London 2012: Argentine Lionesses on the hunt for gold
By Dialogo July 25, 2012
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The best field hockey player of all time is carrying the hopes of a nation to the Olympic Games in London.
The record-breaking, seven-time International Hockey Federation (IHF) player of the year Luciana Aymar, 34, is the star player for the current world champion, Argentina, whose women’s field hockey team is known as Las Leonas (The Lionesses).
Argentines call Aymar, a prolific scorer, the “Maradona of field hockey.”
But unlike the former soccer star, she is also admired for her humility and the warm manner with which she treats journalists and fans.
Argentines often affectionately refer to Aymar as “Lucha” (her nickname) and “La Maga” (The Magician).
Aymar, the team’s captain, has won almost every international tournament. She took home the gold in the Field Hockey World Cup in 2002 and 2010, silver at the Olympic Games in Sydney (2000), and bronze in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), as well as winning the Champions Trophy, Americas Cup and the Pan American Games.
The only medal Aymar has yet to win in 286 international games is Olympic gold.
The London Olympics will be her last chance before she hangs up her cleats.
“I want the gold medal – it’s the only one that’s missing,” Aymar said at a June press conference. “The team is very ambitious and we’re going to fight to accomplish our goal. That’s what we’re working for, but we know it won’t be easy.”
Women’s field hockey represents Argentina’s best chances for a medal in London, said Oswaldo Arsenio, the national technical director of Argentina’s Ministry of Sports.
“Las Leonas is a well-balanced team. There are experienced players competing alongside younger players. They’re completely integrated and will keep us competing at the top level internationally,” Arsenio said. “The Netherlands and Great Britain will be our biggest rivals.”
The team’s success at the Games of the XXX Olympiad hinges on Aymar’s play.
“Aymar is the author behind memorable plays and goals at key moments in decisive games,” he added. “For these reasons, Aymar will be the flag bearer for our delegation.”
From Rosario to the world stage
Aymar began playing field hockey when she was 8 at the Atlético Fisherton Club in Rosario, her hometown.
“Ever since she was little, she caught people’s eyes with her dexterity. When she was 11 or 12, she was already competing against athletes who were 20 or 25,” said Argentine journalist Luis Calvano, author of the biography Luciana Aymar – Corazón de Leona (Luciana Aymar: The Heart of a Lioness).
When they realized how much talent their daughter had, her parents tried to convince her to play for Rosario Jockey Club, the best team in the city. But Aymar resisted, as she wanted to keep playing with her friends at Fisherton.
She eventually switched clubs, launching her career.
“Lucha was promoted to the better teams because she had so much skill,” Calvano said. “At the time, she was also playing tennis – and playing very well. Her coach said she could become a professional tennis player if she dedicated herself exclusively to the sport.”
But Aymar chose field hockey.
In 1997, when she was 20, she led her team to the Junior Pan American Games title. The next year, she wore the official jersey of the Argentine national team for the first time.
The coach at the time, Sergio “Cachito” Vigil and trainer Luis Bruno Barrionuevo helped her reach the top of the sport.
In 2000, Aymar led Las Leonas to a silver medal in Sydney.
“It was during this tournament that the Argentine national team transformed into Las Leonas,” Calvano said. “The team needed to win a number of games in order to reach the final match and, at the suggestion of the psychologist, they used the lioness as a kind of super ego.”
Since then, the team jersey has featured the image of a lioness prepared to strike. The logo was designed by one of the players, Inés Arrondo.
“Until that moment, Argentina didn’t have a sport that was as popular among girls as soccer is among boys. Las Leonas helped to change that, which is why we have so many qualified players now,” Calvano said. “Luciana represents this change. She’s an example of good sportsmanship and honesty.”
Matías González, 27, the coach of the women’s field hockey team at Moorlands Club in Pilar in Greater Buenos Aires, said it’s hard to imagine Las Leonas coming back from London without a medal.
“During the past 10 years, they have never placed below third at an international tournament,” said González, who will be travelling to London as a reserve player for the men’s field hockey team. “So they have a very good chance of winning a medal at the Olympics.”
Aymar is complemented by defender Noel Barrionuevo, 28, the best penalty corner shooter in the world.
“In field hockey, the most competitive national teams right now are the Netherlands and Argentina,” he says. “The rest are one step behind them.”
If it all goes as expected for Las Leonas in London, Aymar will have a memorable 35th birthday on Aug. 10 – playing in the gold medal game.
“If she plays for the gold on her birthday, it will be a way to finish her career with a flourish,” Calvano said.