The teenager from Gerringong in NSW made the big move to Perth in January this year as one of the newest members to join Hockey Australia’s home base on a training scholarship.
No sooner had she arrived than she was off to Singapore making her debut appearance for the Hockeyroos at the 2016 International Tri-Series where she scored Australia’s only goal to secure a draw against Germany in the opening game.
From that point, she went on a scoring frenzy at the Hawkes Bay Cup invitational tournament in New Zealand, making her regular inclusion in the team something coach Adam Commens could not avoid as he sized up the possibilities heading to the Olympic Games.
Stewart, more than anyone, has been surprised by the speed of her progress and the ultimate vote of confidence shown in her with her selection in the Rio squad.
“I definitely didn’t expect this – it happened really quickly,” she said.
“I think it still is a shock. Every selection that I kept making for the team this year - I was not expecting to make. It really still is a shock, but I guess I have been training hard - it still hasn’t really sunk in for me.”
Stewart has played hockey all her life – it’s in her genes.
Her mother played and both her sisters are members of the NSW State team.
“I started playing hockey when I was five because Mum played and all my cousins played. But growing up I played just about everything – hockey, touch, running and swimming – but I always enjoyed hockey more. It’s a team sport and all my best friends used to play,” she said.
West coast, best coast
Young athletes often struggle when they move away from home in pursuit of their dreams but, while Stewart admits to some initial reticence, she says she has settled in well to her new life in the West.
“It’s been okay this year because we’ve had so many tournaments so I haven’t been really sitting around doing nothing and missing my family too much. When I was first moving over, I was crying and thinking I’m not going to be able to do this, but once I got here it was all good and all the girls are really supportive,” she said.
“I also moved in with another girl on the team. She’s lived here for a year so she’s been really helpful so it hasn’t been as hard as I thought.”
While Stewart is the youngest member of the team going to Rio she is not the only debutante - all but four of the 16 member squad are going to their first Olympics.
According to Stewart though, they are currently training so hard that the general feeling is one more of excitement with maybe just a few nerves.
Selectors have gone for a new look Olympic team, although new should not be read as inexperienced. Most of the players have been in the national squad for the past 3 years and therefore have racked up some miles playing for the Hockeyroos – so their selection is not unexpected.
“I don’t think most of the girls have been surprised. They’ve been in the main team for the past couple of years, so I don’t think he was going to change that just because they haven’t been to an Olympics,” said Stewart.
The expected nerves leading into such a major event are being managed by those members of the team who have experienced the Olympic journey before.
Hockeyroos captain Madonna Blyth is heading to her third Olympics along with team mate Casey Sablowski while Emily Smith and Jodie Kenny are both making their second Olympics appearances.
“They’ve been really good actually. We’ve had a couple of meetings this week and they’ve been talking about what it’s like in the village – because obviously it’s very full on and you see famous people everywhere you walk. They’re letting us know about not getting too distracted by it all and talking about the first game nerves and how to deal with all that. We’ve been throwing questions at them and they’ve just been going through things so we can get a feel of what to expect when we get over there, so it’s all not a massive shock,” said Stewart.
Unfortunately for the team, the Hockey competition runs across both weeks of the event and so this limits the athletes’ ability to fully enjoy the Olympic experience and to take in other sports. But they plan to make the best of it.
“We’re not going to the Opening Ceremony but we’ll dress up and pretend we’re there,” said Stewart.
“We will have some rest days but we won’t be going out on those. We do have TVs in our apartments, so I daresay that’s what I’ll be doing all day – sitting back watching the other guys.”
But as Stewart points out, the focus for the team is on the job at hand.
“We’re just focussing on doing our best and trying to win a medal – we’ll do whatever it takes to give ourselves the best shot.”
The teams that will be looking to make that job very difficult for the Hockeyroos will be the big hitters of world hockey – but the Australians know there will be no easy win over any opposition.
“I think probably the Dutch (Netherlands) or Argentina – they have been two of the biggest teams over the past year, but it’s all pretty even in the contest. The top six teams in the world at the moment are all very close, so all our games will be pretty tough,” said Stewart.
Flying out on Saturday, the Hockeyroos will spend a week in Chile training and playing some practice games before heading to Rio and the Olympic village.
Stewart says the team is looking to perform well by playing the style of hockey that has made them very competitive this year in the build up to Rio – and the expectation is that this will take them to a podium finish.
“I think our main aim is to go over there and play a good brand of hockey. Realistically, we’re ranked third in the world at the moment, so I think we’d be pretty disappointed if we didn’t come home with a medal."
Whatever the outcome, this will be the first of many adventures and experiences for Grace Stewart as she starts down the path of being an elite Australian hockey player.
And with hockey the central focus of her life for the foreseeable future, Stewart says she hasn’t really thought about much else but would eventually be keen to study and become a PE teacher moving back to the NSW coast to be near family and friends.
But with a promising career in front of her as an elite athlete, the more immediate items on her ‘to do’ list are Rio, the Commonwealth Games and hopefully more Olympics Games.