• Hockey History

Joan Lewis tells her story as part of Black History Month

Joan Lewis

As part of Black History Month and with the help of the Hockey Museum; England Hockey is sharing stories from some significant figures in the sport's history.

Joan Lewis played for England and Great Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and reflected on her time on the international stage.

The first time I played hockey I was very young, I had a friend at the end of the road whose parent was a PE teacher, they always had kit in their garden although I do remember getting hit in the mouth with a stick around age seven and running straight home! By the time of getting to secondary school, my older sister was playing so of course I did too. The school was actually a netball school so we had no hockey pitch on the grounds and had to play at the local boys' school where we had a hut next to the pitch. I couldn't accept netball as a sport where only two players could shoot! I just wanted to be involved, so soon enough my Saturdays were very busy playing hockey for the school, county and club.

All of this was in Chesterfield where we were the only black people for miles, but we got used to it. I think it wasn't until I was aged 16 that I had another black pupil in my class at school. So hockey reflected that, I was the only black player around but I loved the sport so I just got on with it. It was never an issue for me.

I remember reaching a tournament that was known as the Territorials, I didn't actually know it was when the England under 18 squad was being selected! At the end of the tournament I remember names were called out to stand at the front, I was next to Kath Johnson and next thing I knew people were clapping and I realised that I'd been selected. They gave us our kit straight away = although we had to pay for it as there was no sponsorship or lottery funding at the stage - and I remember going home and laying it all out on my bed. I'd had to miss a day's school to play, so my friends were wondering what I'd been up to and then they saw the kit!

When I first trained with the England under 18s, I saw the skills those girls could produce. I knew I was fast and unusual but this was an eye-opener at that stage. It was on Astro and I was only used to grass so I didn't even have the right shoes. But I was allowed to go through the house practicing my skills and using the skirting board in the utility room to practice my reactions. I only had one stick, whereby the other girls were turning up with stick bags and a selection of sticks in there. I'd had my photo in the paper a couple of times though so I wrote off to companies asking for sticks and shoes; Patrick sent me some football boots and I think I got Stuart Surridge and DFV Blue Diamond sticks before eventually Slazenger.

Just before the Seoul Olympics in 1988 I got a letter from Great Britain Hockey asking a few of us young players to join several training camps with the full squad, I was gobsmacked! So I actually met the GB squad before the England squad. The style was very different; England was quite regimented but GB would give you the skeleton and allow you to express yourself within it.

Once I got into the full England squad, the absolute highlight of my international career was when we won the Europeans in 1991. It had been a horrible year, there had been talk of disbanding the senior team and just running the Under 21s. Our coach Sue Slocombe did everything that even professional footballers weren't doing; pilates, vitamins, sports science, you name it. It was still a miracle that we won the tournament, we watched the final ten years later and we weren't sure how we managed it! I just remember crying my eyes out at the end of the match, we were stunned because nobody expected it. I think on the flight home was when I finally felt totally confident in my ability at that level, it was an amazing feeling.

Joan Lewis

The only time when I was conscious of a racial insult was at the World Cup in Australia in 1990; myself and teammates got into the lift and some of the German team got in too. One of their players said something but little did they know that my teammate spoke German. She answered them back straight away. To this day I don't know what was said, but all I know is that she defended me and we beat them on the pitch. That was the only time anything happened in hockey; other than that it was what we thought at the time was normal stuff, you might get the N word from a seven-year-old walking down the street in Chesterfield. When the TV programme Roots would come on I dreaded it because you'd get called Kunta Kinte for the month. But in sport I never truly felt it.

Through all of this time I wanted to go to the Olympics but never managed it. Honestly, it still hurts today. I went with the squad to Barcelona about six months before the 1992 games for a training camp; that might actually have been when I made my GB debut. But before the final selection weekend I sliced the top of my cartilage off the bone so I missed the final round of selection. Would I have made the squad? Who knows. So my GB career was short but eventful! I was delighted for my friends to get a bronze medal in the games, lots of them had finished fourth in the previous games so it was a huge thing.

After all that though I realised I needed a job! I'd been working at BT while playing but realised I couldn't do both anymore so eventually qualified as an accountant.

One thing England Hockey did that was very good was the reunion a couple of years ago [at the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup in London] when every female player from all generations got together. I got the chance to speak to Rosie Sykes, I remember seeing her play at Wembley, it was the first time I had seen a black player. I managed to get a picture [below], we had a chat and she asked if there was anything else she could have done but I said not at all - playing was enough!

Joan Lewis and Rosie Sykes

Now I think the way forward is encouraging kids to play, no matter what colour you are. I'm still a bit wounded from when my eldest daughter started to play netball and then told me she doesn't like sport! My youngest is more like me though, but is more into dancing. Most of all team sport is a life skill.

Unfortunately I can't play any more because of my knee, I only recently had the ACL repaired. But I do Body Combat and play table tennis, I hear maybe Walking Hockey would be a good thing but I might be tempted to run!

The Hockey Museum (THM) is the first and only museum of hockey in the world. It aims to preserve, share and celebrate the rich history and heritage of the sport of hockey. For more details visit www.hockeymuseum.net