The most capped Welsh international sports star of all time is about to devote all her energies and focus to her sport. Leah Wilkinson is taking the plunge with a huge prize on the horizon as Graham Thomas reports.
Leah Wilkinson is preparing to become a full-time athlete in order to finally achieve her Olympic dream.
The Wales hockey captain – who belatedly made her Great Britain debut this autumn after winning a record-breaking 169 caps for her country – is in talks with her employers and GB Hockey about a sabbatical that will free her to go to Tokyo next year.
Wilkinson – whose staggering tally of Welsh appearances makes her the most capped international of all time in any Welsh team sport – is a history teacher and Head of Year 10 at Ewell Castle School, Epsom in Surrey.
Not surprisingly for someone whose job it is to know what makes empires tick, she understands that for GB women to extend their era of dominance to a second Olympic Games, then planning and preparation is fundamental.
Luckily, so do GB Hockey and her school so that all sides are working through a release period from her job that will enable her to train and play full-time over the next few months.
“It’s been a juggling act – I could take part in the circus!” says the 32-year-old who has been combining teaching with playing for Wales and her club Holcombe.
“My colleagues have been brilliant in often covering for me. Sometimes, it has been stressful trying to combine everything, but neither the school nor GB have really been left in the lurch. I’ve been able to commit to both things.”
Her breakthrough into the GB squad in October – which many feared might never come – now means training demands are ramping up and so changes are needed.
Brilliant news!!! https://t.co/mFo7tGxKkA
— Leah Wilkinson (@Leahwilkinson17) November 18, 2019
“I’ll be having a meeting with the coaches and discussions will take place. Over the past few months, I have been balancing work with hockey, but the players now have full time contracts, supported by UK Sport.
“Work have been fantastic, but because of how it now steps up in terms of commitment, I wouldn’t be able to combine both for the next six or seven months.
“The school have said I can take a sabbatical. It means the pressure is off a little and means that I know my job is still there after Tokyo. It also means they are not left without a history teacher.”
There are benefits for those at Ewell Castle, too, including the children.
“It’s nice to have the kids come up to me and want to talk about what they may have seen on TV, or want to chat about the Olympics.
“It means they are watching sport and being motivated by sport, which is great. Trying to inspire children is one of the privileges of being a teacher.”
Four years ago, the idea that Wilkinson – whose family moved to Surrey from Swansea – would be needing to go full-time in order to go to an Olympic Games seemed fanciful.
Like millions of others, she watched GB women storm to Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in her living room on TV, even though she was a firmly established Welsh international.
She had been for GB trials on a few occasions, but either she didn’t fit with a coach’s playing style or else rival players were considered better options.
Others in Welsh hockey may have written off her chances of breaking through, but Wilkinson never did and after 15 years of trying, she finally persuaded the GB selectors she was worth inclusion this season.
A victory over India was followed by crucial Olympic play-off wins against Chile and suddenly the outsider was part of the mainstream, preparing to defend their title in Japan next summer.
“I remember watching the last Olympic final at home on TV. It was very tense, but I think I never thought then there would be a potential for me to maybe be on the plane going to Tokyo.
— Leah Wilkinson (@Leahwilkinson17) November 11, 2019
“It felt a distant prospect. I’d had a couple of trials in the years previously and wasn’t successful. I was 28 and watching that Olympics I didn’t really think that I’d be involved at 32.
“But I never gave up total hope. I tried to be as consistent and fit as I could be, but there was probably only a little part of me that thought it could happen.
“Sometimes, you just don’t fit into a certain coach’s philosophy or the way a team plays, or there are others players in your position. But the stars have aligned. It’s hard to say I’m a better player than I was at 28. Some things are better – I’m more experienced and that’s a benefit.”
What helped convince the doubters, perhaps, was the continual totting up of those Wales caps, often against the best opposition around.
“I would hope that playing for Wales – especially at my third Commonwealth Games – has played a part in my selection. I was able showcase what I could do.
“It was about keeping fit and never giving up hope. I’m lucky that I’m now having this opportunity even though it’s maybe in the twilight of my career. I feel really honoured and proud to represent Great Britain and be given a shot now.”