Scotland’s most-capped hockey player Rhona Toft (nee Simpson) has represented her country over 280 times and is now sharing her vast experience with others, both as a PE teacher and as Chair of the Commonwealth Games Federation Athletes’ Advisory Commission.
From first trying the sport at school as a 12 year old, through three Commonwealth Games, two Olympic Games and two World Cups, she looks back at the highlights of over 20 years at international level, particularly Kuala Lumpur 1998 – a first Commonwealth Games for both herself and for Hockey.
Now synonymous with Hockey as one of the best players Scotland has ever produced, it could all have been very different if she had chosen to pursue her other sporting passion – Show Jumping. Incredibly, it wasn’t until after she had competed at her first Olympic Games, Atlanta 1996, that she made the final decision – that it was Hockey she would focus all her energy on.
“For a long time, up until I was 21, I combined the two sports and both at international level,” she says. “It was a tough juggling act at times to keep both going, but where there’s a will there’s a way. I didn’t ride for a year before Atlanta, in case I got injured, but up until that point It was just a matter of trying to juggle both, which was pretty full on. Between 18 and 21 I was still competing in Show Jumping, but not as frequently, and then when I became more involved with the GB hockey squad I had to give it up then.”
By the time Hockey made its Commonwealth Games debut at Kuala Lumpur 1998, as team sports were included for the first time, her decision was made. With it came the first opportunity to represent Scotland at a multi-sport event and bringing team sports into the Games was a move Rhona believes made a huge impact, not just on Hockey and the other team sports, but on the dynamics of the Games themselves.
“Kuala Lumpur fell in between my two Olympics – Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 – so it was a pretty hectic time. It was massive to be involved in the Games and with the other sports which, up to that point, we hadn’t been. I was still probably one of the youngest in the Scotland squad, even though I’d been to Atlanta. It was good to be able to bring that multi-Games experience but it was quite different because it was the first Commonwealths to include team sports. Within Scotland, and within your own team it’s a phenomenal feeling when you hear the national anthem, as it is when you’re playing for Great Britain, but it’s a different feeling. Playing for Scotland with your team mates that you played with week in and week out at club level was always special.
“I think bringing the team sports into Team Scotland for the first time also changed the dynamic of the overall team, when it had always been just individual sports and we were this big massive squad, I think it was quite different for Team Scotland. It was great fun to mix with all your fellow Scots and be part of that bigger team as well.
“It was just the sheer scale of it at that time. I remember we were in one of the wee cafes and Jonah Lomu was there. At that point he was a massive rugby star and you’re in the same place and talking to these people, when normally you’d just see them on the telly. Also experiencing a different country and culture, I hadn’t been to Malaysia until that point so it was quite different.
“The competition itself was really tight. We had a penalty against India and they saved the penalty, otherwise we would have gone through into the bronze medal play offs. So overall it was a little bit disappointing, but it wasn’t too bad for our first major Games experience, which was so different from a normal hockey tournament. Kuala Lumpur has great memories and it was great fun.”
Two further Commonwealth Games, Manchester 2002 and Melbourne 2006, followed and Rhona has no doubt about the importance of the Games for the sport in Scotland.
“It’s a massive thing for the sport to be part of the Commonwealth Games because it gives people an opportunity, for a lot of Scotland players the only opportunity they get to experience a multi-sport event. Very few have gone on to experience the Olympics so, in terms of Scottish athletes, it is the pinnacle of most of their playing careers. If Hockey hadn’t been included, the game would never have developed the way it has. The inspiration of playing in a Commonwealth Games has attracted more people to the sport and the funding from sportscotland that comes from playing on that higher level has really moved the game forward.”
After retiring from the international game, she is now focused on the next generation of athletes, as Director of Sport at The Glasgow Academy and in helping direct the future of the Commonwealth Games as Chair of the CGF Athletes’ Advisory Commission.
“My job teaching is great because you’re still involved, helping kids, and you hope you inspire some of them to do their best. Staying involved with the Commonwealth Games, chairing the Athletes’ Advisory Commission for the Commonwealth Games Federation is also important to me. Having chaired the Athletes’ Advisory Committee for Glasgow 2014, it’s great to still be involved but on a completely different level and see how things are done behind the scenes. It’s nice still to have a connection at that level and I think the Commonwealth Games always has a special place when you’ve been involved with it for so long.”