edited by Naomi Prakash
photography by Oscar J Ryan
edited by Naomi Prakash
photography by Oscar J Ryan
“Seeing the Olympic rings and then hearing the national anthems, it was that sudden realisation of where I was and what I was about to do. That was such a special moment.”
Sarah Wilson could be forgiven for sometimes forgetting which hat she is wearing. On the world stage, she is the renowned international hockey umpire who shone at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Nationally, she is known for managing the elite group of twenty-two hockey players contesting major medals. Locally, she goes by Miss Wilson, a PE teacher at George Watson College in Edinburgh. It’s a lot to balance, but Wilson does it with joy. She juxtaposes her roles to great effect: using her stories from international sport to engage, motivate, and inspire her pupils; and tapping into her communication and people management skills to make sure that on-pitch flashpoints are avoided and the game runs smoothly.
She has been umpiring since her early teens when an injury curtailed a promising playing career, but it’s only in the past few years that Wilson’s umpiring profile has become global. After moving up through the ranks from club to national to an international umpire, the Olympic Games in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018 cemented her spot as one of the best female umpires in the world.
In her earliest days as an umpire, Wilson’s young age meant that some of the more experienced umpires didn’t take her seriously. It was learning to cope with sometimes negative attitudes that allowed her to develop her own style of dealing with adverse situations. For an international umpire, the pathway can be challenging. In Wilson’s case, she completed all the
Scottish qualifications, up to and including National League Division One. She then joined the European Umpire Development Programme – a three-year-long course with other umpires from around Europe. From there, she started to attend world level games and eventually was promoted to the higher level tournaments. The culmination of any umpire’s career is to join the World Panel, which is now known as the Olympic Panel. Throughout the entire journey, there are workshops and training programmes to ensure the umpires are at a level that reflects the standard of competition.
Yet umpiring wasn’t always part of Wilson’s plan. “It certainly wasn’t an immediate thought. I was quite fiery on the pitch, so umpiring didn’t seem too appealing at first,” she says with a grin. “But then my club needed an umpire, so I helped them out and really enjoyed it. A couple of other umpires with great experience told me that I could make a career out of it if I wanted to go down that route.” Despite starting by chance, her career has taken her onto the field at some of the world’s largest sporting events. The 2016 Games were her first Olympic Games. She performed so well in the pool matches and knock-out rounds that she was allocated the bronze medal match between Germany and New Zealand. After that mind-blowing moment, she was then able to watch Great Britain win gold in a classic encounter with the Netherlands. “Stepping out into the stadium for my first match [of the Rio Olympics], which was Germany versus Korea, was one of the best moments of my umpiring career,”
says Wilson. “Seeing the Olympic rings and then hearing the national anthems, it was that sudden realisation of where I was and what I was about to do. That was such a special moment. It was the same before the bronze medal match. I just took it all in. I looked around and I thought ‘this is just incredible.’ I was hugely nervous but it was also a massive sense of pride, achievement and excitement.” Just days after that experience, she was back at the day job, working as a PE teacher at George Watson College in Edinburgh. Wilson is actually an alumna of George Watson College, and carries with her a wealth of stories and experiences that she inspires her pupils with. As a school known for great hockey, a lot of the pupils look up the Great Britain team, often asking Wilson for tips and tricks. “I’d like to think I am quite humble about what I have done and achieved so I don’t go overboard when I’m back at school,” she says. “But, following Rio, I was asked to do an assembly to talk about my experiences. I really wanted to use it as inspiration for the pupils going into the new term. A lot of what I spoke about in assembly was about being brave, achieving your dreams, working towards your goals and just trying to be better people.” When she’s at school, Wilson drives herself hard. The demands of the international game are huge and she spends many weeks in the year on umpiring duty. Generally, the department covers her absence but luckily a lot of the tournaments coincide with school holiday time. Besides regular teaching hours, including Saturdays, she will also offer to take assemblies and other
roles where she can use her umpiring experiences to inspire and inform the pupils. She’s also introducing an umpiring course at the school, offering any pupil the chance to take umpiring qualifications.
When she’s at a tournament, such as a World Cup or the Olympic Games, Wilson’s support comes from the umpire managers who look after the entire team of umpires. They are not there to tell her what to do, but rather to offer guidance. “In both cases, they are there for you and offer you the chance to come and have discussions with them. To be able to tap into their experience is invaluable,” says Wilson. The support network between umpiring and teaching is similar, but in other respects, the two roles are poles apart. During a competition, she is a vital cog in a drama that is playing out on a hockey pitch, often on a stage that is in front of thousands of spectators and screened to a global audience. Following a grand final, the noise of the crowds and the buzz of adrenaline can stay with you for hours, even days. While Wilson’s umpiring commitments take her all over the world, it can mean that there is very little time for her to transition from the world of elite international sport to being back in the school environment. “For the majority of tournaments that I go to, I fly straight home and I am back in school the very next day. I don’t always have a lot of time to reflect back. It’s strange – I could be umpiring the final of the European Hockey League on Sunday night in Amsterdam and then teaching badminton to 10-year-olds on a Monday morning. But that’s just what I do! I am so lucky to have such a supportive department
They are genuinely interested to hear all about it.” The sports department at George Watson College is packed with former international sportspeople, many of whom are still playing club-level sport. Wilson told us about the sense of community that stems from this: “they’ve all been there, they get it and understand it”. When returning from a sports- based trip, her peers can’t wait to hear about the competitions, in fact, she says they have usually followed it on social media or television. Excitingly, Wilson is one of a handful of top umpires selected to officiate at the Tokyo Olympics next year. With Rio 2016 and a bronze medal match under her belt, could this be her swan-song and, if so, how on earth will she replicate the excitement and adrenaline of international competition? “That has been on my mind,” she says. “I have always thought that I would go on for as long as I possibly could. But now I’m not sure that I’ll continue for that long. The mental pressure combined with physical training is tough. I’d like to keep going for as long as I am physically capable, mentally tough enough and, importantly, still enjoying it. I also only want to keep going as long as I am continuing to learn and doing the game justice. Once you get to the top of the game, it is very tough to stay there.
“But, it is adrenaline-fuelled. It is addictive. That said, if I step away from umpiring I don’t have to step away from hockey altogether. I can take up roles as an umpire manager or umpire coach. I will then be able to invest more time into my career. I think I will know myself when it is time to step away.”