“I want to show that helping Africa is not just a drop in the ocean’ | Crista Cullen MBE
Crista Cullen MBE is different. She describes herself as a ‘non-conformist’, and throughout her life has ‘done things differently.’
Growing up in Kenya, Crista had a very active lifestyle. Having spent most of her time outdoors exploring the Galana Wildlife Conservancy, a 65,000-acre area of land which provides a safe haven for some of the world’s biggest tuskers (elephant with over 100 pounds worth of ivory), her family have been present in this area for 3 generations, she loves anything that involves being outdoors, including sport.
So, when Crista started at Oakham School, a boarding school in the Midlands, she found sport to be a stabilising factor in an otherwise disruptive world.
“I arrived as a really different kid culturally and mentally. My outlook was different, but the great thing is sport gives you this perfect equilibrium. Everyone is suddenly on a level playing field.”
With a natural sporting talent, it wasn’t long before Crista had to choose which sport to pursue as both her England hockey trials and athletics trials were on the same day. She chose hockey, with the pulling power of experiencing things with teammates’ the difference.
But whilst Crista went on to win Bronze and Gold Olympic medals in the sport, it wasn’t a straight forward journey. At 15, she was told by a coach that she would never make it to senior international hockey.
“I had to work really hard to become technically
competent to compete at the top-level.”
But rather than take the coach’s opinion as fact, Crista worked even harder to prove him wrong. At 17, whilst she was still at school, she got the call up to the senior England squad.
She admits luck played a factor, as she was called up to cover an injury, but Crista made sure she took her chance. After all, life is about opportunities and Crista is exactly that an opportunist.
“The head coach of the time felt that I warranted an opportunity because I was very physically capable, just technically I wasn’t too gifted.”
Crista believes this is where you can see the difference between elite athletes and those who don’t quite make it; the ability to roll up your sleeves and ‘do the numbers.’
“You have to do 20,000 repetitions for a skill to become innate. There is no glamour about it, it’s just a bit of gritty resilience. I had to work really hard to become technically competent to compete at the top-level.”
After breaking into the England team, Crista tasted disappointment very early in her career, with the England women’s team failing to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
To ensure that she was supported financially, and to make sure there were no glaring gaps in her CV, Crista worked full-time, as well as completing a degree in Business Management.
With the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, that changed the GB Hockey structure, as the athletes received more funding, they progressed to full-time at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, Crista continued to work full time (where time allowed).
“It made me a better-rounded athlete as I was
both mentally challenged as well as physically challenged.
For her, it enabled her to continue working on her post-sporting career ambitions and develop further away from sport.
“It made me a better-rounded athlete as I was both mentally challenged as well as physically challenged. It also furthered my career prospects, gave me a few more guarantees and just made me feel a bit more settled.”
However, London 2012 proved to be a turning point for Crista.
“We were on the prowl basically for a medal and then had 15000 people shouting for it every time we stepped out.
“I thought well this is the best I was ever going to be a part of, a double Olympian and I got a bronze medal. I miss home so much; I’m going to retire and move back to Kenya.”
At 27, Crista retired from international hockey, moving back to Kenya after 15 years of living in the UK. Yet she admits that, in hindsight, the transition away from sport was very difficult.
“I arrived in Kenya thinking I’ve got it
made now but it was that loss
of identity, it’s just a struggle.”
Whilst she didn’t struggle for work, becoming a pilot, working in wildlife conservation and as a general manager for a security company in Nairobi, she found the lack of purpose a massive challenge.
“I arrived in Kenya thinking I’ve got it made now but it was that loss of identity, it’s just a struggle. I thought I was really organised, I had a career, I had loads of potential options, I had so many things happening and I still wobbled.”
However, after 3 years back in Kenya, Crista was asked to re-join the GB squad, after a phone call from the Great Britain Head Coach extending an invitation. After deliberating, she joined back up with the team for the 2016 Rio Games, 10 months prior to getting on the plane…. Or not!?
Crista admits she had no guarantees and didn’t walk back into the team full of confidence. There was self-doubt, worry and the potential of upsetting a successful squad.
It was worth it, and Crista was part of the team that won Gold at Rio 2016. Now, for the second time, Crista was faced with deciding what to do next.
Crista wanted to do something different. Having spent so much time working on wildlife conservation, she decided to set up her own charity; Tofauti, meaning ‘different’ in her native tongue of Swahili.
“I feel so privileged to be in a position to
be in front of audiences and bring
them on the journey with me. ”
Tofauti aims to help solve a wide range of conservation issues through educating local communities and tackling the problem at the root.
As well as making positive change, Tofauti provided Crista an element of purpose and identity.
“I wanted to show that helping Africa is not just a drop in the ocean, there is a way we can make a sustained change, it just needs to have an element of education with it and a willingness to put in the time and effort.
“I feel so privileged to be in a position to be in front of audiences and bring them on the journey with me.
“It is about solving problems at the root and
educating communities, so they feel
empowered, that’s so important.”
“It’s not a short term vision, this is how you bring sustained changed to small rural communities that can really be impactful, whether that’s building a dam to hold water because livestock, human and wildlife need to cohabitate in the area together, or building fences to stop deforestation.
“There’s so many problems that are so heavily linked to community and wildlife. It’s about finding those small pockets and trying to help fix the problems that are there.”
“I’m very keen for Tofauti to work with very rural communities and in somewhat isolated locations, we need to look at the problem holistically, it is not necessarily one size fits all.”
“It is about solving problems at the root and educating communities, so they feel empowered, that’s so important.”
Last year, Crista self-funded the Conservation Ball, an evening in London with 350 guests to try and raise funds for conservation projects in Africa. She succeeded, raising over £100,000.
With this as the start of what will be a long-term journey, Crista is organising the second ball this year, she is hoping to eclipse last years’ event. With Clare Balding OBE hosting, as well as an abundance of food, drink, dancing and celebrating ‘all things African’, Crista is hoping that this year can help push Tofauti on even further…. Together.
“It’s about having a new approach to getting an element of sustained change, but taking people with us and emotionally intergrating them in what we are trying to do.”
If you’re interested in attending the Conservation Ball, or finding out more about Tofauti, head to: https://www.conservationball.com/