One of the most memorable photos of the 2017 Varsity Hockey tournament shows the Maties Hockey women's team tackling their goalkeeper, Nicole la Fleur, after she saved a penalty shot to ensure a 3-2 victory in a nail-biting match against NWU-Pukke.
The Maties goalkeeper's magnificent efforts throughout the competition did not go unnoticed and she was selected to represent South Africa at the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Final event – a World Cup Qualifying competition – in Johannesburg in July.
Her team mate, Tarryn Glasby, was also included in this team.
Back at Stellenbosch University Nicole, who is studying towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), enjoyed a two-week rest period before joining Maties in their pursuit of a seventh consecutive Western Province Grand Challenge league title. They clinched this titel on Women's Day, 9 August.
Also on the calendar is the Indoor Inter-Provincial Tournament (IPT) and Africa Cup of Nations in October.
Her star is shining brightly at the moment, but over the past six years Nicole has also experienced times of doubt and disappointment.
She knows how it feels to be in the squad, but not getting much game time. To move from the second team to the first, and then back to the second. To be selected for a national side and then falling off the radar.
“There were a few years like that," she remembers. “It grows you mentally and makes it possible for you to encourage other players that may feel disheartened.
“It's nice to look back know and say that it was worth it even if you don't always feel that at the time. There was a stage where I was wondering whether I still wanted to keep fighting for a national team selection."
Being selected to represent her country at the HWL is her biggest achievement to date.
“It was amazing – a dream come true," says Nicole.
However, playing in the HWL does not mean automatic reselection to the national side for a next tournament.
“Constant reselection means you have to be on form all the time."
It is a good thing, then, that Nicole plays for Maties, which she describes as one of the most professional clubs in the country.
“The club is very well run and the management and coaches are very professional. We receive quality training."
Even with a demanding sport schedule, academics still need to come first. As a PGCE student, Nicole is currently busy with her teaching practice at Bridge House, her alma mater.
After six years and two degrees (an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in Sport Science), she still finds it hard to balance her sport and studies.
“Every year has been a challenge. And I'm not someone who is very good with time management. You do what you can."
She emphasises the importance of the help and support she receives from friends and classmates.
Why does she push through?
“Hockey players have a lot of passion. It is not a professional sport and the hours you put in, is for the love of the game. Because you still – at the end of the day – need to have a job even if you play for your country.
“It's not for everyone, but that is what stands out for me: the passion and the pride."
And is it worth it?
“I'm a Christian and I'm doing my best for Him who has given me this talent. I work hard and I play hard for Him. But in the end, He is in control. I am where He wants me to be.
“It is worth it, if it serves His purpose."
Maties celebrate after winning a nail-biting match against NWU-Pukke in a penalty shoot-out during the Varsity Hockey tournament.
Photo credit: SASPA