The making of an Olympic hockey star

By James Fuller

There was relief and excitement in the Tauranga home of Black Sticks midfielder Gemma Flynn yesterday as she was named in the squad flying to the London Olympics next month.

Her proud parents Rob and Michelle took time out from the celebrations to talk about the journey which has seen their daughter reach her second Olympic Games.

"It was a relief for Gemma really," Mrs Flynn told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend. "She's been in and around the team for four years now and I know how hard she has worked and the sacrifices she has made this year especially. But the coach has quite rightly made it clear that even if you are an established team member you're not guaranteed a spot."

The extended Flynn family can now set about finalising travel plans which sees them head to England for a five-week trip from July 26. It is the continuation of a wonderful success story for the woman who made her debut as a 17-year-old, against Korea in Auckland in 2008.

"It's all been a huge privilege for us," said Mrs Flynn. "We don't feel we've made her into anything, she's done it all herself, we've just been along for the ride and it's been so exciting."

While Gemma has had to put in the hard yards, she has done so with the unfailing support of a close-knit family.

It is a fact the 104-cap Black Stick is keen to acknowledge.

"Mum and dad support me in whatever I do. Early on that was financially and taking me places, coming to the tournaments, all of which really helped me get to where I am now. But the whole of my family is really close, my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and nanna. Their support, as well as that of my friends, has been so important. They have definitely got a different perspective and are proud of you no matter what. It's great to have people to talk to away from hockey."

For Mr and Mrs Flynn it was clear from an early age Gemma had the right ability and attitude to succeed.

"As a toddler she was very agile and co-ordinated," said Mrs Flynn. "She was good at all sports and was a bit of a daredevil. In the playground she'd swing the swings right up to the maximum, which would scare other parents but we knew what she was capable of."

Mr Flynn recalled his daughter as being an unflappable youngster.

"Nothing fazed her. You could take her out fishing in rough seas, it didn't bother her, or oystering in deep channels and she'd just go for it. Karting, she would clean everyone up in go-karts. She had that attitude of giving everything a go."

The competitive streak so evident on the world's hockey fields was also revealed early.

"Gemma's the youngest of three," said Mrs Flynn. "We have two sons, Jared and Isaac, and Isaac is a very good hockey player too. He's four years older but as youngsters they'd play each other and Gemma would try her hardest to beat him. That might happen one out of 50 times but she never gave up."

That tenacity and talent was soon transferred to school games, and again Gemma stood out.

"When you have children you like watching them play however good they are, but I just have this memory of watching her when she was really little. It was as if the other kids were standing still because she was just all over the place with the ball," said Mrs Flynn. "She started playing hockey at five but she played lots of other sports as well - netball, soccer, touch rugby."

As a teenager, Gemma took a break from hockey for two years to concentrate on soccer, a decision her mother said was a positive long-term one.

"It was good because she came back to hockey at 15 with the attitude that it was what she wanted. It has to come from within and I think that is what I would say to the parents of any talented child. Let them have fun in sport, don't push them. Be supportive as much as you can and the sport finds them. The motivation and drive to succeed has to come from them."

Doing all they could to support Gemma was never a debate, no matter how hard it might get.

"At that age, with three kids and a mortgage, it was a bit of a stretch both time-wise and financially. And you have to make it fair for all the children. I was lucky as I was running my own business then and I had more flexibility with my time.

"You basically turn into a taxi between 3-6pm on weekdays and again on the weekends, because everything she played she got into a rep team for. It was pretty much full-on all the time."

And those costs mounted.

Mr Flynn, a contract engineer, laughed at the thought of what a total bill might come to.

"If you added it all up I guess it would be a lot. I think it's best not to. It's all worth it though."

The benefits for the Flynns have included extra travel opportunities.

Gemma's appearance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was unexpected as the 18-year-old had only recently broken into the national set-up.

"It was her first year in the team so the likelihood of her getting picked was not that high. When she got the news she was in it was absolutely incredible. The night she found out we booked our tickets.

"In Beijing, all the parents and families of the players were together in the stand supporting, it was so good. You were feeling so patriotic and proud and then your daughter's actually out there too, so it's even better."

The role played by Gemma's family has also changed as her career has progressed.

"It's a bit different with Gemma now as a professional, you're called on more for emotional support," said Mrs Flynn, a teacher at Tauranga Intermediate School.

"We have to judge where she's at mentally, and it can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs especially in an Olympic year like this, there's a lot more pressure. We have a rule when she comes back from playing where it's either she doesn't want to talk about hockey or I'm allowed five questions.

"We're very proud of what she's achieved but we're just as proud of our two boys who are both talented and successful in their own right. Gemma's never been given special treatment because she's good at hockey."

Mrs Flynn said her daughter remained humble and grounded about what she had achieved. Those achievements have seen the 22-year-old former Tauranga Girls College student become an established Black Sticks figure and twice being selected in the World All Stars Team.

It will be a familiar cheering squad on the sidelines in London urging the team on to Olympic glory. "It's exciting watching but it can be nerve-wracking as well," said Mrs Flynn.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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