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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 08:57 GMT
Pride of Britain
By Andrew Fraser

Crista Cullen
Cullen's goals helped book GB's ticket for Beijing
Remember Bryan Habana, the jet-heeled South African Rugby World Cup star who tests his speed by racing against cheetahs?

Well, the Great Britain women's hockey team can also boast a player who likes to run with big cats.

All-action defender Crista Cullen spent the first 12 years of her life growing up in Kenya.

And whenever she returns to Africa to visit her parents, she spends her training sessions exercising the lions on a family friend's estate.

"Our friend looks after lions who have been injured. I do some of my training running up and down alongside the cages, and the lions run after me," she told BBC Sport.

"They're incredibly fast. I sprint full pelt and they are just jogging. Cheetahs are a bit faster, so I wouldn't like to think what running against them would be like.

"All my housemates were laughing (when they saw the Bryan Habana video) and saying 'that's what you do'."

Not qualifying for Athens was devastating - but it almost made us more hungry for this next opportunity

Crista Cullen
The 22-year-old learned her hockey skills aged nine playing on a dusty school pitch near Nairobi.

She did not get her first taste of playing on astroturf until she was 14 after moving to England to go to boarding school.

Four years later, she was picked for England, and was in the side that agonisingly missed out on qualification for the Athens Olympics by losing a play-off against Korea.

Cullen erased that memory by scoring twice as England beat Spain 3-2 in the third-place play-off at the EuroHockey Nations Championships in Manchester last August to book their ticket for Beijing.

Having qualified as England, they will compete in Beijing as Great Britain, with Wales' Sarah Thomas and Scotland's Laura Bartlett and Abigail Walker also joining the squad.

CRISTA CULLEN
Age: 22, born in Lincolnshire
July 2003: Makes international debut for England v Scotland
2006: Wins Commonwealth Games bronze with England. Named GB Hockey Athlete of the Year
August 2007: Scores twice as England beat Spain to qualify for Beijing Olympics
November 2007: Named in Women's WorldHockey All Star Team for second year running
They began their Olympic build-up with a five-Test tour of Argentina, losing the series 3-1 to the world number three side, and opened 2008 with a 2-2 draw against Spain.

"The next few months will be really exciting," said penalty corner specialist Cullen.

"We've put what happened to us four years ago to bed. Not qualifying for Athens was devastating for those of us who were involved, but it almost made us more hungry for this next opportunity.

"What's so great is that we've turned it around and qualified nice and early, to put ourselves in a good position to really prepare for these Games and hopefully do well there.

"We're training really hard and I think we genuinely could medal at an Olympic Games. It's not just about going to the Olympics - the ambition is to get a medal as well."

Cullen, who plays her club hockey for Leicester, is not one to take the easy option.

GB'S COUNTDOWN TO BEIJING
England players celebrate qualifying for the Beijing Olympics
Nov-Dec 2007: Lost five-Test series in Argentina 3-1
Jan 13 2008: Drew 2-2 in Test match v Spain
Feb 2008: Training camp and matches in Australia
June: Final squad of 18 for Beijing selected
10 August: Olympic hockey tournament begins
The GB men have yet to qualify. They must win the qualifying tournament in Chile in March to make it to Beijing
Even though her parents could comfortably support her through her Olympic preparations - her father manages a five-star coastal resort in Kenya and her mother runs Nairobi's largest security company - she recently decided to move to London to take up a job as a new business consultant with the Kennel Club.

"When I left school I didn't want my parents to look after me. I did a business management degree at Nottingham Trent University," she said.

"In my gap year, when we were trying to qualify for Athens, I was routinely just being a hockey player. I didn't really play that well.

"Now I've got more of a balance in my life - and my career's not on hold. I'm not going to be a hockey player all my life. I need something to fall back on."

Cullen's Kenyan background, coupled with her uncompromising style on the pitch, has earned her nicknames like Tarzan and Xena Warrior Princess from her team-mates.

"Everyone takes the mickey. It's because of the African connection," she said.

606: DEBATE
Andy F - BBC Sport
"I'm not your normal GB hockey player. I do lots of really weird things (like running with the lions) that labels me with those kind of names. And when I'm on the pitch I'm not exactly the nicest person around."

She added: "I'm one of those people who, if I commit to something, really want to do it well. It annoys me that routinely at big events, we always lose to the same teams, like the Germans and the Dutch.

"It really aggravates me and motivates me to train harder to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future. How fantastic would it be to play against the world number one at an Olympic Games and suddenly it goes in our favour?"

Crista Cullen is among the British athletes who BBC Sport will be following during the countdown to the Beijing Olympics.



SEE ALSO
Team GB for Beijing
29 Nov 07 |  Team GB
England women book Beijing trip
25 Aug 07 |  Hockey
Basic rules of hockey
05 Oct 05 |  Hockey
Basic hockey skills
05 Oct 05 |  Hockey


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