I came to Oberlin uninterested in sports. I had been the editor of the literary magazine at my high school; I played euphonium in the band. I didn’t discover the Women’s Rugby Club until the fall of my sophomore year (and not because I realize I had great physical gifts to share); I met a junior I badly wanted to impress. She was a member of the team and she casually joked one day that I should come to a practice. I clearly missed the joke, and I joined the team thinking I would show her how tough I was (sophomore year did not involve enough thinking).
I had no idea what I was getting into: when I walked onto the pitch for that first practice I was wearing sneakers I bought the day before, cheap knockoffs from a discount store. Furthermore, earlier that week I ran a mile for the first time ever just to see if I could actually do it (I told myself that if I couldn’t, then I wouldn’t play rugby. I ran seven laps around the track in Phillips and collapsed, with tears of joy, near the water fountain ... eleven and a half minutes after I started).
I barely made it through the warm-up run. During the three laps the team took around the pitch, I was sure that everyone was staring at me, huffing and puffing, trying not to die. I spent the entire practice attempting to catch my breath, barely keeping up. On top of that, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t catch, kick, or tackle. I’d had this idea that because it was a sport I had never heard of that maybe I would be good at it. I wasn’t. It was awful.
The last five minutes of that practice were spent on a drill called Know Your Field, a grueling set of sprints. Upon discovering just how many times we were about to sprint back and forth across the pitch, I asked the captain if, it being my first practice and all, I had to run with them. She looked me up and down, raised one eyebrow and said “You don’t have to do anything,” as she jogged to the touch line with the rest of the team, leaving me alone on the sidelines. Everyone looked ragged, ready to get off the pitch and go eat dinner. We had been running formations and tackling each other for the past two hours. It was almost sunset. They had homework. They needed to ice. They were tired. And yet, everyone was lined up together. No one complained. Everyone was ready to run, without hesitation.
These were, I realized while I stood apart from them, the strongest and craziest women I had ever met. I had to be one of them. I didn’t know if I had it in me, but I couldn’t leave without trying.
I jogged over; no one looked at me. At the whistle, with everyone else, I ran the sprints. In my already dilapidated tennis shoes I ran so hard I thought my lungs would burst inside my chest. I was so far behind that the captain (after she finished her sprints) jogged out to where I was and ran the last couple of sprints by my side as the entire team stood at the end of the pitch, cheering me on. When I finally finished the last sprint and crawled over the line, she helped me stand up straight and catch my breath, and then she told me that I could come back on Wednesday. She told me I was tough and amazing. “You worked really hard today,” she said. “That was really great.”
I was a Rhino for three years. After years of dreading high school gym class and happily self-identifying as a geek, I threw myself into fitness. I did it for rugby, and for my team. I ran three times a week. I learned how to bench press, how to squat. I practiced footwork: I ran entire laps backwards or in grapevines around the track. It wasn’t like the Rocky movies, though: I was still the slowest Rhino. I was not a gifted athlete, but I knew that, and I accepted it; by the end of my first season I could run the warm-up without wanting to throw up. That was accomplishment enough.
Rather than impressing a lady, rugby became about building strength, stamina, and technical skill. Rugby was an exercise in embracing my own shortcomings and failures. Rugby taught me how to honor and learn from my mistakes. Rugby helped me learn to laugh at myself in ways that were honest and joyful. Rugby taught me how to value myself as I was, as a person who consistently tried her best.
Rugby turned me into the person I always wanted to be, and was desperately afraid I might never become. Rugby gave me back the voice I had lost to adolescence and boyfriends in high school. In one of my first games I found myself breaking through a weak tackle, screaming “it’s MY ball” and throwing a girl off me. I had no idea who I was becoming, but I was loud, strong, and confident; I liked it.
Rugby gave me back a body I never knew existed. I learned my own strength. As a high school junior I did six push-ups during the National Physical Fitness test. That’s right: six. After a year of rugby, I was doing a set of fifty-five push-ups three times a week. For the first time in my life I had muscles. I had energy. I could literally move myself.
Rugby gave me the strength and the mental clarity to take the problems in my life apart, sit quietly with them, and then attack them. I told myself that if I could scrum down, I could do anything. I became someone strong, hardworking, resilient. I became a teammate, and eventually a captain. I knew who I was; I liked it.
I don’t know who I would have become had I never found the women’s rugby club. Sometimes I wonder how could I ever have become myself without this game and these people. Rugby pushed me harder than I had ever been before; I learned how far I could go without (literally) vomiting. Rugby taught me how to keep going, how to work hard with no guarantee of payoff or outside recognition. Rugby taught me how to deliver the hit, get up and run off to the next play. Rugby taught me how to take a hit, get up, and run off to the next play. Rugby showed me what my very best looked like, and then taught me how to accept only that version of myself.
I say in passing sometimes, in polite conversations with new friends or acquaintances, that I used to play rugby. “Oh yeah?” they say. “Cool. That’s tough.” I smile, and in my head I relive my first scrum or the first time I threw a girl out of bounds and into the sidelines. The time I tackled a woman twice my size and she fell on my face and they put tampons up my nose to stop the bleeding. The memories are shockingly vivid. “Yeah,” I nod. “I am pretty tough.”
I am forever indebted.