SA women’s hockey star Shelley Russell celebrates 200 caps

2014-02-13 00:00

“IT should be Brent Russell, brother of South Africa women’s hockey team midfielder Shelley Russell, not the other way round,” chuckled Shelley after winning her 200th Test cap during her country’s fourth Test against Belgium on Jan­uary 31.

Indeed, for one who has played in back-to-back Olympic Games and elevated herself by sheer hard work into becoming one of the most effective players in the engine room in world hockey, Russell has to all intents and purposes lived in the shadow of her more famous former Springbok rugby player brother, who is blessed with playing a far more high-profile sport.

But fear not sibling rivalry, folks, for both come from a very close-knit family and siblings have huge respect and love for one another.

Apart from elite sport, another thing they have in common is an apparent inability to play without having their tongues hanging out.

“Don’t know what it is, but there it is,” says the ever-smiling Shelley. But deep within resides a fierce, unbending will to search for improvement and an enviable approach to the training pitch.

Just ask SA assistant coach Fabian Gregory: “She is immensely critical of her individual performance in that she realises the contribution she has on the team performance. But Shelley has a wicked sense of humour and a top-notch work ethic that enable her to persevere in that search for growth as a player.”

SA head coach Giles Bonnet has this to say, “Shelley is technically and physically competing at the top of her game. Her focus and drive to succeed rubs off positively on the team. Her persistence and ability to win and recuperate the ball makes her a key figure in the SA team.”

Praise indeed for the St Mary’s, Johannesburg, and Maties sports science graduate who was an out-and-out striker early in her career (2008 Beijing Olympics age 20) and now plays the role of an attacking midfielder. Her first cap was in 2006, age 18 (now 26) as a first-year Maties student fresh out of school in front of a packed crowd at her own varsity, Stellenbosch.

Russell has extraordinary pace off the mark and has improved her ball control markedly, posing a constant threat for the best international defences.

“They announced my first cap over the loudspeaker as I ran on as a replacement in front of my friends and family. I was so nervous, but I was advised by one of the experienced players that if I made the first touch of the ball a simple receive-and-pass, it would calm my nerves. I did just that and before I knew it the game was over.

“I could not tell you what the score was at that point because I was so on edge, but we won the Test, and that added to making it such an exhilarating and memorable day for me,” Russell says.

Aged 20 at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she had been plagued with a lower-back injury for the eight months leading up to the Olympics, and a late illness scare, thought to be an inflamed appendix. She says it was a miracle that she was there at all. “Every single match played for one’s country is special, but Hockey World Cups and the Olympic Games are truly fantastic,” she says.

It look like there are many more in store, most notably this year’s World Cup in June in The Hague, Netherlands, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, in July.

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