From Madrid to Maracanã

He’s The Most Diminutive Figure On The Blues’ Squad But Club Physiotherapist Senen Alvarez Has Been On The Biggest Stage Of Them All. Ahead Of Olympic Day, We Spoke To The Spaniard About His Experiences As Part Of The Spanish Women’s Field Hockey Team At The 2016 Rio Olympics…

Rafael Nadal was the center of all the attention when the Spanish contingent made its way into the Maracanã Stadium, in Brazil, for the customary ‘Parade of Nations’ ahead of the Olympic Games in 2016. After winning gold in Beijing eight years ago, Nadal had missed the 2012 edition of the competition with tendinitis in his knee. But while the spotlight shone bright on the tennis ace in Rio, a part of it fell on a 27-year-old Senen Alvarez, whose being there had also to do with the Spanish Women’s Field Hockey team missing out on the trip to London four years earlier.

“I always knew that I wanted to be involved in professional sport, because growing up I was in love with football and my local club, Sporting Gijón. Physiotherapy was the way, and when I completed my Physiotherapy Degree from the University of Leon and my Masters in Manual Therapy, I joined the High Performance Center in Madrid. I was lucky because my first assignment was working with the U21 Women’s Field Hockey team,” says Senen, speaking to us from home in Asturias, gearing up for a derby clash between Gijon and Real Oviedo, known to be among the most heated and feisty games in the country.

A youth player himself back in the day, Senen left the football pitch for a tryst with a sport that had to do with a stick and a smaller, firmer version of a ball. While he was getting familiar with the Spanish women’s youth team, catastrophe hit the senior squad when they failed to qualify for the 2012 London Games. The men in suits at the Field Hockey Federation called for a complete change – one that saw Senen make the switch to the senior side of things.

“Right at that moment, we knew that things were going to be different. Field hockey for women at the Olympics was only introduced in 1980 and the Spanish team took part for the first time in 1992, when the Games came to Barcelona. It’s crazy, but the very first time Spanish women played Hockey at the Olympics, they ended up winning gold!” he remembers.

As part of the change of guard, Senen was promoted to the senior women’s team, preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. At only 23, it was a big move for a young man. “When you look at big football tournaments like the World Cup or the Euros, the national teams get very little time together to prepare during those four years. It’s not the same when it comes to the Olympics and other team sports like Field Hockey. It’s a four-year shift that goes on with various tournaments and friendly matches, and in the end it all comes down to one month. It was a massive decision for me, because it’s not the kind of journey you would want to leave in between. But I had a good relationship with our Head Coach, Adrian Lock and I felt ready for it.”

An improvement in performances saw the Spanish Women’s team book their berth at the 2016 Olympics, and fast forward four years, Senen was in the Spanish quarters at the Olympic village in Barra da Tijuca, a sprawling beachside covering the West zone in Rio. “Those were special days. Everywhere you looked there were athletes, supporters and famous people. I remember the Spanish contingent had an apartment and the Women’s Field Hockey team was on the 12th floor. On the 13th floor we had the Tennis team, which meant Rafa Nadal and David Ferrer were there. Those were names I used to see on the front pages of the MARCA newspaper back home in Gijón, finding out that they’ve won trophies and medals, to make the country proud. But all of a sudden here I was in Rio, sharing an elevator with them, heading down to have breakfast together. It was crazy!”

But along with the fun and the fanfare, Senen believes that a lot of the Olympics has to do with the tougher side of sport, one that most people fail to realize. “It’s true that winning and losing are a part of the sport, but when you lose at the Olympics, it is especially tough. At the Olympics, because you have let down not only yourself, but your team, your contingent and your nation, it is even harder to take. There are athletes that don’t even end up coming to the opening ceremony or the parade because some of the qualifying events are in the days leading up to it.”

Suited up in the conventional red and blue colors of Spain, each member of his contingent was given a traditional white hat to wear at the Maracanã that night, an outfit he treasures to this day. “You know what they say about sport being a beautiful mix of cultures and philosophies? I’ll tell you that it’s never as true as it is at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Where else in the world do you get so many countries coming together in their own traditional clothing, with their own music playing, people from different sports and backgrounds with their hands around each other’s shoulders? If I ever have children or grandchildren, I would tell them about that moment. They may believe me, but they would not be able to even imagine how amazing it was.”

Fifteen minutes after soaking in the atmosphere at the Maracanã that night, Senen was back in his room at Barra da Tijuca, where a schedule told him that there were five games lined up in the space of seven days for his team, who would square up against some of the toughest sides in Women’s Field Hockey. “I won’t lie and tell you that we went there to win it. Our team had not been to the Olympic Games for eight years, and only two members of our squad in 2016 had been to Beijing in 2008. It was a young group of players, hungry to do well, but we knew it would be very tough. And it was.”

A 5-0 opening day defeat at the hands of the Netherlands was followed by losses to China and New Zealand. A first win of the campaign would come against Germany in Spain’s fourth game, after which Lock’s women needed a win against South Korea – a clash sandwiched between two games in which China had to drop points. “We lost by a big margin to the Netherlands, and then lost again and again, but we never gave up hope. I remember meeting Nadal on the way down for breakfast one morning and he said ‘I hope China drops points against South Korea today.’ He had his own things to worry about, in fact that was on the morning of his doubles final with Marc Lopez, but this was about more than just tennis for him. That’s the beauty of the Olympics, everyone wants their country to do well, and for their flag to be the one that is raised highest.’

Like clockwork, China’s 0-0 draw against South Korea opened the doors for the Spaniards to capitalize. After a come-from-behind 3-2 win against South Korea the following day, New Zealand’s 3-0 defeat of the Chinese meant quarterfinals for Senen and his team of dreamers. “When we went to the Olympics, the plan was always to do our best, give it everything and to enjoy and savour that experience. Reaching the last-eight was a bonus and though we lost there, it didn’t stop us from celebrating. We had lost to Great Britain, who went on to win Gold against the Netherlands in the final. That was also the end of my journey with hockey.”

After Rio 2016, Senen spent a year with Al Wasl SC in the UAE Football League, in Dubai, before making the switch to Bengaluru FC in the summer of 2017, joining as the Head of Physiotherapy. Football was his first love, and the Spaniard says the roads were always going to lead him back to the beautiful game. “It was clear to me from the very beginning that no matter what happened at the 2016 Olympics, I was going to move on and look for opportunities in football. The Spanish Federation said they have big plans for Tokyo 2020 and that they wanted me to be a part of it, but I love football and that’s always where I was headed eventually. But I carry the memories of those days in Rio with me.”

He means it when he says that, so much so that when Senen returned to Asturias in 2016, he got the Olympic rings inked on his wrist, a memento to quite literally take with him everywhere. “I am only 31 years old, but professionally speaking, I will find it tough to have a feeling greater than the one I had when I walked into the Maracana that night. When I started my career in physiotherapy, the dream was to work in football. The Olympics was not even a dream, it was more than that. It’s something that I will remember for as long as I am alive.”

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