Wednesday 26 October 2016

Playing hard ball - how Irish hockey keeper David Harte and his teammates fundraised their way to Rio

The steely determination of Ireland's hockey players made them into Olympians. Our reporter meets goalkeeper David Harte who, along with 26 of his teammates, fundraised his way to Rio, in the hope the sport he loves will find its way into Irish hearts

Alison O'Riordan

Published 16/08/2016 | 02:30

Goalkeeper David Harte made his international debut in 2006. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Goalkeeper David Harte made his international debut in 2006. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

It's a rare occasion that an Irish hockey team goes to the Olympics; the last time Ireland fronted a team at the world games was the London Olympics - in 1948. The achievement is all the more remarkable for the 2016 team, given that they had to raise a large chunk of the funding for the trip themselves.

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It's not a fact that exercises the team's goalkeeper, 28-year-old Cork-man David Harte.

"It doesn't annoy me as Irish hockey has never been financially wealthy so it's nothing new to us. We use it as a positive to get ourselves closer as a group - which it has done over the years. Especially when you are working not only on the pitch but off the pitch together, it gives us an extra incentive," he says.

David is one of only five of the 27-man hockey squad who is a full-time player. He is also the only player with a twin brother in the squad.

Twins David and Conor Harte began manoeuvring a ball with their hockey sticks at 13. Now aged 28, the players last week found themselves manoeuvring the ball in an effort to home an Olympic gold for Ireland. At the time of going to press, Ireland has won one of four games, beating Canada 4-2, and suffered defeats by India, Netherlands and Germany.

The players grew up in Kinsale, completely preoccupied with sport. David - the older twin by eight minutes - says they began playing hockey in Bandon Grammar School in Cork. David has played as goalkeeper since first year in secondary school.

"My two older sisters played as well. The love for the game came by being in that school and realising that it was the game for me. The school offered rugby and hockey and my background was Gaelic football but eventually I just fell for hockey," says David.

As an Irish professional hockey player who made his Senior Ireland international debut in 2006, aged 18, David says he has tried playing outfield but just didn't take to it.

"People always joked that I went into goals because I was lazy and I didn't like running around," he laughs. It would take a brave person to crack that joke - the statuesque Cork man stands 6 feet 5 inches tall.

"It's special to play with a family member on your team but even more so when it is your twin brother," says David. "Conor plays as a central defender and by knowing each other so well, sometimes communication can be done with just a look."

The elite athlete was named as goalkeeper of the year by the International Hockey Federation in 2015, and was "incredibly proud".

"It summed up the year we had with Irish hockey. As well as Olympic qualification we also made more Irish hockey history in August 2015 by defeating England to win a European bronze medal for the first time - as well as our coach winning the world's best coach of the year," says David, who has 164 caps to date at time of writing.

Despite being a qualified PE and biology teacher, the avid sportsman plays professionally with SV Kampong, a club in Holland which is part of the Dutch Hoofdklasse.

David had just qualified as a teacher and had accepted a staff job in Sutton Park school in Howth, when the offer came in from the Dutch team. He put his teaching career on hold and accepted it. "It was always something I had wanted to do, and there are not too many places one can play professionally and get some sort of remuneration to play with a contract," he says.

"For the first two years after qualifying as a teacher I was with a club in Holland with my twin brother. However for the last four seasons I've been with SV Kampong and my brother now plays in the Belgian Hockey League."

Hailing from the Cork village of Ballinspittle, David has to spend the majority of his time each year in Holland.

"The season would begin in August with preparation and pre-season, then I'm in Holland from September through to December as well as from the end of February through to May," he says.

Harte also spends six weeks annually in India, where he played with club Dabang Mumbai for the 2016 season. As the league is only around one month in duration, David can play in India as well as continue with his club side, Kampong. It has been reported that he is the most costly goalkeeper in the league, with an estimated worth of $65,000.

"It's a system like the Indian Premier League in cricket. You have six different franchises with different players from all around the world. There is a big auction and if you are lucky enough to be picked up or wanted by a team, you are given a contract for a certain period of time," he says.

The top goal tender doesn't mince his words when he talks about the blood, sweat and tears that went into preparing for the Olympics. Determination, sacrifice, desire and obsession were at the heart of the team's journey to Rio.

"Training started at the end of January this year with a high-intensity training camp in South Africa for two-and-a-half weeks. [The team] played numerous test matches against Spain, South Africa, Belgium and Canada. Then from February those who were playing abroad would fly back of a Sunday after our matches to train in Ireland Monday and Tuesday.

The team then began warm-up tournaments for the Olympics. Not just having to contend with intense training, David and the team had to fundraise ahead of Rio due to a shortage of €225,000 in Irish Sports Council funding. The 'Obsessed' campaign raised vital funds to supplement Government funding.

"The money that came back was unfortunately much less than we had expected," David says.

"We organise fundraising events ourselves and must contribute as players to play for our country. When we had training camps in Dublin or Belfast, we had to home host; there was no staying in hotels or anything like that. It's really doing whatever we can with whatever we have."

He is adamant that a hockey team qualifying for Rio will shake up the sport in Ireland like never before. "We have visions in our heads of people passing a pub and seeing an actual hockey team competing on the screen. Hopefully the wider sporting audience in Ireland [are now] behind us," he says.

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A day in the life of an olympic hockey player

9.30am: Training. On a Monday, he has injuries assessed and sees the physio if needed.

12pm: Cool down. David says while this might not sound like much, it is an essential part of his training. The team take protein shakes and have ice baths to help with recovery.

12.30pm: Lunch.

2pm: Strength and conditioning session. This 90-minute session is done in the gym at the Irish Institute of Sport.

4pm: Individual training/video analysis. After, he does goalkeeper training until 7pm.

7pm: Cool down. David returns to the Irish Institute of Sport after his cool down for dinner with the team.

8pm: Team meeting. This involves a sports psychology chat or a nutritional talk.

10.30pm: Bedtime.

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