The women’s field hockey champion on body image, mental health and the transcendent joys of teamwork
Words Meredith Leston
Photographer Drew Shearwood
Stylist Ella Gaskell
It was a fortuitous fall. At just 17 years old, Sam got the call from the Ladies Senior England Hockey Team, and her sporting career has gone from strength to strength in the 12 years since, – she now has over 125 caps to her name. But she’s also garnering attention off the pitch. With a stint in the celebrity jungle and a new career in sports presenting on the cards – not to mention a natural talent for modelling, as our shoot clearly demonstrates – Quek is diversifying fast.
Hockey, however, remains at the centre of her life. She calls it her “bread and butter”, but it’s clearly more of a vocation than a job. ‘I love being around friends,” she says, “and I think when you’re within a team there’s something really about sharing the experience together – whether it’s winning or losing. It’s always really nice celebrating with the team, your accomplishments. But it’s when things aren’t going right that you see special things happen.
I think when you’re within a team there’s something really about sharing the experience together – whether it’s winning or losing.
So she’s not afraid to fail – but then times have been very good for Quek. Last year Team GB won its first ever women’s hockey Gold, after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out. Well, nail-biting for the spectators, if not for Quek. Being under such pressure, she explains, is just another day at the office for her and the GB squad. “You go to your habits and what you feel most comfortable with. You choose how to play to your strengths.”
It’s sage advice for us all, although Quek seems to have rather a lot of strengths to play to. After a good showing on ITV’s sports gameshow Play to the Whistle, she is on the way to achieving her “complete number one dream” of presenting the Olympics. And the transition from pitch to screen isn’t as jarring as you might think. “As a sports person I always want to get it right,” she explains, “to get my hands on any extra information.” She’s full of gratitude for “the people and channels who believe in me, that I could ever do this sort of thing” – people and channels that include 73.5K Twitter followers and 111K Insta-fans, proving that she’s capturing an audience of a size and diversity that was simply inaccessible to female hockey players of the past.
But celebrity status is far from the goal. “Nowadays, celebrity is such a broad term,” Quek says wryly. A lifestyle spent “getting attention from going out in nightclubs” just doesn’t appeal. In her eyes, a true sports star “performs on the pitch and off it. They’re right in the headlines, doing the right stuff in the community, the right stuff training-wise, and they concentrate on winning medals. That’s what makes them commercially viable for companies and a productive brand.”
Quek is very aware that, for her, “the right stuff” includes being a positive role model for girls. “I made a survey ages ago on my Twitter page and I found that girls at the age of 12 or 13 would drop out of sports, afraid it would be seen as masculine and not cool, not glam. But I always say you can be both. Why make yourself choose? I don’t want anyone to have one impression of women.”
I found that girls at the age of 12 or 13 would drop out of sports, afraid it would be seen as masculine and not cool, not glam. But I always say you can be both. Why make yourself choose? I don’t want anyone to have one impression of women.
She knows only too well the pressure women in sport feel to play the media’s game as well as their own. Although she clearly enjoys our shoot, and the resulting images project a powerful picture of a healthy, happy woman at the top of her game, she is rightly concerned that girls be educated about the difference between life and art. “One of my main objectives when I speak to young girls especially is to make them realize I may look glamorous in that picture, but I don’t look like that girl,” she says. “I’ve had my hair and makeup done, I’ve been airbrushed. It is so, so important to make young girls realize that, in order to make them happy within their own bodies.”
Despite – or because – athletes’ bodies are the tools of their trade, the sports industry can be a breeding ground for eating disorders and body dysmorphia. There’s particular pressure on female athletes to remain strong, yet also unrealistically slim. Thankfully, Quek claims that her and her team are sheltered from such pressure. “Though it’s easy to compare your body to others, from an early stage in the programme we have it in our values to learn and respect everyone as an individual,” she insists. “Hockey is so healthy in that respect. On that pitch, what you look like is the last thing on your mind: you have sweat in your eyes and god knows what else. But whether you’re at work or in sport or anywhere in life in general, mental health is one of those things where we need to open up and talk about it.’
People don’t want to follow a team that aren’t winning, that’s just the reality.
She is pragmatic about how to even the score. “You have to 100 per cent win trophies. People don’t want to follow a team that aren’t winning, that’s just the reality. Winning the Olympic gold, the most credible achievement out there in sport, that is vital to moving forward.” And indeed it has been – Sam tells me that over 10,000 new players joined the game after that Gold in Rio. But she believes the real damage comes in how we celebrate male sports stars over their female counterparts. “Every female athlete out there is without a doubt a role-model. If you look at the men’s side, they have their whole story out there: every sports fan knows their history, their injury record, the tough journey that had to go through to get to where they are now. Let’s make more female athletes like that. Let’s get to know them off the pitch so people will follow the individual, and then the team.”
Quek’s own role model is a little closer to home, in the form of her 96-year-old nan, Dolly. “She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever come across. Her date of birth is 1921. When you look at that, what she’s seen and experienced, [you can’t help but] imagine how times have changed. In the [Rio] Olympics she had a massive stroke – doctors still are baffled how she got through, but she wanted to see that Gold medal. She couldn’t speak or move; my sister had to put the headphones on her for the commentary. But everything, she just bats it away. She inspires me to be the best person I can be. I’ve always wanted to do better, to give her the good news. Her reaction and how proud she just is, is just priceless.”
Quek might play under the number 13, but this is one woman whose success clearly has very little to do with luck.
Coat, SIAH HOWARD
Photographer Drew Shearwood
Stylist Ella Gaskell
Make-up & Hair Charlotte Cromer
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