In the lead up to the International Women’s Day 2024, a year that marks the 100 years of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), we are speaking with women in hockey, who have made major contributions towards the growth of the sport over the past few decades. 

In today’s story, we feature Marelize de Klerk, former FIH umpire and current FIH umpire manager, with nearly three decades of experience at the highest level of officiating in International Hockey! 

Marelize’s journey with hockey began late as she hadn’t played or even watched hockey until she attended Stellenbosch University on a tennis and netball scholarship. As the university shared the sporting premises with the hockey club, she witnessed her first ever game of hockey and instantly knew that was the sport she wanted to play. Marelize requested to join the club right away and since they had an opening for a goalkeeper in the 5th team, she laced up her hockey pads for the very first time and within a couple of games she was promoted up to the second team!

Her career as a Hockey umpire began from an unusual circumstance as well. In 1994, Netherlands women’s team visited South Africa following the end of isolation, and international hockey was played in South Africa for the first time in over 30 years. Marelize, who was working as a club player at the premises, with experience of umpiring at the university as a part of the club activities, was promoted to umpire the game, following a storm in Johannesburg that prevented one of the designated umpires from flying to Stellenbosch in time. This gave Marelize her first experience umpiring an international hockey match and 30 years later, she is still going strong as a towering figure in the international hockey umpiring community!

Speaking about the biggest changes she has observed over her 30-year relation with international hockey, Marelize pointed out the removal of offside rules, the introduction of aerials and change in playing surfaces from grass to astro-turf as the biggest changes and added, “The changes in the early 2000s meant we were ahead of the curve. The game was a lot faster, skillful and just a lot more fun to watch for everyone.”

Elaborating further on the way gender roles have evolved in international hockey, Marelize said: “The biggest and best change I have observed is in the way men’s and women’s hockey, which used to feel like two completely different sports back in the 1990s, have now become one unit. Back then it used to be men umpiring men, women umpiring women, no men’s coaches for the women’s teams, no female staff in the men’s teams. But that is no longer the case. We have male and female umpires working as one unit for men’s and women’s hockey. Men coaching women, and while we need to see more female head coaches, I see many women taking up technical roles on both men’s and women’s international teams, which is a great first step.”

Reflecting on her journeys as an international hockey umpire, Marelize made special note of the life-long relations she has forged inside the hockey community. “It’s an extended family for me, especially the umpiring community. We are so close, we speak all the time to each other and share all of our news like we would with family. Somebody gets married, someone has a child, we get the photos and we meet each other on holidays and it really feels like you are a part of this big family.”

On a personal note, Marelize mentioned the support she has received from her partner and her school, where she used to teach, that enabled her to travel and umpire internationally for so long. Talking about the support from her school, she said: “My school has lived my entire hockey journey with me, because they supported me and covered me in every way possible when I had to travel for hockey matches. It would not have been possible for me to have achieved everything I did without the support from them.”

Asked about what advice she would give to the next generation of aspiring hockey players/umpires Marelize impressed upon the qualities of discipline and tenacity. As a positive person, she believes no dreams are too big to convert to reality. You just have to be brave enough to believe in yourself and have a vision. My personal mantra is that hard work and diligence can take you very far. But you have to have a vision that motivates you to do that hard work and get to the end result.”