Women’s rugby changing perception through success

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By Steven Tew

Basketball players are tall, football players are strong and soccer players are quick, or so the stereotypes go. However, members of the BYU women’s rugby team say they are the complete package.

Many of the team’s players were previously involved in soccer, track, basketball and other conventional sports for women where quick, skillful or strong movements with hands and feet are essential. Before coming to BYU, most of the current players had never played rugby. All they had heard were common perceptions that rugby is a manly sport, players need to be 300 pounds and woman don’t play it. But once they discovered it, they haven’t looked back and don’t care what people think.

“I didn’t start playing until I got to school,” said Dana Greenwood, a freshman from Sacramento, Calif. “It is probably my favorite sport now.”

A PE coach introduced Greenwood to rugby after having a few former students play for BYU and she then fell in love with the sport.

“I always got in trouble for hitting girls in all my others sports,” Greenwood said. “So I figured I should play a sport [where] I can actually hit girls and that’s part of the rules. Once I got in the rhythm of hitting people and getting hit it was fun. I loved it.”

Players described the reactions people have when they tell others they play rugby. “You play rugby?” or “Look out for her, she plays rugby. She could beat you up,” are common reactions.

Ela Wolfgramm, a co-captain on the team, said her aunt didn’t think it was very feminine to play rugby.

“She thought that I should be wearing high heels instead of cleats,” Wolfgramm said. “But I love that it’s a contact sport where I can get out my aggression.”

However, once people get to know team members, stereotypes and perceptions seem to disappear. Most would never guess these girls play such an intense, physical sport.

Kristi Jackson, a senior from Mesa, Ariz., and co-captain of the team, said she is involved in the same things off the field as other women.

“I’m the total dress-up girl,” Jackson said. “I’m in the nursing program and I play rugby. Because of who we are we have gained a lot more respect, but we are playing for ourselves and for our own passion more than proving a point to anybody.”

Much of the respect Jackson talked about has come from the team’s success on the field and its high standards.

Two years ago the team forfeited its shot at a national championship because its second round contest was scheduled for Sunday. In previous years those scheduling for USA Rugby respected BYU’s adherence to Sabbath Day observance, but the staff member who oversaw scheduling left the organization, which caused BYU to be placed in a Sunday bracket.

This past year BYU sought the title again and qualified for the semifinals after defeating Navy 7-0. Unfortunately the Cougars fell short and lost to Army 29-20, just shy of a championship appearance.

Articles about the Cougars’ success reached outlets such as The New York Times and ESPN Sports, and they told the Cougars’ story throughout the U.S.

“As we have gained more attention, we have gained more respect,” Wolfgramm said. “Our biggest concern is we never know what’s going to happen with the next set of girls that come in. But our new girls have a lot of potential and I think we can take it this year.”

Head coach Tom Waqa said the team’s objective to win a national championship hasn’t changed and that winning will only improve the respect people will have for women’s rugby. He also said there has always been a negative perception about women’s rugby, and people think contact sports should be reserved for men. However, the sport is growing in popularity, and now more than 400 colleges throughout the nation have adopted rugby programs.

“When we promote rugby through campus,” Waqa said, “most people are interested because they have never seen a rugby game, let alone seen women in a contact sport. It’s growing. Once we educate the community they will come to love the sport and watch women’s rugby.”

The BYU women’s rugby team plays Utah State University Saturday in Logan for its season opener and hopes to continue the quest to change common perceptions.

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