England lost twice in the 2022 Commonwealth Games bronze medal game to South Africa Ward herself, wearing a black protective mask, led them out for the first time in a match from a penalty corner. His team would be drawn back again as the scores leveled at 3-3 before a second-half attack saw them overtake the 6-3 winners to secure a podium spot.
It was a sweet victory that followed a narrow 3-2 loss to eventual champions Australia in the semi-finals of the tournament.
But for Ward, who suffered a horrific injury in an Olympic qualifier against Malaysia just three years earlier, the taste of victory was even sweeter than for many of his teammates.
Now he has a chance to go a step better by winning a medal in the cat The 2023 FIH Men’s World Cup to be held in India from January 13-29.
A career-threatening injury left Sam Ward blind in one eye
Ward’s road to a medal in Birmingham was strewn with obstacles that once seemed insurmountable.
In November 2019, the prolific shooter was hit by a teammate who was flying at 80km/h (50mph) Harry Martin when his team was taking their place in Tokyo 2020.
The injury left him with multiple facial fractures. But the worst news was that he had lost sight in his left eye, and doctors couldn’t predict how much vision he would regain.
The immediate reaction from the press included a BBC article stating that he had been forced to retire. However, Ward did not give up and just two years later he was called up to the Great Britain team, which was to finish fifth at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“It didn’t look good at first,” said Ward of his recovery journey. “I’ve struggled with any form of depth perception because I’ve lost all my central vision in my eye, but incredibly the brain is impressive and is learning to adapt and weakening over time.”
From car salesman to international hockey player with spare points
Unlike many of his British teammates, Ward did not feature for any international team in his youth.
After an initial stint with Leicester Ladies Hockey Club which included “playing a few matches in a skirt”, he moved to Beeston where he played regional hockey until he was about 18 years old.
But while he had an obvious goal-scoring talent, the young player’s low level of fitness always kept him from reaching the highest levels of the sport.
After taking on the role of car salesman at a Volkswagen dealership, Ward was about to make the decision to retire from the sport before the England coach called Bobby Crutchley changed his life forever.
After training in the Team GB setup – often alone as his fitness level was still considered too low for international hockey – Ward made his debut against Australia where he scored twice.
But as he celebrated his first start to remember, Crutchley still had a word of warning for the young player.
“Don’t think international hockey is easy – you’re still not fit enough,” he said.
Armed with a new determination to succeed on the international stage, Ward worked hard to reach the physical condition needed to succeed against the best teams in the world.
This was the beginning of a career where he went to the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
A second chance at international glory
There is no doubt that Ward is one of the most talented shooters his country has ever produced. After 84 games for England, the 32-year-old scored 62 goals and has won two Commonwealth Games bronze medals (2018, 2022).
His remarkable comeback from an eye injury that jeopardized his career saw him finish as top scorer at the 2021 Euro Ice Hockey Championships, while he was selected for Team GB’s Tokyo 2020 campaign where he scored five goals.
“All athletes are wired differently, otherwise they wouldn’t have achieved what they have,” Ward said of the effort it took to get back into England’s set-up.
“I’m probably wired even more differently – you’d probably say I’m really a bit stupid. Getting back on the pitch was huge.”
However, there is still unfinished business on the Olympic stage.
A first-round knockout in Rio was followed by a quarter-final defeat in Tokyo, which can be considered a relative disappointment for the three-time gold medalist, who last won Olympic gold in 1988.
But with Paris 2024 just two years away, Ward has the opportunity to turn his extraordinary comeback story into something even more special.
And the journey begins in earnest at the FIH World Championships in India, where he was selected for the England squad that will face Wales, India and Spain in the group stage between January 13 and 19.
England have never won the Hockey World Cup, their best result being a loss to Australia in the final of the 1986 edition.
But with a goal scorer like Ward backed by the determination of a second chance at glory, the men in red will be hoping that he will eventually take their place on the top step of the podium.