11 May 2012
“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary”. That’s the motto that drives the captain of the South African men’s hockey team, Austin Smith.
Under coach Gregg Clark, Smith recently led South Africa to a stirring 2-1 victory over Japan in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Kakamigahara to claim the last available hockey place at the London Olympic Games.
That victory brought to an end a tough qualifying road for the South African men’s team. They were guaranteed a place at the Olympics after being crowned African champions in September 2011, but the South African Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) ruled that they would have to prove themselves against tougher competition to secure a place in London.
Sascoc tasked the South Africa team with finishing at least runner-up in the Champions Challenge. They narrowly missed out on achieving that finish; a 3-1 win over world number eight Argentina left South Africa in third place.
That left Smith and company with the option of winning the qualifying tournament in Kakamigahara, or staying at home while the South African women’s team, which won an Olympic qualifying tournament in New Delhi, went to London. Thankfully for the men’s team, they did what was necessary.
Smith will be playing in his second Olympics. Previously, in 2008 in Beijing, he finished as the team’s top scorer, netting four times as the side finished a disappointing twelfth, without a win. Four years on from Beijing, Smith will lead a much better team in London.
Sacrifices and commitment
It has been quite a journey to the top for Smith, and it has required some sacrifices and huge commitment to his chosen sport.
The youngest of four children, he began playing the game at the age of five. With the guidance of his siblings and of parents who played competitive hockey in South Africa and the United Kingdom, the game came to him quickly.
He found a mentor at school in speedy former national striker Murray Anderson, who encouraged Smith to focus his energy on hockey. Anderson believed that his young protege had it in him to become an international player, and Smith was just 12 years of age at the time!
In high school, he represented his province at under-13 level and then earned national colours in the under-16 and under-18 age groups, and captained both teams.
In March 2004, aged only 18, he earned his first call-up for South Africa in a three-test series against Canada. “It was an incredible feeling walking onto the field to play my first match for South Africa, and it remains a special moment every time I wear the green and gold,” he said in a recent interview with the South African Hockey Association.
Smith, though, later admitted that he wasn’t quite ready for the big step up and said he felt out of his depth. Once he had the opportunity to train regularly with the national team, he began to feel more comfortable.
The following year, Smith played for South Africa at the Under-21 World Cup in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He also joined top English club Reading, where he remained for four years.
“Playing in the English Premier League made the biggest difference in my game. The standard of the training sessions was what I enjoyed the most. Although we only trained for two hours twice a week, with a game on the weekend, the quality of what we did, and with the players I had around me, made it top quality,” he said.
“I chose Reading Hockey Club because of the level of players that were already there. It meant that every time I trained I needed to be at my best, and my game rapidly developed in all aspects.”
During his time with Reading, the club won the English Premier League twice and made the last eight of the European League in consecutive years.
In 2008, Smith realised a lifelong dream when he took part in the Olympic Games. He was named the South African men’s Player of the Year, as well as Reading Hockey Club Player of the Year.
The following year, he was appointed captain of South Africa. He also made a move from the UK to The Netherlands, joining Den Bosch to play in the Dutch League, regarded as possibly the best league in the world.
That same year, 2009, Smith was named in the World All Star Team, proof that he had elevated his game to among the elite of the hockey world.
He helped South Africa qualify for the 2010 World Cup by leading the team to victory in the African Championships.
They finished tenth in the World Cup and placed fifth at the Commonwealth Games. Smith was once again named South Africa’s Player of the Year.
In 2011, he led South Africa to the title of African champions once more.
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