Lucy Bronze has been listening to her club and country teammates Jill Scott and Steph Houghton talk about what it is like to be an Olympian for months, years even. Now, sitting in the Olympic village in Tokyo, the Team GB right-back has more of an idea of what it means.
“It’s so different to any other tournament I’ve been part of with Euros and World Cups and youth age groups because you’re just in and around with all the other athletes,” says the 29-year-old before Team GB’s opening group game against Chile on Wednesday.
“We were fortunate to be the first team to arrive so we got to grips with the hotel and then day by day there was a new group of people. You just get chatting and find out a little bit about them and are just interacting with everybody. The only problem is it’s a bit busy at dinner time, the rowers came yesterday and the rugby boys came today so the food was going quite quickly,” she adds with a grin.
Bronze is used to being surrounded by elite football players. She is one herself, of course – the former European player of the year was named as Fifa’s ‘The Best’ player of the year in December – but being surrounded by elite athletes across different disciplines all going into a tournament together is different and unique.
“The boxers are the ones that we’ve probably chatted to the most,” she says. “Nikita [Parris, who’s sister Natasha Jones became the first female British boxer to compete at the Olympics in 2012] has obviously got that link to boxing and Demi [Stokes] quite likes boxing, so a few have chatted with them which is interesting.
“A lot of them are from the north-east as well so we’ve got proper thick Mackem and Geordie accents and I think they hear a few of our accents and they think ‘these are girls that we’ll get on with’. We’ve just been chatting about sports and obviously everyone was all engaged for the men’s Euros and for the final. General chitchat and that. Last night the boxers were just laughing: ‘You girls are all getting massages tonight. We never get massages’.”
The run-in to the Olympics has been beset with obstacles. Team GB’s preparations have been far from ideal, from the initial postponement to a lack of competitive or friendly fixtures (for either England or Team GB). One silver lining is that the squad go into this tournament as an unknown and it is a slight advantage the coaches were keen to maintain against New Zealand in their first and only pre-tournament match last Wednesday.
“It’s funny because there was a bit of that on Wednesday from the coaches saying: ‘Oh, we don’t want to do these certain corners or this certain thing because nobody has any idea what we’re doing’,” says Bronze. “I guess we are a little bit known, in as much as our individual players are well known, and the clubs we play for, and the national teams we play for. But how we’re going to line up and set up, that’ll be a bit of an unknown.
“We’re probably the team that people are going to be keeping an eye on. I guess there’s positives and negatives to not playing a lot of games or playing loads of games. We’ll be a little bit fresher potentially, but we won’t have had as much time on the pitch playing games.”
Despite the lack of match action things have clicked. That is helped by the fact that 10 of the 22-player squad come from Manchester City and 19 are England players. “Everything’s just clicked really quickly. I don’t think the connections on the pitch are a big problem. We played really well in our friendly, given it was just as a friendly, but considering it was our first game and the conditions were very different and there were a lot of different players in different positions, we played really, really well with the ball,” says Bronze.
The conditions, the sweltering heat that will peak at 32C degrees on Wednesday in Sapporo being the most impactful, are a little easier to adapt to for Bronze, who spent three seasons with European heavyweights Lyon in France. “It has been easier for me, some of the other girls, who are used to just playing in England, or being Scottish or Welsh or from the north of England, they’re probably not used to the heat,” she says.
“But it’s still different heat to what I was used to playing in France. It’s the humidity that gets you, you’ll step outside and your T-shirt’s just wet through. But again, this is something that we were ready for and we planned for. We spent two weeks going in a heat acclimatisation tent where we’d bike for an hour every day, absolutely dripping sweat with our body temperature going through the roof. It was insane the preparation.”
Key to that extensive preparation is England’s physical performance manager, Dawn Scott, who was poached from the US after nine years, two World Cups and an Olympic gold. “She’s probably had the biggest influence on the group,” says Bronze, joining the long queue of players to have praised the influence of Scott wherever she’s been. “She’s just tweaked a lot of things to help push us over the line a little bit. We’re collectively bringing a lot more players along with us in physical departments now, more than ever before.
“Before, you’d probably say the same old players would be the fittest — the likes of myself, Ellen White, Jill Scott, those kinds of players who are going to run for days. Now, you’re looking all across the team and thinking, yeah, these girls have got the miles in the bank; they’re physically fit and prepared, and they’re doing all the right things. That’s all down to Dawn.
“We’ve always had very good expertise and we’ve always been given a lot, but I think Dawn’s just got that little bit extra level of knowhow and knowledge and she’s just non-stop. By the time this interview is finished, I’ll probably have another five messages off her telling us what else we need to drink and what we need to do before bed. All of us really can tell the difference and we all trust in what she tells us to do.”
Pushing on and achieving more matters – Bronze has won everything there is to win and club level, now she wants success with the national team. “I’ve always said that international success is the one thing that’s missing for me in terms of trophies or gold medals. With England we’ve only ever made semi-finals. We obviously got a bronze medal [at the 2015 World Cup in Canada], which was fantastic. But I’ve always wanted to push on from that and never really got to the next level. On a personal level, I really want to get hold of an international trophy, medal, gold medal, number one spot on the podium with the rest of the team, because I’ll look back on my career and just regret it if I don’t have that international trophy.”