Crista Cullen retired from Britain’s Olympic hockey team after winning bronze in 2012. She was coaxed out of retirement for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Team GB brought home gold. Now running a marketing consultancy business in Britain, she talks about growing up in Kenya, the quest for acceptance by her peers that propelled her into full-time sport, and a conservation cause close to her heart.
Growing up in Kenya, what was it like?
Crista: In the school holidays, my brother and I, especially later on, used to take clients into Galana [next to Tsavo East] on a local safari to earn holiday money. In the UK, most people do pot washing in a local pub. As children, we had pet mongooses, scorpions. We were feral children, more at home on an adventure in the middle of nowhere. Coming over to England, [I saw] so much conformity. Sent to boarding school, I quickly learned that shaving my legs and wearing make-up was important at the age of 13. It was hard to fit in, sport was my refuge. It made me accepted.
Why did you decide to come back to Kenya?
Crista: I got picked for England [to play hockey] very early, hence why I ended up retiring after London. I had done two Olympics. It was a very hard decision [to give it up] but because we’d hosted the Olympics [in London 2012] and as a GB athlete, you feel like a celebrity for two weeks of your life. We won bronze in London, and I thought that was probably the best we’d get and that I’d be a part of. I’d been away from my family for a long time, so the pull to go home was too strong.
A cause close to your heart?
Crista: Our family is a part of the Galana Conservancy adjacent to Tsavo East. It was set up in 2008, and I was involved for three years [after retiring in 2012]. The government owns the land, and we organised a lease to create a 60,000-acre buffer that animals could roam through. We engage with the community around animal welfare, we built a large dispensary, as well as a large school. We built a nursery, a primary school, and we’re completing a secondary school. We have a warden and six scouts to patrol the area to reduce the amount of livestock [grazing], charcoal burning and poaching. The unique thing about Galana is that it is so arid, you find yourself watching a leopard, or a lion, and there are no other vehicles. That’s why I love it.
How did you get back into hockey?
Crista: I got a phone call in April 2015, and my coach gave me a six-month window [to trial for the Olympic team]. I thought, ‘What if I’m not good enough?’ More of a problem was that I had not committed to four years [of training] and I was concerned about how others would perceive it. I was potentially going to kick somebody out of an Olympic space. There were some very hard, very confrontational conversations. The reality of elite sport is that the best person gets the job. [Winning gold] was a very, very special moment. It was the success that everybody hoped for – it gave messages of a hard work ethic, unity, togetherness, and a common goal.
Most memorable travel incident in East Africa?
Crista: I drove around Africa in 2009 with a very good friend. We got to the Tanzanian border with Mozambique, and the bridge had washed away. To get across, they would strap two dinghies together, and drive the car on. The vehicle that had tried to cross before us had gone into the river. I ummed and ahhed for two or three days. It was a 600-mile detour to go round. I rang my Dad, and he said, “Just pack your lifejacket.” So we went for it, and unbelievably we got across. The river was in flood, and tree trunks were coming down. It took about an hour and a half to cross. It was pretty liberating.
Crista: My grandparents lived in Naivasha, and one that symbolises a lot from my childhood is looking over the lake from up in the Kinangop in the Aberdares. You can see Lake Naivasha and Mt Longonot from on high, the beautifully symbolic Great Rift Valley.
Crista: Hemingways in Watamu. I was practically brought up there. It has some very special memories.
What do you never travel without?
Crista: A first-aid kit. I’m a massive organiser, and always have a first-aid kit to sort someone out temporarily until we get them to safety.
Crista: We entered the Rhino Charge this year and won it. [As a result of that], I’m talking with a company who wants to provide me with a vehicle. I want to build it here [in the UK], and travel with it to Africa on a conservation-based adventure. I’m looking to build a route through West Africa – that’s an area I’ve never been through. It may be a pipe dream, but who doesn’t love those!