School’s out for hockey star Leah Wilkinson but focus remains on Tokyo glory

By Phil Blanche, PA
PA Media: Sport

Great Britain hockey player Leah Wilkinson is determined to fulfil her Olympic dream after Tokyo 2020 was postponed during her sabbatical from teaching.

In January Wilkinson started an eight-month break from Ewell Castle School in Epsom, where she is a history teacher and Head of Year 10, to allow her to focus on preparation for Tokyo.

The postponement of this summer’s Games due to the coronavirus pandemic is a difficult enough situation for full-time athletes with competitions, schedules and training plans to rearrange.

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But for athletes like Wilkinson, who has to balance a career outside her chosen sport, it has led to all sort of complications which she admits she does not yet have the answer to.

“The reason I took my sabbatical is because I love my job, school and colleagues and it is somewhere I want to work after I finish playing hockey,” Wilkinson told the PA news agency.

“The decision to postpone the Olympics has obviously just been made and I’m not in a position at the moment to speak to school, or even think about what’s going to go on into next year.

“That’s something I will have to chat about with my family and friends and also my school.

“The most important thing is I don’t leave people in the lurch. I need to keep communication lines open and make sure I make the best decision for everyone in the next year.”

Burton-born Wilkinson, who turns 34 in December, has had to wait a long time for her Olympic opportunity.

Wilkinson plays her national hockey for Wales, qualifying through her Swansea-born mother Anne, and joined the Welsh set-up as long ago as 2004.

Her 171 senior appearances makes Wilkinson the most capped international of all time in any Welsh team sport, but she did not make her Great Britain debut until late last year.

Suddenly the chance to be a part of the squad seeking to repeat the gold-medal success of Rio 2016 became a reality.

“School has been supportive the last few years with Wales,” said Wilkinson, who captains the national team.

“I’ve been away a lot, I’ve been to three Commonwealth Games while being a teacher and a couple of them were when I was at my current school.

“I’ve also been to other tournaments as well. It’s a lot on employees to give athletes time off.

“So the sabbatical was there as a way of me saying to my employers that I’m committed to the school and I will come back after the Olympics.

“I think that was security for both of us. Taking another sabbatical (next year) is definitely an option, but it has to work for both parties.”

Wilkinson, who has now won nine caps for Great Britain, insists it was the right decision to postpone the Olympics until next year.

“We all love sport, but obviously it’s not as important as people’s health,” she said.

“Hopefully this delay is just another bump in the road and I can still push to achieve those Olympic dreams.

“The last year has been amazing. I’ve played for Wales since 2004 and I never expected the opportunity to push for the Olympics for Great Britain.

“I’ve had many challenges in my career and I see this as another one.

“It’s about staying fit and healthy and I will do everything I can to get selected.”

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