In a back corner of the University of Texas intramural fields, a group of women jogged back and forth between tiny colored cones to the rhythm of a loud beep last Monday. The beep sounded with increasing frequency, and the women, all members of the UT rugby team, picked up their speed until only Sierra Jenkins, the team captain and an Olympic hopeful, remained. Jenkins ran back and forth between the cones, each time increasing her speed, until finally she too came to a stop.
The women, smiling and chatting among themselves on the sidelines, called out the number of laps they had run to head coach Traci Schmidtke, who hurriedly wrote them down. The team doesn’t usually run this drill, or practice this late in the spring, but in less than two months, they will compete in the National Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia.
They have a long way to go to be prepared.
As the women of the team will tell you, it is a short distance compared with how far they’ve come since 2011, when team captain Stephanie Flores died from a head injury sustained during a game. Even in the rough sport of rugby, fatal injuries are rare. The unexpectedness of the accident and the tragedy of losing a close friend hit the team hard. But it also gave them purpose.
“After it happened, we lost a few people who decided that they would rather not keep playing. And we respected their decisions, but it wasn’t an overwhelming number,” said Marie Meyers, an anthropology senior who has played with the team for three years.
The memory of Flores, Meyers said, is part of what keeps her playing.
“It affected more of the tone that the rest of the team took the next year. It brought us together as a team. There was already us playing for the team and playing for the school, but then there’s the added factor of having, you know, stuff to play for,” Meyers said.
In recent years, the team has certainly played like it has purpose. Last year, it took home first in their division. In December, it took home fourth place in the National Collegiate Sevens Final Four Finish.
“I think the resilience of overcoming tragedy on our team has corresponded with the improvement of our club from a team that didn’t win as many games to a team that won it’s division last year, to the national championship,” said Jen Moreno, who has worked as an assistant coach for the team since 2010.
In late May, two members of the UT rugby team, including Jenkins, will join other Olympic hopefuls at a Team USA training camp. There, recruiters will get to know potential members of the 2016 USA women’s rugby team. In the three years before the USA team heads to the Olympics, Jenkins hopes more members of the UT team will be invited to attend training camps.
But for now, the women of the team are simply enjoying playing the game, tackles included. In fact, the rough nature of the sport attracted many of the new recruits to rugby.
“I had grown up playing soccer in high school, and I loved that. And then, when I found rugby, I was like, ‘Oh, well this is perfect, because now I can actually hit people, and not just pretend to hit people,’” said Christina Ruiz, a freshman and a new member of the team.
According to Jenkins, the women learn how to tackle correctly in early practices, which reduces the risk of injury. Though the team has two to three injuries a year, none of the women seem overly concerned about getting hurt.
“Whenever I’m injured and I can’t play, I just itch to get back out there,” said Meyers, who has sat out two consecutive spring seasons because of injuries.
“I mean, frankly, I find women’s rugby to be a little bit safer then men’s rugby. We don’t tackle with the head like in football; there’s not the same sort of concussion risk. We tackle lower and more controlled,” Meyers said.
Even so, Meyers knows she will eventually stop playing rugby. Her father played for more than 30 years, and she said seeing him undergo surgery on both knees made her confront the impossibility of playing rugby forever. So she gave herself some limits.
“I’ve made cutoffs for myself,” Meyers said. “Whichever comes first: three concussions (I’ve had one), a major surgery or, like, 30 or getting married or wanting to have kids, [and] I’ll stop playing. But until any of those things happen, I’m playing rugby.”