Naylor's finding mojo in the Bay

By ANENDRA SINGH - SPORTS EDITOR


She is in every sense doing what All Black captain Richie McCaw will embark on soon - a well-earned sabbatical.

Emily Naylor's break from international hockey began following the London Olympics in August shortly after the Black Sticks bowed out of the third-fourth playoffs against hosts Great Britain.

But juxtapose Naylor with McCaw and myriad similarities crop up in almost Oprah Winfrey fashion - the American talkshow queen had a penchant for identifying with her interviewees' experiences.

The hockey player from Palmerston North turns 27 on December 23 and he'll be 33 on December 31, having chalked up his 116th test in a losing game against England at Twickenham on Sunday morning (NZ time) since slipping on the black jersey in 2001.

Naylor, on the other hand, has played more than 200 tests for her country after making her debut as an 18-year-old and making the cut for the Athens Olympics and adding two more Games to her profile.

But there are no tell-tale signs of wear and tear on the lithe torso of Naylor who is now living and working as a personal trainer at Snap Fitness in Hastings.

When the Black Sticks women play their two test matches against the touring India team at Park Island, Napier, this weekend, Naylor will find herself in the awkward position of watching the game from the spectator stands.

"It'll be interesting although I've watched a few games before as a player with injuries," explains the 2004 World Hockey Junior Women's Player of the Year nominee.

With a group of other senior players, she emphasises the break from hockey was voluntary.

Pivotal to their decision to lose themselves in other interests was coming agonisingly close to the dream of playing in the London Olympics final but a penalty shoot-out loss to the Dutch in the semifinals put paid to that.

The defeat to Great Britain for bronze was a testimony to how emotionally, physically and mentally drained the Black Sticks were from the semifinal loss.

"There were a few tears, swear words and if-onlys," Naylor says with a grin.

"Me and a few older girls realised we never had a chance before that to be so close [to playing for gold] so when it slipped away it was just heart-breaking," says the "screen player" who the ABCD Hockey Magazine voted Oceania Player of the Century in 2007.

Appropriately coach Mark Hager became a timely therapist for his drained troops.

"It's a horrible thing finishing fourth but Mark knew exactly how we felt because he had finished fourth once when he was playing for the Australian men's team," she explains of a team meeting in London where they dug deep to try to distance themselves from the gut-wrenching defeat and channel their depleted energy into finding a common denominator that intended to instil a sense of refocusing on the task ahead.

"We were emotionally high up there," she explains, raising her hand above her head to indicate the intensity, before adding, "and then it came crashing down and we went all quiet, shutting down physically and mentally."

In many ways, surrounding herself with people who are motivated to find a level of accomplishment in fine-tuning their bodies sits quite comfortably with her.

She is building her stamina and fitness taming the goat tracks of Te Mata Peak.

For someone who also crammed in three seasons playing professionally in the Dutch league, there was the imminent danger of losing traction with a game she loves.

"I didn't want to get stale and give it up altogether."

Naylor isn't naive enough to believe Hager will simply take her and the other senior players back simply because they'll turn up to training or trials early next year with the aim of making the tour of Argentina at the end of February.

Hager has recruited an exciting crop of youngsters to play India in the 3pm starts on Saturday and Sunday although hockey fans will be able to watch them train at the hockey stadium from 3pm to 4.30pm today, tomorrow and Friday after they converged here yesterday.

They will also train tomorrow and Friday from 9am to 10.30am.

India train from 4.30pm to 6.30pm on Friday and 9am to 10.30am on Saturday.

Naylor is indebted to the Hawke's Bay business community for sponsoring the Black Sticks through the London Games.

A New Zealand Olympics Committee youth ambassador, she will be visiting several schools in the province.

"It's a change from Palmy and I love the weather here. Of course, having some friends helps, too," she explains, happy to visit areas that keep her in touch with her birthplace.

She'll be helping with coaching young talented players at the Bay hockey academy and it excites her that the Bay offers a great opportunity for managing events, something she has trained for as part of her sports degree.

"I did a big day out kind of thing for young hockey players in Palmy where their parents came out and had fun, too."

Naylor's interest in hockey grew from the age of 4 when she watched her older brothers play the game.

A teacher at her former College Street Normal School, Diane Elgar, became her first coach, honing her primitive skills.

"I enjoyed playing against boys and I didn't like losing to them," says Naylor whose sister, Alice Naylor, 23, is a right half/screen for the Central Mystics.

"She's a decent player but not quite as driven as me. She enjoys her social life and works in Wellington."

In a defensive mould, a grinning Naylor reveals she has scored only one goal to date - against PNG in an Olympic qualifier in 2008 in Brisbane.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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