A quiet Norfolk farming community might not be the most obvious foundation for a career as an international athlete, but it worked for Richard Alexander.
The 30-year-old has notched up 183 caps playing hockey for England and was one of the players being considered to represent the UK in this summer’s 2012 Olympic Games. Although his name wasn’t read out for the final squad, he’ll be joining his teammates to act as an ambassador for the sport when the Games kick off in London next week.
But far from imagining a career as an international athlete, Richard always assumed he would become a farmer when he was growing up.
“My grandparents and my mum and dad were dairy farmers on typical small Norfolk farms. We had sheep, cattle, pigs, geese and lot of arable – not massive, only a couple of hundred acres each. My cousins farmed there, too. Basically there were swathes of Alexanders farming in that part of the world.
“My first memory is of Tex, my favourite sheep. In the mating season he’d wear a harness for the pigment pouch, so I’d hop on his back. It probably wasn’t the highlight of his mating season, being ridden by a hyperactive little kid, but I loved it.”
Richard’s early years also revolved around sport, starting with visits to the local hockey club with his parents.
“Farming and hockey seem to have been intertwined in our family history for years. When I played for my local team The Harlston Magpies they were unbeaten at home but struggled with their away form. Farmers just couldn’t take time out to travel so we had to find replacements who weren’t as good. The farmers were pretty good at hockey. Some say they were quite violent, but I like to think of them as just strong willed.”
Despite rising up the hockey ranks, Richard almost gave up playing altogether in 2004.
“I’d played in the England juniors but never been picked up by the senior squad, so I went off to play rugby instead and somehow ended up on a tour with a team of medics from Imperial College. It was rough. Doctors know how to fix everything so they assume they can break everything in the first place.
“What changed my mind was watching the Athens Olympics. I’d always assumed that to be an Olympian was a glorious but unreachable goal. When I saw the GB hockey team I wasn’t so sure. I thought: ‘I could play as well as that.’ So I asked the head coach if I could come to a training camp and made my England debut against South Africa in 2005. Now I’ve got 183 caps and I’ve been around ever since.”
The GB men’s hockey team are currently ranked fourth in the world and are going into the London Olympics with wins over the world’s top three: Australia, Holland and Germany.
“We are an extremely strong team these days. I would describe myself as a workhorse, maybe not blessed with the skill of some but performing a role that enables those around me to play better.
“I don’t think it’s coincidence that I started out on a farm,” he adds. “Life on a farm teaches you the value of hard work.”
And international-level hockey is certainly hard work. Richard’s trademark move is – to the untutored eye – nothing short of sheer lunacy. When the opposition has a penalty corner he charges out of goal at breakneck speed with a rock-hard hockey ball hurtling towards him at 100mph.
Admittedly disappointed to miss out on London 2012 as a player, Richard isn’t considering a return to farming just yet.
“It’s just for the big boys these days. When I was young my grandmother, who would do the milk monitoring for the area, visited over 20 small farms. Now there are fewer than five. It’s such a shame.”
Instead, Richard is preparing for his ambassador role at London 2012, looking ahead to Rio 2016 and training to become a chemistry teacher.
“I just want to have a positive impact on the sport, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “As for the teaching, I’ll probably blow up the lab. But at least they’ll remember me.”