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Credit: Buenos Aires Olympic Committee 2018

From playing barefoot to playing on Olympic turf

October 9, 2018

For any team with a strong tradition in field hockey, losing by a wide margin in the first two matches at the Youth Olympic Games would be something of a catastrophe. But that is not the case for Vanuatu women’s team, who are by no means sad about having been badly defeated in their opening games (21-0 against Argentina and 12-0 against South Africa).

They started practising the sport just one year ago and today they are competing on the world’s elite circuit. What’s more, it was only last month when they received the sticks and shoes they are using in the hockey 5s tournament at Buenos Aires 2018.

For the Games, they traveled more than 12,000 kilometres from their small island located in the South Pacific Ocean to busy Buenos Aires - a big change considering that touring Vanuatu, according to them, takes just a few hours of driving. The buses, traffic lights and tall buildings are not common things for them, as the Vanuatuan people have different customs and the country has only one supermarket.

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The Vanuatuan women’s hockey 5s team strikes a pose at the Youth Olympic Village. (Photo: Vanuatu Hockey Federation)

Vanuatu’s youth hockey team was formed no more than a year ago, and for many of the girls this was their first time playing the sport.

"Many of them practised other sports, such as football, but their adaptation was very good, they are athletes by nature," said Vanuatu’s coach Jennifer Bowtell, who is originally from Australia, the island’s big neighbour.

The coach explained some of the problems the young Vanuatuan players have: "A lot of them don’t go to school and the girls face a lot of challenges just to get to training. It’s hard to get them to keep coming. A lot of the times their families don’t want them to go to training, so it’s quite difficult. The culture really kind of says that girls shouldn’t be playing sports and that they should be staying at home and having babies.”

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The Vanuatuan girls are still waiting to score their first goal at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. (Photo: Vanuatu Hockey Federation)

In Vanuatu there is only one hockey 5s field, which was built three years ago. Until then, the sport was played on natural grass. And until just a few months ago, the girls practised barefoot, with old sticks and without protective gear.

Getting to Buenos Aires 2018 is already a big adventure for the Vanuatuan players and they are enjoying every moment, not only the sports competition, but also Argentina’s culture. Bowtell said that they love the breaded-meat sandwich (locally known as Milanesa) and the traditional “alfajor de dulce de leche y chocolate” (a caramel filled cookie covered with chocolate). However, they have yet to try the mate(Argentinian tea).

The Vanuatuan girls are not alone in their journey at the Youth Olympic Games. The men’s hockey 5s team from their country is also competing, getting similar results and embracing them with the same positive attitude.

There is mutual support between both teams and that becomes very clear on the field. When one of them is playing, the other one is cheering from the stands. They are loving it. And they have earned it.

Click here for the full schedule of the hockey5s at 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

Click here to watch the matches live.

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