could be a finalist?

Another morning kick off and the heat was exhausting. The changing rooms were like saunas and many players found shade and water outside the stadium in search of a gentle breeze. By now we had a song uniting us as one and it echoed out from the changing rooms and the ground speakers. Radioactive – Imagine Dragons.

Sweden were strong but they appeared to not be firing on all cylinders. Martina Karlsson, there Quarterback, was out the game injured early after a big hit in the back field. They had to go to their run game and that was where our defense triumphed. They did not gain a yard and with every hit GB grew in confidence. Martina rallied and was back for the 4th quarter and Sweden started to peg back the score but it wasn’t enough. GB win, GB through to the final.

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We were now starting to realise how much support we were receiving back home in the UK and twitter, FB messages were flooding in. Sports stars, celebrities were all following the #Roar4GB and it was when we had to dress to record a thank you message that I thought hang on a minute we are raising the profile, exceeding our expectations and really showcasing the sport. That alone felt like a win.

Showing that you can be, and do anything you put your mind to. Showing that women can be combative athletes who can be physical and brutal in play with strength, endurance and power was exhilarating. We are women from all different back grounds, all with jobs, families and commitments and we are playing in a European Final for our country.

The next few days were a blur. I had some serious bruises and knocks and was suffering with back and glute pain. Many of the team were struggling with lack of sleep and injuries but we remained focused. The Physios worked overtime to prepare a team for its 3rd game in 7days. This third game was the final and it would be the most physical contest we had faced against the undefeated, world ranked number 3, seeded number one – Finland. All to gain, nothing to lose.

Join me for Part III in a few days time.

Laura