5 Things Being A Female Rugby Player Taught Me by Gabrielle Kassel

31 bodies take the pitch. 15 dressed in red and black. 15 dressed in an alternate color. The ref calls the captains from each team forward. A coin toss takes place and the ball is kicked. The 80 minute game begins. The pitch is lined with coaches, players warming up and ready to join the chaos of the game, nervous parents, and fans.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as an athlete. I grew up playing soccer and gymnastics for my school, and swimming for a town team. But when high school ended and my first year of college at a Division I college in Pennsylvania began, trying out for a varsity team never crossed my mind and I didn’t know that the school had club sports. I missed being on a team, and spending two hours at the gym a day logging miles on the treadmill and going up in weight on the various weight machines, wasn’t cutting it.

As I headed into my second year of college at a new school I knew that I needed to find a new physical feat to conquer. I brainstormed: maybe I’ll try out a tough mudder, or run a marathon, or take up spinning. I made a laundry list of athletic endeavors, a list I am still working through (I am signed up for a Tough Mudder two weeks from now). But I never imaged I would pick up a sport foreign to my body at 19, the thought seemed unimaginable. Yet, on my fourth day at my new school, I somehow ended up at a rugby practice. While I continued going to practices religiously after that, I certainly never thought I would come into an identity as a rugby player.

Having graduated college in May and moved to New York less than two weeks ago, I can’t believe that it has already been over three years since my first practice. I can remember that sprint-filled practice to clearly, the way my purple short-short covered booty gave into the feeling of the grass beneath my feet. I can remember, two practices later, when I was pushed beyond my running comfort zone and asked to tackle. I can remember my first game, fifteen minutes left in the second half, my captain, our fly-half passed me the ball, and I was off. I was off on a fifty-yard sprint, ten yards from the tryline, when seemingly out of nowhere, a woman twice my size swooped in high and hungry. I don’t remember the impact of her two-hundred pound body as it hit mine. What I remember is the sound of my other captain behind me yelling, “don’t you fuck up my rookie” as my body hit the ground. I don’t remember the muscle-hurt, I remember only the two hands reaching down to pick me back up. I remember smiling big and proud. I had just had my first rugby tackle. And I had gotten up. I had just proven that not only was I fast, but I could handle it.

That same year, my team made our way to nationals. And after having only ever played six games, never scoring a tri, but having proven my speed and earning some dumb-luck, I joined the starting fifteen for our national game. At one-hundred and ten pounds, five foot two, and still unsure of the terminology of the sport, I had the privilege of playing on the pitch for a nationals game. Looking back on this, I wish I had been able to channel some of feelings of fear and undeservingness into excitement. But, I look back on those nationals games with nothing but pride and disbelief: an opportunity of a lifetime. Which is exactly how I look back on my college rugby career, a career that had transformed me from an athlete into a rugby player.

My old rugby team played their first game of the season last weekend, and today they hit the pitch against New Haven, a group of women I got to play with during a Select Side game in April, and I’m suddenly overcome with envy of the first-year players who still have four years ahead of them on that team, with the coach who drastically changed the trajectory of my life and instilled within me a confidence in my body I never could have anticipated. As my old team enters their competitive Fall season, I reflect back on what playing rugby for three years on college instilled in me, what the sport teaches.

1. Play Through The Pain. As the old saying goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight”, and as cliche as it may be, rugby is the ultimate test of this. When you fall down on the pitch, you always get back up. There is no other choice. Unless you’re concussed or have torn a muscle, the game goes on. The game does not stop for anyone. There are many moments in a game after you’ve made a try-saving tackle, or you’ve been illegally high tackled by the opposing team, when head-spinning, body-aching, and muscle-sore you get back up. You brush off the physical discomfort, pull yourself to your feet, for your team, for the love of the game, and prepare to do it again. Life is similar in this way, things don’t always go our way; during two months of unemployment, I embraced this lesson and continued apply for jobs through rejections.

2. Respect Your Opponent. The beauty of rugby is in the the fact that the opponents are not your enemy. When the game is respected, as it is eighty to ninety percent of the time, there is a mutual love of the sport between the players regardless of the colors of their jersey. I can remember an accidental ponytail grab that resulted in an apology, or a tackle met with the opponents hands reaching down to pick me back up. Every team understands that the game is physical, that people will get hurt accidentally. Sometimes the two teams social together after the game, sing traditional rugby songs, and hydrate. My second day in New York I was sitting on the 6-train headed downtown and after taking a sip from my rugby-sticker decorated water bottle, a woman came up to me, another rugby player, and we struck up a fifteen minute conversation about our old teams, our favorite positions, and our best rugby memories. This rugby camaraderie permeates the culture of the sport; we rugby players may look intimidating but I have gotten the opportunity to meet some truly incredible people.

3. The Opportunity Will Come. As a wing my job is be the fastest on the pitch. My job is to outrun the opponent, tackle them out of bounds when they run down the sideline, and to steal the ball and with the backline, score a try. When you’re on the pitch, you’re always an active part of the game; you are alway anticipating, preparing, and moving. But as a wing, it may be a while before the ball gets to you. As I wing I had to learn how to stay patient, keep my head in the game, and trust that when the ball makes its way to me, I will have my time to shine, I will have my time to help move the ball down the pitch. Patience is by no means a strength of mine, it is a virtue I have to actively work towards every day. But rugby has given me the opportunity to practice this virtue: I have learned to stop getting disgruntled when a friend is running late for a lunch date, or when I have to explain and re-explain something about the computer to my mom, or when I’m can’t seem to finish the article I’ve been working on for the last week.

4. Respect The Authority. When you step on the pitch you are signing an invisible contract to respect the game, respect the ref, and respect your coach. We still call the referee “sir”, and whatever he says go. Each time elects one speaking captain, and they are the only two people on the pitch who can talk to a ref, disagree with the call, or ask a question. As our world moves digital, this skill has been imperative as I take on an entry-level position in a new company, treating my bosses and co-workers with the same respect I treated my referees, coach, and other players throughout my rugby career.

5. Play With Passion. Success in rugby comes from playing with passion, it comes from playing with heart. From my experience, rugby players know how to play with heart from buzzer to buzzer better than any other sport (though, of course, I’m biased). You cannot play rugby apathetically, the sport mandates heart, the game demands passion. You cannot take the pitch without passion, it’s simply not possible. Imagine what we would all learn if we woke up ready to share and embrace that level of passion in our everyday life.

Rugby is a game of courage, in 80 minutes you take hits harder than you thought possible, you learn to stand back up every time, you take hits for your teammates, and you trust them to be with you for every breakaway sprint, every tackle, and every scrum. In 80 minutes you learn to respect your opponents strengths even as you exploit their weaknesses; you learn what you’re made of.

When I joined the sport three years ago, it was on a whim. I put myself out there, tried something new, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. Who I am now cannot be untangled from my identity as a rugby player, and how I interact with the world around me is a direct result of the skills I learned from playing rugby in college.

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