On being a woman in sport

I am a woman in sport.

I know this because I am a woman, and I play and participate in sport in my spare time. At university, I also wrote and talked about sport on student radio and in student papers, and I continue to believe I am a serious sports journalist with serious opinions, at least in my mind. I am not an elite sportswoman; I have never competed at anything higher than junior county level, but my experiences have been compounded and reinforced by countless stories and anecdotes, both from the elite competitors and my friends and teammates, and, as such, I reckon they’re worth sharing.

I was incredibly lucky (and no doubt privileged) to grow up with people who firmly believed that your gender is no restriction on your physicality. Summers were full of mucking around in the garden playing some form of cricket, badminton, or horse racing (with imaginary horses, yes) with my parents and friends. By the nature of my dad’s working hours, mum sticks in my memory as the one who taught me to hold a cricket bat and swing at a shuttlecock, assisted more often than not by our dog attempting to retrieve various things thwacked into bushes. I was a relatively competitive child and was generally encouraged to be sporty and join after school clubs by my parents. My mum sums up my childhood attitude to sport which continues to this day: ‘You realised you could win if you ran faster, so you decided to run faster.’

Hockey and netball (the main sports encouraged at my school) were never really my thing; when I stopped growing aged 12 my role on the netball team quickly became token only. Athletics was my forte – our 4x100m relay team were undefeated throughout our school career – and the first sport I experienced outside of school. I trialled for Greater Manchester once or twice and might have gone further were it not for my utter hatred of the winter training, which involved countless laps of the running track in the dark. At this point, aged 14 or so, my friend dragged me along to the rugby club down the road, whose girls’ team she had just joined.

Here began my real love for sport, particularly rugby. I had been a devoted attendee of Sale Sharks’ matches for years with my dad already, and had already experienced the highs (Guinness Premiership Champions, 2005/2006) and lows of truly investing in a team (literally no cup success since). Screaming support from the stands on a freezing Friday night was one thing, but rugby from the ground was another thing entirely, and I loved it. My speed was useful. My height (or lack thereof) wasn’t a hindrance. My well-honed dodging techniques, gained from years of tag on the playground, could finally be put to use. Rugby was fantastic.

When I went up to Cambridge as a nervous fresher one thing I was sure of was that I was going to join the rugby team. Turning up on the first evening to a barely floodlit pitch knowing no-one and not being entirely sure if my boots were going to fall apart was not exactly fun, but of all the things I did at university, it remains one of the best. Despite sustaining a cataclysmic knee injury, severing my ACL and hamstring in one fell tackle, and never having the honour of representing my university against Oxford, I have been honoured to see the women’s side (previously CUWRFC, now CURUFC Women, but more on that later) go from strength to strength and expand both their skill set and respect as they ran on to the pitch at Twickenham and smashed Oxford in the inaugural Women’s Varsity Match at the hallowed ground in December last year.

Indirectly, playing rugby at Cambridge got me into the student radio, which led to me being their Head of Sport, among other things. In my three years I commentated and produced coverage at Twickenham, Lord’s Cricket Ground, Abbey Stadium in Cambridge, Newmarket Race Course, Iffley Road (where Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute-mile), the Henley Boat Races, and the Tideway for the first ever Women’s Boat Race held alongside the men (we went back for the second year too). I have seen first-hand the difference that support, investment and media coverage can make to the experience of women’s sport, and also how the lack of it does nothing to diminish the passion of the women who take part.

Today, I coach women’s rugby and occasionally referee whichever team happens to need me that weekend, and am consistently buoyed by how much fun everyone seems to have. My main active sport, aside from striding across hills with my dog, is the mostly knee-friendly rowing, and everything I saw in rugby and athletics rings continues to ring true. The passion, tempered by funding and attitudes, but undiminished. The teamwork. The emerging self-belief (it is quite a thing to see a girl who refused to get muddy on day one put in a phenomenal try-saving tackle just 8 weeks later). I am continually enraged, dismayed, and encouraged by the attitudes surrounding women’s sport, and know that countless others share my feelings. A blog may be a predictable and insignificant contribution, but the more we share, debate, and learn, the more progress we will make.

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