Friday, 7 May 2010

Out of Africa


In order to get over the heartbreak of a lacklustre Olympic performance and career-threatening injury in the 2008/9 season, a trip back to her roots was all that was required for Leicester’s finest hockey-player, Crista Cullen. Currently fitter and more rejuvenated than ever, the 24-year-old defender spoke to Nicola Bamford about her African adventure and hopes during a busy international 2010.

A British international for the past seven years, Cullen is an inspirational national captain to say the least. Playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a fractured wrist (suffered in a match in Holland when her stick broke in her hand) the London-based athlete went through the pain barrier, courtesy of pain-killing injections to lead Team GB to a solid sixth-place in the Chinese capital.

Cullen explained: “I hadn’t trained hard for four-years to miss the most prestigious sporting event in the world. Though we were ranked seventh in the world, the team was disappointed” – it was then that Cullen decided to take an unusual gap-year to rehabilitate.


Rather than putting her feet and drowning her sorrows, she returned “home”, as she calls it, to Kenya for some much needed ‘R & R’. Born in England to African parents and raised in Kenya until aged-twelve, Cullen revealed:

“Kenya will always be home and every chance I get to have a break from work or training, I’ll try to jump on a plane.”

Not quite as glamorous but far more exciting, Cullen chose to escape her injury disappointment by driving a motor-home along the east coast of Africa with her best friend from her university days:

“After Beijing, I decided to go back – it was always a dream. I did a short mechanic’s course and kitted out my vehicle as a mobile home. At first it was all sun, sea and sand but then it was the rain season and we got caught in a flood ahead of a collapsed bridge we needed to cross, so I used three canoe boats to drive across. Overall, we spent just over three-months travelling about 25,000km.”

Amazing lifestyle

Her father; a former golf-pro, owns the luxury Hemmingway’s hotel in a Niarobi resort and her mother; a former squash-pro, runs the family home – a 20,000 acre ranch in Kenya. Even elder brother Gray is an international rugby player.

“When I’m home, I live in a big tent with its own bathroom in the garden. Behind the wire fence, there’s a watering hole where hippos and giraffes will drink from at all hours – it’s an amazing lifestyle, so different to the ‘rat race’ in London.”

It is in the British capital where Cullen works part-time as a consultant for Sports Recruitment International: “It’s a really cool job,” Cullen explained, “there’s so much understanding and their support has been second to none. I’m lucky to have fallen on my feet.”


Indeed, the trip seems to have done the job and now fully-rehabilitated, Cullen is back to splitting her time between working in the city, training with the GB squad in Bisham Abbey and remaining loyal to her other roots; Leicester hockey club:

“I will never leave Leicester,” she continued, “I try to play with them every weekend and I’ll always remain there.”

Speaking with immense passion for the game which has seen her twice named among the World 11 All-Star team, Cullen spoke of the successful training set-up that she thrives on:

“We’ve got into a centralised training programme in Bisham Abbey in preparation for 2012 and train as a whole GB squad. It’s been really good to get into the nitty-gritty of plays, as we’re together so much. It’s exciting times for such a young squad.”

Gruelling year

Training on the pitch and in the gym several times a week and using video and technique analysis in practice, Cullen continued: “It’s important to keep our fitness really high this year, as in a typical tournament, we’ll play seven games in eleven days and we have three big tournaments this year.”

In a gruelling year of competition, Cullen and co will battle it out in the Champions Trophy in Nottingham in July, the World Cup in Argentina in Aug and the Commonwealth Games in India in October. The squad will also hope to improve on their bronze medals from the latter two competitions in 2007 and 2006, respectively.

“We must be realistic and make our form count when it matters and do some good set pieces,” Cullen insisted, “the priority will be the first two tournaments, where we can get world-ranking points. I’m very excited, especially about Nottingham as it’ll be brilliant preparation for 2012 on home soil. I think we can do well in all three tournaments – anything can happen and I hope to be selected for them all despite them being in quick succession”

50 caps

Fit and raring to go after being warned she might never play again whilst in hospital in Beijing, Cullen will hope to continue her fine vein of form through the action-packed season and celebrate her 25th birthday with a top performance in Argentina.

The outlook too is good, as the outgoing and modest athlete recently took her 50th international cap whilst playing against the Chinese at Bisham:

“I’ve been lucky to be exposed to hockey from quite an early age,” she explained, “I was 16 when I got my first GB cap and now I must have over 100 international caps. Now, there are lots of opportunities to represent your country in hockey – I’ve been pretty lucky to be fit and able to represent GB so many times.”

And what an excellent job this adventurous young woman is doing, as she leads the way for Team GB to chase their Olympic dream in two-years’ time.

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