The British ladies have belonged to world elite in the past few years, earning multiple medals at Masters, Elite and Age Group World Championships. Men’s teams, however, have been struggling to finish on the podium until the Elite and Masters teams broke the ice at the World Championships in Stellenbosch, both coming third. For the 15th CMAS European Underwater Hockey Championships in Eger, two youngsters joined GB’s Elite team, one of them claiming his first ever medal after four consecutive 6th places at Age Group World Championships.
“It’s a medal, finally!”, 23-year-old Billy Sarsfield said after the lost final against Turkey at the Euros. No wonder why: The youngster had already been part of the U19 team at the Age Group World Championships in Dordrecht that finished 6th, returning as Captain of the U19 selection in 2013 in Eger, where they also ranked 6th after losing the quarter-final against Australia in sudden death. These were followed by two more 6th place finishes in U23: at the 2015 Age Group Worlds in Castellon and just about a month ago in Hobart, Australia.
Sarsfield seriously considered “hanging up his fins” and quitting his much-loved sport forever. “When you’ve never been in the top four, never been in a semi-final and you have never been past the first round of the knockouts, it is really hard to take it mentally. You come back and think maybe you can’t do anymore. I gave everything I had, but it did not seem to make a difference,” the young PE teacher explained.
Unlike U19 star Tom Pitchforth who joined the GB juniors in Castellon for the first time, Sarsfield was not originally selected for the Elite Team. While hesitating, he still went to an Elite training as the team preparing for the tournament in Eger needed opponents for a friendly practice game. Team member Allen Scott’s misfortune became Sarsfield’s luck as the elite number 10 was forced to drop out due to an injury. At the same time, the player of the Dunstable club managed to impress coach Bernie Tarling, still being fit after the Age Group Worlds in Hobart. Tarling asked him to replace Allen just about one week before the tournament.
“After the very last-minute decision of the coach, I thought I’d go for it and I will just do my best. I hoped it would be enough for the team, and apparently, it was enough,” he said after playing in all the games of team GB at the Europeans. “I just did my job every time the puck came to me, I worked hard, I stayed down, flicking the puck to the forwards, hitting hard and making sure I was on the bottom when it was needed,” he added.
Even though there is a difference between junior and elite games, Billy Sarsfield seemed to have no problems adapting to the faster, tougher matches. What he found interesting was the difference in mentality. “It was hard to come from the losing culture of the juniors. The guys in this team love winning and they focus a lot on attacking. The goal in the U19 and U23 was always to figure out how we can defend against the other team, how we can stop them from scoring,” he pointed out the positive playing philosophy in GB’s Elite team. “We always look to score more goals, and we always believe we are able to do so.”
This attitude was on display in the gold medal game as well, when with less than one minute to go, and Turkey leading 5-2, Great Britain was attacking 6 on 3. They managed to put the puck in the tray once more, but the time wasn’t enough for the equalizer. “The English say it’s never done until the fat lady sings,” Sarsfield smiled. “You just have to keep going until the final buzzer, try as hard as you can and try to get the goal. If you do get that goal, it’s on to the next one. Keep working as a team until the last second, and you hopefully get the reward.”
According to the Milton Keynes youngster, there is a bright future ahead of British underwater hockey. “We have been improving every year since 2009,” he pointed out. “Every year since then we’ve gone up one place every tournament: this year is second, so hopefully next year it will be first. Hopefully next year we will be able to get the gold medal in Quebec.”
As for those who find themselves in a similar situation as his after the tournament in Hobart, he has good advice, looking back just a couple of weeks. “Keep going, because you never know what’s going to happen. I did not expect to play for the Elite this year. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t know how well I was going to play in Eger. Just do your job, do your best, and then hopefully you can impress and make yourself stand out, hopefully enough to make you the part of the team.”