EXCLUSIVE: SA hockey team ready to give it stick in Paris

Onthatile Zulu could represent Team SA in hockey at the Paris Olympics later this year. | Red Bull

Onthatile Zulu could represent Team SA in hockey at the Paris Olympics later this year. | Red Bull

Published May 21, 2024


Leighton Koopman

They had to do some crowdfunding to ensure their Olympic dreams stayed alive, and now it is all systems go for the South African women’s hockey side as they continue to build up to Paris 2024.

For one of their stars, Onthatile Zulu, it will be a second time at the global showpiece and she’s ready to take in the experience the same way she did as a fresh-faced youngster a couple of years ago.

The South Africans recently returned from Asia where they had some tough preparation ahead of the Olympics, and while the team will have a short break, they know it’s still a long road as they continue getting ready for the Games starting at the end of July.


For Zulu, the break means spending time with her family in Gauteng before travelling back to Cape Town, where they will start sweating again under head coach Giles Bonnet and fitness guru Wayne Lombard.

While hockey is not one of the big three when it comes to sports in South Africa, the national teams have been consistently performing at international competitions. But funding remains one of the big stumbling blocks for the sides to break through to the top. They have been crowdfunding their way for several years now.

“Sadly, we don’t get as much recognition and exposure, especially if so many people play the sport in South Africa,” she said in an interview with Independent Newspapers.

“You’d think we would get that kind of exposure. But this year, our coach is trying to change the whole narrative of us not having funding to be able to prepare for such a big tournament like the Olympics.

“So, we have been doing a lot of crowdfunding to fund our Olympics and preparation in general. He has honestly been the best in trying to get the best for us leading up to the Games.

“We have access to the SSISA (Sport Science Institute of SA) gym and access to a hockey astroturf. So, a few of us, I think we are about nine, are based in Cape Town. Some of us have relocated to be close to each other.”

According to Zulu, they’ve made the sacrifices to have that contact time together ahead of Paris so that the players can learn more about one another. During the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 they did not have that luxury due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it was difficult for the side.

Onthatile Zulu is seen training at Western Province Cricket Club in Cape Town on June 22 last year. She is looking forward to her second Olympics. | Red Bull

The month-long tour to Asia also did them the world of good, and they are hoping to continue on this path as the build-up to the Games intensifies.

“We were in China for about four weeks and spent another week in India. So, that was a very tough and intense tour. It was the final selection camp, so you can imagine how nervy things were and everyone just wanted to give their best.

“It was challenging and very tough, but also good for us to be together.

“Our coach wants us to play as many games together. The more we play, the better gauge we get of where we are as a team, internationally too.”

The Red Bull athlete is also nervously awaiting a visa so that she can visit the Red Bull Athlete Performance Centre in Austria before she heads to the Olympics.

There she will be able to test herself with some of the world’s best sports scientists who have worked with athletes like Formula One superstar Max Verstappen, Springbok Damian Willemse, English cricket Ben Stokes, and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.

“I am most excited about the testing protocols I will do. They have a lot of expertise there and equipment that we don’t have here in South Africa. So it is really cool to do tests that are only exclusive to that place.

“They will then give me information that will be beneficial to me before the Olympics. Those are things I need to know to hopefully get the best out of me in Paris physically and performance-wise.”