Originally published in the September 2016 edition of Australian Teacher Magazine
It’s one of Sarah Hay’s last days as deputy principal at Cecil Hills Public School and she’s spending it in armour – specifically in the 14th century replica armour of a German knight named St Johannis Albrecht II. Struggling into helmet and harness, she explains: a television crew is coming around to film her before she jets off overseas for a five-week jousting tour.
Hay, it seems, leads something of a double life. Outside school hours, the Australian educator is one of the world’s top competitive jousters.
“Everything I want to be, everything I want to do is in jousting,” Hay tells Australian Teacher Magazine. “When you’re in the lift and you’re on fire, there’s no better feeling!”
The 46-year-old will soon be chasing that feeling all the way over to the Middle East, with indefinite plans to live and teach in Muscat, Oman so she can be closer to the European jousting community.
Right now, she’s at the top of her game, ranked number one in the world league and the only woman to have ever won the international Grail of Chivalry prize.
A skilled equestrian rider, Hay came to the sport in 2007 after watching a festival joust.
“I instantly knew that was it for me,” she says. “I don’t know whether it’s a past life thing but … one of my friends said when I first started: ‘it’s as if everything you’ve ever done has led you to jousting’ … because it was the horses, it was the costume, it was the feasting.”
While you might be forgiven for having Hay pegged as a history teacher, the educator admits she “grew up hating history”.
“History was taught to me in high school as memorising dates,” she says. “[But] now that I’m reenacting history I think, well history’s about stories, it’s about the decisions that people made, the mistakes that people made, and how those mistakes changed the world.”
Errors on the jousting field, however, are painful. During the European Championships, Hay was struck in the knuckle, “smashing it into so many pieces it couldn’t be put back together again”.
“I’ve broken my own thumb, just from the impact,” she adds, “If we didn’t wear armour, we’d be dead.”
Of course, a heavy helm and harness present their own challenges.
“Once you put it on, you can’t go to the loo,” Hay says frankly.
Then there’s the task of carting her armour through customs.
“That’s my whole luggage allowance!” she despairs. “I have 23 kilo bags [of] armour and I have to wear all my clothes, plus my medieval gown on the plane….”
Being a woman in “a sport of kings” certainly isn’t easy. But it’s important to Hay to joust in a gown to “show that I’m a woman”.
She also makes a point to be first on the field.
“Because I’m always jousting men … if I’m first on the field, I’m saying in my mind, ‘c’mon fellas, come and get me because I’m ready for you…The greatest respect a man can do me when we’re jousting is to hit me as hard as I’m going to hit them.”
While Hay has developed a fine “killer instinct” since her first “hopeless” days training, rivalries on the field are soon forgotten over a pint at the end of the joust.
“You’re absolutely ravenous after you joust,” Hay says. “…There’s really nice comradery overseas and that’s part of the reason why I’m going to the northern hemisphere because I’ll be closer to everything that’s happening… I’ll be hanging out in a castle after [I’ve] finished jousting in a real jousting list.”
Also coming along for the ride is her beloved horse, Semke, and two cats.
But, here at Cecil Hills Primary School in New South Wales, Hay’s personal motto of ‘courage, passion and integrity’ continues to inspire students.
“I use it as storytelling to teach lessons and talk about personal best and … grit,” she says. “You know, sticking with it.”
Set to enter the international teaching scene and prove herself all over again, Hay says she’s excited to bring her two passions – jousting and education – even closer together.
She mentions an email that appeared in her inbox one day entitled “the trouble you’ve caused”. A woman from Texas was describing her daughter’s response to seeing Hay joust.
“It said ‘my young daughter now… charges around on the horse, demanding 50 per cent of the use of the sword from her brother because she wants to be a knight too’,” Hay says.
“So, kids and people around the world, it does mean a lot to them to see a woman winning on the field and, even the guys, they do say: ‘thank you for doing this for women, I’m so glad my daughter saw you’.”
Now suited up for her latest television appearance, Hay’s mind wanders back to that German knight. She stands in his armour but rides under her own motto.
“It’s funny, I picked his effigy as the one I wanted to replicate … and it makes me wonder, 600 years ago, did this guy think that there’d be a woman in Australia dressing up as him?” she laughs. “…And, in a thousand years from now, is there going to be someone dressing up as me?”
By Sherryn Groch