For a Rossland woman, the long road to the Olympics is getting closer, she just has to pass through Mexico in first, first.
Rossland’s Thea Culley will lead Canada’s women’s field hockey team into the the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico next month.
The Pan Am tournament is an important step to the London Olympics in 2012.
“The Pan Ams are our first opportunity to qualify for the Olympics,” said Culley. “I haven’t played in any Olympic qualifying games before so the pressure and excitement surrounding the games are a little different.”
The national women’s field hockey team is currently ranked 20th in the world but fourth in the Pan Ams, which include nations from North, South and Central America.
The 25-year-old forward started playing field hockey at Rossland Secondary School and, upon graduating, went to play for the University of Victoria Vikings before joining the junior national team in 2004 and the senior national team in 2006.
Culley has played in over 60 international matches in tournaments all over the world, including last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India.
Canada finished a respectable sixth in those games but just being part of them was a revelation for Culley.
“The Common-wealth Games have always been special to me because my grandfather took me to the Athlete’s Parade at the 1994 Games in Victoria. I remember watching the athletes go by and being inspired to one day do the same.”
At the time, Culley had no idea where her dedication and hard work would lead her.
“I just knew I wanted to be an athlete. It was pretty surreal to actually go to the Games and realize that I had reached a goal I had set as an eight year old.”
As a veteran player, her role on the field remains that of a skilled and determined forward.
However, with the many player and coaching changes over the years, her role on the team has evolved.
“I went from being an inexperienced rookie to one of the veterans and leaders in a very short time.
“I’m still the gritty, physical player, growing up in the Kootenays taught me to be, but I think that over the past three years I have come to understand more about what it takes to be a leader off the field.”
The Canadian team will be up against a tough field. Their pool includes world number-one ranked Argentina, as well as Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.
In the event the team does not prevail at the Pan Ams there are still three Olympic qualifying tournaments in the spring.
Win or lose, Culley has no thoughts of retiring from the sport. The next Pan Am games are scheduled for Toronto in 2015 and qualifying for the 2016 Olympics is not out of the question.
“I plan to continue to play until I decide I will be happier doing something else. Like most other athletes, my ultimate dream is to be an Olympian. Over the past three years I have seen my team change and grow and become much stronger technically and tactically. I think that in another four years we will be even stronger and have a much better chance of qualifying.”
Team Canada leaves for Mexico, Oct. 8 and plays Barbados in their first match Oct. 19.
Culley recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in human kinetics and at some point will likely pursue physiotherapy as a “second career.”
Culley trains and lives in Vancouver.