The Tokyo Games have bolted from two months away to a 474-day countdown, but British field hockey forward Sam Ward isn't brooding over it. Or the tedium of social distancing. Cooped up with three friends in Marlow, five miles north-west of his home in Maidenhead, he's staging an Olympics of his own. It's what he calls the 'Isolation Olympics'.
It's hardly as sombre as it sounds. The venues are the backyard, around patio chairs, the bathtub, stairs, living room and just about any usable space around his friend's home, where he's living out this isolation period. You see Ward cantering around a room in breeches, jacket and riding helmet one day, hopping over obstacles with an excited and confused Labrador also joining in, for the mock show jumping event or sliding down two flights of stairs lying on his stomach on a duffel bag in his version of skeleton bob, on another. His take on the events are meant to be impromptu, sloppy and funny. It's all those things and additionally, Ward now has an unexpected, rising popularity on social media as a bonus.
- Sam Ward (@Samuel_Ward13) March 20, 2020
"Basically I was just at my friend's home. We're four of us here in isolation. There's not a lot really going on, so I thought, 'Well, why not enjoy myself and make some fun of it all?'," Ward, 28, tells ESPN, "I started it as a joke and I thought I'd make a couple of people laugh. Obviously it's gone pretty viral. Lots of people want to talk to me about it. People around the world are like 'this is crazy' so I'm gonna have to keep it up now and probably spend the rest of my life planning what to do next."
His parents, Ward says, are positively convinced that he's out of his mind. "They're like 'this can't be our son!', 'what's got to him?'" He has so far posted 13 event videos. "Honestly, I don't rehearse any of it. That would really kill the fun. I just have an idea of what I'm going to do and end up making all those silly mistakes. That makes them more natural and entertaining, like falling off the canoe during the Slalom event and all those little things."
- Sam Ward (@Samuel_Ward13) March 31, 2020
His friends, including teammate Ashley Jackson, also show up in the videos, often as part of an exasperated audience. "People may not pick it the first time, but they're (friends) there in the background doing things. They all chip in with performances. One of my friends here has three kids so they also are given little roles." You see the toddlers neatly lined up, all holding scores of zero at the end of Ward's rhythmic gymnastics routine with a ball, ribbon and tardy somersaults, before they drop their scoresheets to the floor and scurry away.
- Sam Ward (@Samuel_Ward13) March 29, 2020
Apart from the 'Isolation Olympics', Ward, who's scored 72 international goals in 126 caps for Great Britain, has also been posting videos of DIY challenges kids can do at home during lockdown. He uses simple, household items as props in tasks like hanging a plastic bag with a wide mouth at the top of the door, stepping back five metres and trying to throw as many balled-up pairs of socks as possible in 60 seconds or using teabags and a saucepan for a similar kind of target exercise. He doesn't manage to do either of them himself with much success. "This campaign that we call 'Cofight19' is basically 19 challenges that kids from all backgrounds can do," Ward says. "It's a way for them to have some fun and stay engaged. The idea is to only use items that most people are likely to have at home."
Much of the person Ward is today has to do with an injury he suffered on November 3 last year during Great Britain's Olympic qualifier match against Malaysia. He was hit smack in the face by a travelling ball, crushing his eye socket and left retina and causing seven facial fractures. He underwent a facial reconstruction surgery 10 days after the accident, which had doctors cutting him from ear to ear across the top of his head, peeling his face and fixing it back on with four plates and 31 screws now holding it together. He's almost completely lost sight in his left eye, barring a little smidgen of peripheral vision. He can't use it for reading or pretty much anything.
You might think something as life-changing as Ward's injury may arouse feelings of despondency in him. Instead, he says, it's given him 'a whole new outlook on life'. "I'm more humble about things now. I've realised that what really matters in life are the relationships we have, whether it's family or friends. The injury put the small, special things into perspective. I may have lost an eye, but I know it's not the end of the world." In this, he's had assistance from the GB team psychologists. "They were of huge help," says Ward, "They just restricted it to real facts. There was no hiding behind what happened. There's so much more to life, I've learnt. It's changed the way I think. It's changed me as a person.
The damage to his left eye has turned Ward overly protective of his good eye. He's given up riding bikes on the road and always plays with a mask or glasses on now. He's been doing eye training to make sure he gets the most of his right-eye vision. Following the injury, he's also given to episodes of 'night terrors', or nightmares where he imagines people trying to shoot his good eye with darts. "The sound of being hit by a hockey ball kept coming back in flashbacks. It was terrible," says Ward. "The night terrors still come and go a bit. Obviously now that I'm in isolation, I've got a lot more time to think about it. I try to put a positive spin to it. I understand it's just part of the body grieving and that's fine. It's what it is. I just tell myself to remember that I have great friends and family."
He also loves his cricket and finds a hero in Ben Stokes. "Just the kind of challenges he's had in his career and his journey makes him such an incredible guy to look up to. We share team doctors with the cricket team, so I vaguely know a couple of the team members but Stokes, no, I haven't had the opportunity to interact with him yet." Ward, who travelled to Cape Town earlier this year for a training session, made sure he got himself tickets to the second Test between England and South Africa taking place in the city then.
"I'm more humble about things now. The injury put the small, special things into perspective. I may have lost an eye, but I know it's not the end of the world." Sam Ward
Ward returned to playing club hockey six weeks ago and managed to appear in six games this season. Ward's bigger goal is obviously turning out for Great Britain at next year's Olympics. The deferred Games now offer him the boon of time. "The past year has been tricky, with the loss of an eye. The Olympics now postponed, it gives me more train to train and get back to the team," he says. "I really want to be there in Tokyo. The dream would be to medal. Even if it doesn't eventually happen, I know it won't define me as a person, as long as I can go through the next 3-4 years proud of whatever I'm doing."
Now, though, Ward is stressing out over the new-found attention, popularity and the pressure of living up to it. The Isolation Olympics, a fun, irreverent concept that was born out of boredom and pottering around the house with little to do, has brought itself a following he wasn't prepared for.
"I'm worried," Ward laughs, "I'm always thinking what to perform next. I can barely sleep anymore."