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Memories to treasure

OLYMPICS

THE Tokyo Olympic Games will always be special to Gisborne hockey umpire Amber Church.

And her fondest memories are of the people with whom she mingled.

The Gisborne Intermediate School teacher returned to Gisborne on Monday after completing two weeks in quarantine, along with other members of the New Zealand Olympic team.

“It was certainly great to get home because Gisborne is a great place and I’m proud to be from here,” she said.

“No matter where I go I feel the support of the community, and particularly the likes of (principal) Glen Udall and the staff and students at Gisborne Intermediate, Jo Cumming and of course my partner Craig Christophers and our families.”

Amber said that while hockey was the platform that got her there, and the tournament and games would always be something she would value and respect, it was the people that she would treasure the most.

“We had an incredible group of 51 people there in the hockey tournament — 28 umpires and 23 technical officials, five of whom were from New Zealand.

“Most of them I had met before and was good friends with.

“Every one of us had worked so hard and had our own battles to overcome to be there.

“In other Olympics you’re able to go off to other sports and take in all that the Olympic Games has to offer, but the nature of this Covid-impacted tournament meant that we were allowed to be in only two places — in the hotel or at the pitch — so we were forced to spend a lot of time together.

“We bonded as a group, supporting each other on and off the pitch, and were there for each other’s highs and lows. We may have arrived as friends but we left as family.”

Amber said there were many highlights.

“The whole experience was absolutely amazing and something that will always stick with me for many years to come.

“Every day before breakfast we completed a Covid test and filled in a health questionnaire on a tracking app, so I had 23 Covid tests in total while I was in Tokyo.

“I might be a pro at them now.”

Amber said the Olympics volunteers did their best to make sure they had what they needed and that they had an experience to remember.

“The waves you got from the public, the messages written on building windows, the displays set up in gardens and parks, the origami sprinkled everywhere for you to take, all made you feel like you were valued and welcomed.

“’The support I received from back home was humbling as well. Gisborne people are proud of their own.

“I made sure to watch Tayler Reid and Alicia Hoskin when they were competing and I knew there would be people doing the same for me when I umpired.”

She umpired the first match of the women’s Olympic competition — Netherlands versus India.

“Being able to be part of the group that got the competition under way after such a long wait was pretty exciting,” she said.

“The last pool match I umpired was India versus South Africa, which ended with India winning 4-3. The game was end to end in blistering temperatures (40 degrees).

“There were four video referrals in the first minute of the match, making the first quarter of the match last more than 26 minutes, when it’s usually between 15 and 18 minutes.”

Amber also umpired two of the playoff matches, Argentina versus Germany, and the India-Argentina semifinal.

“To be involved in games that have such an impact beyond the game itself is humbling.”

Amber was reserve umpire for the gold-medal match Netherlands versus Argentina.

“That was a huge honour,” she said.

The hockey officials stayed at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, a 20-minute drive from the hockey stadium.

“Officials from some of the other sports were also based there — tennis, gymnastics and triathlon to name a few.

“All the hockey officials were on the same floor and all had their own rooms, just in case someone got sick and their roommate was exposed as well. Fortunately, no one from the hockey crew became ill.”

Amber said all the Japanese people they met were incredibly welcoming.

“On the way to the pitch we’d see people in their cars, on their bikes or walking down the street and they’d smile and wave at us, excited to see people involved in the Olympics Games so close.”

Amber said it was great to be in the stands to see New Zealand take the field for an international match and to be able to do that at the Olympics was “next level”.

“There were players in the two Kiwi hockey teams I’ve umpired or been around for years now, and it was great to be able to see them competing on the biggest sporting stage in the world,” she said.

“While their final results might not have been what they were hoping for, sitting in the stands and witnessing their efforts it was clear they left everything out on the pitch each time they played, and they did their absolute best to get to the next round.

“Unfortunately not everyone makes it through and at this Olympics, it was New Zealand who missed out.

“I’m sure the players and coaching staff will go away, reflect and many will come back stronger and hungry as a result of the unfinished business they have.”

Amber spent her managed isolation time at the Novotel at Auckland Airport.

“We all knew that it would be a difficult two weeks if we weren’t careful.

“We made sure to keep connected with friends and family while we were there, and lots of us had planned to use the two weeks to catch up on work, study and all those things that don’t get prioritised because you don’t have the time.

“We tried to brighten the day of those around us by having a daily outfit theme.”

Amber made some clothing out of paper bags.

“I’m not sure if it brightened their day or not but it definitely got them talking and it was followed by friends around the world.”

In summary, she said many people had contributed to her journey and helped make her participation at her second Olympic games a reality.

“The support that I have had throughout the past five years has meant the world to me,” she said.

“Thank you everyone.”

AT THE CENTRE OF THE ACTION: Amber Church (centre) is ready to blow her whistle during her third onfield match officiating at the Olympic hockey tournament in Tokyo. The Netherlands and South Africa are the teams taking desperate measures in goalmouth action. Pictures by Yan Huckendubler
DIRECTING PLAY: Amber Church signals during the Olympic Games women’s hockey tournament quarterfinal match between Argentina and Germany.