KWIB would like to introduce Crista Cullen MBE, Olympic gold medalist, founder of The Tofauti Foundation and wildlife conservationist! Crista holds an impressive 197 caps for her country and is a triple… yes triple Olympian! We spoke to her all about her fantastic hockey career, her devotion to conservation and her trailblazing success in business.
Wildlife conservation holds a special place in Crista’s heart and her aims are to raise funds to protect not only the people and wildlife of Africa, but also the ecosystems and environments. It is this passion that fuelled her retirement from hockey after winning a Bronze medal at the London Olympics! For Crista, this move away from hockey meant that she had the opportunity to commit herself to sustainability in Africa. Being an African, this time spent dedicated to elephant protection, wildlife surveillance and her conservancy was a great ambition of Crista’s.
However 10 months before the 16 squad selection for the Rio Olympics, Crista received a call from GB’s head coach asking her to come back! After retiring in 2012, she had never thought she would return to hockey in a professional way. 6 months later and Crista was fighting fit and training with GB hockey.
Crista’s story is unorthodox in many ways, but what may seem the most unusual is her persistence to carry on working. Many professional athletes, when training for an Olympic campaign put their whole life on hold and live only in the sporting world. However, in the build up to her championing success at Rio, Crista was director of marketing and now runs her own consultancy company. She has always felt that working alongside training has made her a better player.
Since 2008, Crista has also been an athlete ambassador for Right to Play! Her unique upbringing in Africa inspired her dedication to philanthropy and her ambassadorial role with Right to Play allows less fortunate children to take part in sports that they may have otherwise been unable to take part in.
Last but certainly not least, in 2017 she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services to hockey.
What was it like being appointed an MBE?
Crista: It was weird, I never really thought that we would get that kind of accolade! As gold medalists it was amazing to have that day, all my family live in Africa and they all flew over for that amazing day at Buckingham Palace. Then being a huge conservationist, to receive the award from Prince William (who runs United for Wildlife and is a patron of that charity and of Tusk), was really special.
Following your successful hockey career, what’s in store for you next?
Crista: I’ve been doing a lot of the speaking circuits and getting involved in women in business and women in sport. I run my own consultancy company and I also do a lot around the education sector because I think we have a responsibility to inspire the next generation. Additionally it is important for people to realise that we are normal humans and that have just worked really hard to achieve something – and that we are a really good team! I think that’s what won everybody’s hearts so it is important that kids realise that we are normal and we are something that can be aspired towards.
I also work for Edwin Doran and Gullivers Travel as their Performance Director. As well as this I run a mentoring program for university students, to help them in their ambitions. Then my other big passion, my charity that I have got on the side is ‘Tofauti’ which in Swahili, means ‘difference’ and one of our big statements for culture in the build up to Rio was about ‘Be the Difference’. So now this is very much about me being the difference, I have a huge charitable side to what I do by empowering local communities in Africa to start making a sustainable living.
What was it like, growing up in Kenya – was it hard to adapt to life in England?
Crista: Absolutely, we all come from a very unique culture, so I was really lucky – I was brought up with a very outdoors lifestyle. The temperatures, the environment, the lifestyle in Africa is why you live there. So to come to the UK and go straight in to boarding school, I just found I was really different but went on to appreciate that different isn’t always bad!
Sport was actually a refuge for me because it was something I knew, something I had always done in Kenya. So I just threw myself straight in to sport and through that I made so many friends and I’ve got bonds that I made at school on arrival that are still very good friends of mine today! So yes, it’s hard initially and I cried myself to sleep numerous times being thousands of miles away from my family, but ultimately I think it has done a lot for my independence even though it was really tough at times.
How would you say your childhood prepared you for your sporting career?
Crista: I was relatively mature quite early on and I think that’s part in parcel of the world we live in. In Africa there are relatively small communities so everybody mixes with all ages very early on, so you are able to hold conversations with somebody who is seven and someone who is seventy. I think that really helped me, the independence of boarding school also helped me massively. But I also think that the knockbacks helped me in a weird way. For example, the non-qualification for Athens when I was seventeen and only just broken in to the senior team, taught me a lot. When you come from rock bottom you know what failure feels like. I think failure, whether it’s in business (because I do a lot of work in businesses now), or in sport unless you’ve felt what it’s like to not succeed at winning, you’ll never really realise how good it is to win!
I have been really lucky to experience that journey in sport and I think now I have a responsibility to discuss how that relates to business. I’ve always worked, I have never been a full-time athlete so I am sort of unique in that context. I was director of marketing in the build up to Rio, so I’ve held down a job and also been an athlete so I understand both sectors. Most athletes would not have experienced that, you know they have their blinkers on, they are completely focused and that’s the environment, you have to work really hard. But I enjoy the mental stimulation of working and doing something separate – I thought it made me a better athlete, so I always kind of went down that route.
For our youthful readers, how did you get in to hockey?
Crista: I think the system has changed quiet a lot… I am a bit older now! So the system has changed quiet considerably from when I was doing it, but I went through… From school I got picked up for my county, Leicestershire – it was the first time I’d seen AstroTurf actually, so I walked in to my county trials and I started rubbing the floor and the teacher was like ‘what are you doing?’ and I said ‘well I’ve never seen fake grass before’ fresh out of Africa!
I played for county and then got picked up for what we called territorial, for me this meant playing for the Midlands. In those days you had the England selectors lining the sidelines and picking out various athletes at the territorial tournaments. It has changed quite considerably now, which is great because you can now get picked up at club, or at school. There are a number of different routes which I encourage everybody try! If it’s meant to be part of your journey it’s meant to be and I think that’s a really nice way of looking at it.
Following the circumstances that lead you to play, to what extent do you think that you and hockey were meant to be?
Crista: I don’t know really, I guess there will always be a part of me that wonders what would have happened if I had gone to the athletics trials, I think you have to make those choices in life. When I was 15, my coach at the time told me that I would never make it as an international because I just wasn’t a good enough hockey player, I was just an athlete. Which was quite a hard thing to take at the age of 15, when all you want to do is become an Olympian. But you know, all of us – even though we ended up being successful we’ve all had set backs we have all had things that didn’t work out for us. When you see us on the podiums, you think that we’ve had this immaculate journey and it’s just not true. There will be choices that you make that lead you down a cul-de-sac, only to find that it’s not for you and you come back out, you just have to choose something else and in my experience you have to try lots of things. All the way through my hockey career I played squash, tennis, touch rugby, a lot of other agility based sports that complement. I try to encourage kids, to just enjoy it! Do lots of stuff and your journey will be moulded by the decisions you make along that journey.
When you were younger did you ever think you’d be playing for England?
Crista: No not really, but I think you’ve always got to have a dream, otherwise what’s the point? You have to know where you want to be and I knew that I wanted to get to the Olympics, I just didn’t know in what…
I just think it was one of those things where I worked really hard and as I’ve said I wasn’t a natural hockey player, I was a natural athlete. I think back to that coach who said I was never going to be good enough, I had two choices at that time. I was either going to sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself and possibly never play for my country, or go to them and say ‘okay that’s your opinion, how do I become better?’. He gave me some set skills, and I used to grab a hockey ball and stick in break and lunch time at school and I used to go down to the hockey pitch and practice. Everyone used to tell me I was a geek and I was a dweeb, but I was keen because I wanted to be better and it’s not an uncool thing to do.
Now that I am an Olympic gold medalist it’s a pretty cool thing to have done. I ended up being the ‘Flicker’ which is the penalty corner specialist in the Olympics and I used to do 150 drag flicks a day! It was relentless – every day, you know when you talk of Jonny Wilkinson and he was the kicker, it’s a set piece skill and it’s about you going away and doing the numbers. There’s nothing fluffy around it other than that, you’ve just got to get it done. So if there are kids that are out there, who want to achieve that kind of thing, it is about committing to the process, getting the numbers done and practice, practice, practice! There will be failures but that is part of the learning.
After winning a bronze in the London Olympics, what was it that prompted you to retire?
Crista: Wildlife conservation! So I had done three Olympic campaigns then, we hadn’t qualified for Athens but I was a double Olympian and we came away with a bronze medal at a home Olympics and I thought that is the best that I’m going to get out of hockey. So I retired and I moved back to Africa, I became a pilot and I became engrossed in Wildlife surveillance, I was also involved in elephant protection. Additionally, I was running a conservancy with my dad, which spanned 65 thousand acres on the side of Tsavo East National Park boundary.
That was my charity side and I also had a normal job as a GM for a security company during the week. So I threw myself out of sport and straight in to real life and I didn’t play hockey for three years! Then I got a phone call from the coach, 10 months before Rio saying ‘will you consider coming back?’ I just laughed, I said ‘you’ve got to be joking, I haven’t played hockey in three years!’ After the girls qualified in Valencia I was like ‘oh god I’ve got to make this decision’ and I didn’t want to be the old bird that was coming back and wasn’t going to contend, because I was in my thirties and that’s relatively old for hockey.
There were no guarantees for me either, so I came back to join a 31 women squad who were training full time in the Olympic campaign and I had to get myself in to that squad of 31 first and foremost. From there 16 get picked for the Olympics, so there are a lot of disappointed people – almost half that don’t go who have committed four years and trained full time.
It was an interesting transition and I talk a lot about it in business. For example, when you think you’re climbing the ranks and suddenly a director or somebody else is headhunted and brought in to the company in a position that you would have thought to be considered for. I spoke to the coach and asked him to read this letter to the team because he had invited me, and 10 months out of the Olympics at Rio he thought I was good enough to come back.
I had some pretty tough conversations with the girls who I could have potentially been replacing. But I said, I’m here to make us better and if I get picked or you get picked then we need to do the right thing and be humble and get on with the job, because ultimately we want the best team to go to Rio and represent England. Thankfully I was accepted back, it was a process but the journey worked out!
Would you have ever thought that after returning from retirement you would be part of the team that won gold at Rio?
Crista: I think I had seen inklings of how good the team had been and that’s what made me excited, as I said there were no guarantees of me coming back, so to be accepted back and make the decision to go for it was a massive gamble! To leave my life in Africa and to take a complete 360 and come back to England to then fight for a place in an Olympic cycle of something that I thought I would never be doing again, was a real head mess-up! There was always the aspiration for gold, of course there was; we wouldn’t be training as hard as we do in Olympic campaigns to not try and win gold. But it wasn’t necessarily something that I thought was a possibility, it was a big ask and amazingly a fantastic journey to have been on. I genuinely attribute it to firstly the training environment that we were in which is hugely demanding and emotional. That’s what the Olympics are like, you are on an emotional rollercoaster!
Could you give our readers a breakdown of your position as defender – what are you responsibilities on the pitch?
Crista: Interestingly I changed quite a lot throughout the different Olympics but I have always been a defender. In Rio I was right defender and I was out on the flank and because I have a big engine I was able to get up and down the pitch relatively quickly and ironically in the Olympic final I scored an open field goal which was the only one I ever scored in my career! We were 2-1 down against Holland and I should never have been in the circle, but I saw a gap and took it. Our coach empowered us as athletes to take educated risk worthy decisions and the Olympic final was exactly that for me. It is a really unique thing to talk about, especially in the corporate world where you are relatively risk adverse. There was a 1 in 10 chance that it would have worked for me but I had left Kate Richardson Walsh completely exposed at the back, she probably had a 2 on 1, but you know it was an Olympic final and we were there to win gold. I took a risk and thankfully it paid off.
Finally what would you say to young aspiring hockey players who want to succeed in the same way as you?
Crista: I think as we started about attitude! I do a lot of work with kids, I run a quick start hockey program which I am a patron for here at Wimbledon Hockey club and we have 750 kids in out junior section of Wimbledon. I pick kids on attitude, you don’t have to be brilliant at hockey (I wasn’t) I just had that twinkle in my eye and that ambition to want to be better. That is what is coachable and I like working with kids that are built that way, it is those kids that are like sponges who just want to learn and want to try and to give it their all. So those kids with those types of attributes are special and I think that is coachable, not only in hockey but coachable in life too!