From the Field to Retirement: A Conversation with Shanlee Johnston ‘08

Shanlee Johnston ‘08 bid farewell to professional field hockey after an impressive decade-long career, with 138 national team caps to her name. In this Q&A, she reflects on her journey from the field to retirement. 

Q: Shanlee, what drew you to the sport of field hockey? 
A. It all came from my mom, who played field hockey and was a UBC alum as well. When we were kids, my mom set me and my siblings up in every sport. We played soccer, badminton, tennis, basketball, volleyball—you name it, we played it! Because field hockey was a sport she played, she was comfortable coaching it. When I was 10 and my sister was 12, she signed us up for Vancouver Hawks FHC and we both played on the same team. At the time, soccer was more my passion along with playing competitive basketball at YHS—field hockey was something I did for fun, however, when I was about 13 or 14 years old, I played on some regional field hockey teams, and that was the first time I was introduced to coaches who had played on the national team. 

Q. When did field hockey become your passion?
A. For the last six months of Grade 12, I was on crutches because I had knee surgery. I tore my ACL, MCL, and part of my meniscus in my knee playing soccer, so I was out of commission until I started university. I never went to UBC with the hopes of playing a varsity sport as I had no scouting and was unable to try out for any teams so during my first two years I didn’t play any team sports at all. I did try rowing for one semester, but it was super early mornings in the most miserable weather you could imagine. 

At the end of my second year, I decided to get back into team sports. I emailed the head coaches of the Varsity Soccer and Varsity Field Hockey teams. The field hockey coach got back to me within a day about trying out as the team had just graduated seven athletes. It was a bunch of happy accidents that resulted in my making the team in my third year at UBC in 2010. So my passion for field hockey came later—that is when I truly fell in love with the sport. My younger brother Gordon also played for the national team at the time (he was 16 when he was scouted). 

I spent a lot of time practicing skills and getting into field hockey shape. A year later I was asked to attend a training/tryout camp for the national team in the winter of 2011. In 2012, I received my first cap in Victoria when we played against the USA, and I scored my first goal for an international team. It was super cool to get my first cap and first goal on home soil. A “cap” refers to an official international game you play for your country. 

Q. What are some career highlights that stand out for you?
A. Multi-sports games are always a memorable experience. I played in the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast (Australia) which was a very fun experience. I also played in the 2015 and 2019 Pan Am Games in Toronto and Lima. These stand out to me as they were the most fun and competitive experiences. One of my biggest highlights was qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Spain. It was the first time Canada had qualified since 1994.

Q. You also played and trained in Europe?
A. Yes, that was also a significant part of my career. In 2018, for one and a half seasons, I played abroad in Belgium for a professional team. We also coached one of the youth programs out there and trained with the Canadian national team on the side twice a week. It was full-time field hockey while we were there. This is what pushed us through to almost qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2019, and eventually qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Q. How did you settle on kinesiology as your major at UBC?
A. I was attracted to physiotherapy initially and I knew kinesiology was a good way to get the prerequisites to get into physical therapy. Kinesiology was a good program for me as I was interested in everything surrounding sports but I went in a different direction because physiotherapy wasn’t where my strengths were. I ended up taking what I learned in kinesiology to become a certified personal trainer. 

Q. How did you make the decision to retire from field hockey?
A. I decided to retire directly after the 2022 World Cup. My body was telling me it was time to move on and step away. After knee surgery in high school, I had another significant injury in January 2014 which led to an additional surgery. It was getting to the point that I wasn’t as fast or quick as some of the new girls that were coming up and I knew I would just have to start to rely on my skill. This made me feel I was letting my team down a bit. I was just not as capable as I was in my 20s—at that point, I was 32.

Q. How has retirement been for you?
A. I work at a private golf & country club as the lead personal trainer. I am now a golf professional specializing in how the body moves and works. I am hoping to morph the two together to become a golf-specific personal trainer and teach some golf alongside that. I got into golf in 2020 when COVID-19 hit. I had never played before and I just really took to it. It is similar to field hockey; it’s a stick and ball sport with a lot of hand-eye coordination involved.

It’s been a nice transition. I am starting to miss field hockey more now that it's been a couple of years. My reasons for retiring weren’t just physical—it was also my mental health. When you are on a team like that—everything you eat, how much you sleep, how much water you drink, and how much effort you put into training and exercising, is all for the greater good of the team. You are always putting the team first, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it was time to step away. It has been nice to focus on myself and my career and do things because I wanted to do them, not because I had to.

Q. Do you have any advice for Yorkies who want to pursue athletics professionally?
A. I would say learn from rejections, that is the biggest thing. Take them as important learning experiences and not as defeats; it doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means that there are areas you need to improve and if you are dedicated and work hard enough you can do anything you set your mind to. I also think that when you are young you should play every sport. Being a multi-sport athlete makes you better at the sports you ultimately want to pursue. Don’t specialize too early.

And never be afraid to ask for help. The best way to improve is to ask for assistance from people who have the knowledge. I had my younger brother who started his field hockey journey before me. He had his successes and failures all before I did and he always had something wise to say. We also leaned on each other later in our careers. I was very lucky to have that.