Norfolk hockey star and Barcelona 92 Olympic bronze medallist Kath Johnson on her Games’ highs and lows

If one sportswoman knows the thin line between triumph and despair at the Olympics it's hockey legend Kath Johnson.

The softly-spoken 45-year-old has starred at three Games for Great Britain during a glittering career that reached its highest point in Barcelona 92 and its lowest just four years later in Atlanta.

The defender, from Grimston, near King's Lynn, was part of the history-making GB side that won their first and only medal – a bronze – at her first Olympics in Spain.

In America, with a second bronze mouth-wateringly close, Johnson stepped up to take a decisive penalty during a medal shoot-out with Holland. She missed. Although the moment no longer fills the Pelicans Hockey Club veteran with pain, she admits both experiences remain ingrained in her memory.

Johnson said: 'I suppose I went from glory to despair in the space of four years and I found Atlanta very hard to deal with at first.

'I don't think we expected to win a medal in Barcelona and it's still one of the highlights of my life, let alone my career. Looking back it stands out as the best Games I played at because we brought something back. We won a medal and that makes all the difference. It's a fantastic feeling that is really hard to explain.

'Four years later there was more pressure on us. I felt more prepared for it mentally having been through the experience of 92. Then I missed that penalty. It was the worst experience of my sporting career. You go through so many highs and lows but that was a real low.

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'I got back to England and every day for a while I woke up and still remembered it. Losing would have been bad enough but I think it hurt more as I missed the decisive penalty. I felt like I'd let the team down.

'There were tears as we'd put so much hard work into getting another medal and you only need to look at footballers who have missed penalties to see how hard it is. It was a huge, huge disappointment.

'However, I don't think about it now and I'm still delighted to be have won one medal. It's still the most important possession in my life.'

Even though Johnson picked up her bronze in Spain 20 years ago you can see the pure joy it still brings to the likeable mother-of-one.

The medal may have aged but the memories are still in pristine condition for the former Springwood High School pupil who begun playing ladies' hockey for King's Lynn-based Pelicans at the age of just 15.

The bronze medallist honed her competitive instincts in her back garden as a child playing football with her older brother Russell Edwards and father Robert – a professional footballer who made his name for Swindon Town after brief spells as a youngster at Chelsea and Norwich City.

And it was that drive and desire to impress that allowed Johnson to work her way up through the Pelicans ranks to earn selection for Norfolk, the East of England and international honours with England.

'I played a lot of sports but I felt I was better at hockey,' said Johnson, who won a European Nations Cup gold with England in 1991.

'It's a good contact sport and I like a bit of argy bargy. I've never been the most skilful and I rely on my strength and determination. I wouldn't say I put any more on the line for GB than I did, or do, playing for a club side.

'I just want to win. All this about 'it's not the winning it's the taking part that counts' I don't agree with. I love to play and I like to win. I'm not a bad loser but once sport starts – any sport – I want to win.'

Johnson's desire for glory saw her stand out on the field of play even as a rookie and she made the training squad for GB's team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

After missing out on selection she joined Leicester, on the advice of her international coaches, who compete in the National League. The call centre advisor, who has worked at Construction Skills (known as CITB) in Bircham Newton for 23 years, stayed with the side until 1995.

After the heartache of Atlanta, Johnson earned a call-up to her third Olympics in Sydney in 2000. For the first time she gained funding to take a year out from work to become a 'professional' ahead of the Games' Down Under, a move the veteran insists helped her flourish.

Johnson said: 'The British Olympic Association paid my work to pay me so I could concentrate on hockey full-time during the run-up to Sydney.

'The squad would get together and do four or five-day camps at Lilleshall or Bisham Abbey, or we'd train from home. I really enjoyed it as I had time to keep fit and I definitely felt better prepared for my third Games.

'I understand why players are now full time because they have to keep up with all the other countries. I knew Sydney was my last chance and I was desperate to make the most of it.

'The build-up went really well to the Games but we had a disappointing tournament and we finished eighth out of 10th. I felt so prepared and we'd beaten Australia and the Dutch in the build-up.

'Personally I thought I had my best Olympics but I came back feeling pretty down. I'd played my last game, my 100th cap for GB, in a 2-0 defeat to Germany. It all felt pretty flat.'

Having played hockey for more than 20 years for just three club sides, including Harleston Magpies, Johnson decided to take a break from the game that she loves in 2003.

Yet, after around six years away from the astroturf, the hunger for competition and glory hadn't diminished inside the driven defender and she returned to playing for her hometown club.

At the age of 45, the Pelicans legend is still turning out for her side's first team, and continues to put her body on the line. In the last month she has suffered a nasty cut to her head and fractured a bone in her wrist which has put her out of action for about six weeks.

'I still get the same buzz now as I did then. I've always loved playing for my hometown team. Pelicans is a great club. I really enjoy it and the break of five and six years has probably helped with that.

'My partner (Andrew Bell) has been very positive in the past two years since I've known him and has been encouraging and positive about me returning to hockey. I find the game faster now and my reactions are a bit slower but I think with practice it soon comes back to you. It's nice to be enjoying my hockey again.'

Johnson will join many of her bronze-medal winning team-mates during a parade at an Olympic Test event at the Riverside Stadium in May. She will return to London during this summer's Games to watch the women's hockey semi-finals.

The 45-year-old admits she hopes to cheer GB to success at London 2012 but admits the side's hopes rest upon how they deal with the pressure of competing in front of an expectant home crowd.

Johnson said: 'The Olympics are completely different from anything – it's the biggest show on earth.

'Playing for GB gave me the most proud moments of my career but when you're at an Olympics you've just got to focus on the hockey and avoid the distractions that are around you. It's so easy to get caught up in what else is going on at the Games and life in and around the village.

'It's vary rare that you have crowds watching you play hockey so it is a big thing. It's quite nerve-wracking. Pulling on the GB colours does inspire you and the butterflies are going 10 to the dozen before you play.

'To do well at the Olympics you need to block out that pressure. It does affect players and it shows in their play but you just need to do something well, probably the simple things, in the first couple of minutes to settle yourself and get your confidence up.

'I wish I was involved now, especially in London, but I've had my time. The women have got a really good squad and I think they can get a medal this time round. I know Danny Kerry (ladies' coach) and it's nice to know there's still someone from Lynn involved in the set-up.

'I won't be sending any good luck messages but I'll be watching the Olympics with a very keen eye. I'm really excited about the summer and I expect it to bring back some wonderful memories.'

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