Dutch hockey star has more than 200 caps
Part of double-winning Olympic team
Appeared in Sports Illustrated shoot
Strengthened mentally by father's cancer battle
You could say Ellen Hoog is the model sportswoman.
As the star of the Dutch women’s field hockey side, the 29-year-old has enjoyed a near perfect career.
Hoog has been part of teams that have won the Olympics and World Cup twice plus three European Championships, while she was named the 2014 International Hockey Federation Player of the Year.
Yet despite all this success, Hoog and her teammates are still arguably better known for how they look rather than their stick work – an unofficial online poll before the 2012 London Olympics voted them the most beautiful team at the Games.
The news was greeted with understandable despair by gender equality campaigners, mystified as to why successful sportswomen continue to be exposed to casual sexism.
Hoog, however, didn’t see too much of a problem.
“I think it’s nice when people say we are a good-looking team, but in the end we want to win gold medals,” she tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“If that’s the reason why people are going to watch more hockey then I think it’s perfectly fine!
“Of course, we know that men like to watch our games maybe because of our short skirts and that kind of thing, but in Holland everyone likes to watch us because we perform very well.”
Following the successful defense of their Olympic title at London 2012, an unabashed Hoog and teammate Eva de Goede were invited to pose in bikinis and high heels for “Sports Illustrated” magazine.
“I haven’t been always that confident, I’m a woman so there’s always something to complain about,” Hoog says.
“But at the Sport Illustrated shoot everyone was so positive and they were so nice, so I really felt confident. But of course there are days I don’t feel confident about my body.”
Hockey’s No. 1 pinup girl is the attacking lynchpin in the Netherlands side, scoring more than 50 goals in an international career spanning 11 years.
Like its cousin played on ice, field hockey is fast-paced, fiercely competitive but with less protection worn by players. With balls being struck at around 100 mph, injuries are part and parcel of the game – and Hoog has experienced her fair share.
“Hockey is definitely a dangerous sport. I broke my nose twice, my teeth are dead. I broke my ankle twice … but we wear gloves and shin guards so it’s OK,” she says.
Overcoming physical injury sustained on the pitch has been easy compared to the mental scars left by the loss of her father to cancer when she was 18 years old.
Diagnosed in March 2005, her father was given only a few weeks to live but bravely resolved to watch his daughter make her debut at that year’s European Championships in Dublin, Ireland.
“It was just in the beginning of my career, I was only in the team for one year and he said to me: ‘I will make it to Dublin where you play your first big tournament,’” she recalls.
“He fought really hard and he saw us become European champions and he saw me score in the final, and he came back and one week later he passed away.
“That was a really tough moment and a tough period for me, but in the end I am very glad he made it to Dublin and he could see my play there. I think mentally it made me stronger eventually.”
The experience has perhaps been the catalyst to her long career at the top of the women’s game – Hoog won her 200th international cap at August’s European Championships played at London’s Riverbank Arena.
She celebrated that day by scoring a hat-trick but there would be no fairytale ending this time around as the Netherlands lost in the final to host England after a penalty shootout.
Three years earlier, at the same venue, Hoog was the hero as she scored the deciding penalty against New Zealand in the Olympic semifinals.
The Dutch followed that up by beating Argentina 2-0 to claim gold – a particularly satisfying result for Hoog, who had been dropped from the national team eight months before the tournament.
“The shootout competition was probably my most memorable moment on the field,” she says of the 2012 semifinal. “It was scary and very impressive.”
Having retained the title won at Beijing 2008, the mission now is to seal a hat-trick of titles in 10 months’ time.
“I feel really excited about Rio,” Hoog says. “An Olympics is very special and it’s the greatest goal, so I feel excited but not in a nervous way – I am looking forward to it. It’s hopefully going to be a special year.”
If the Dutch do succeed again, it may in part be thanks to the players’ ritual of watching Hollywood romance drama “The Notebook.”
“It brings luck so we always watch it before the first match of the tournament, before the semifinals and before the finals. It’s terrible – I think I’ve seen the movie 40 times now!” Hoog laughs.
There has been plenty to celebrate off the field recently with the publication of Hoog’s first book, “In Perfect Condition,” in which she shares healthy eating tips and fitness workout plans.
“Stay away from sugar and try to eat healthy,” she says, “If you don’t like the gym there are so many exercises you can do at your home.”
It all sounds like she has the perfect recipe for another rewarding hockey season. But will Hoog carry on playing after the Olympics, or will she start focusing on a different career?
“I like modeling,” she says, “but I like hockey more.”