Can you share a bit about your personal journey and what led you to pursue a career in your sport?
Sport is something I’ve always done. I’ve been involved in organised sport since the age of 12, so it has pretty much been my life. It was never a career choice to get into sport and even when I went to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 as a hammer thrower, I didn’t consider it a career – I mean I wasn’t being paid to do it! I always had full time jobs alongside my sport including rugby, and it was only when English women's rugby went professional in 2019 that I was actually being paid to do sport. But before that it was always just me. It was my passion. It was part of my life and it wasn't even a choice. It was all I knew because I've just grown up being active. I was always playing out. I used to spend all my weekends, evenings and summer holidays at my local adventure playground in New Cross. But then I realised I liked winning and you can’t really win just playing with your mates! But with athletics, with shot put, with discus, you could win and get a medal and be celebrated. So, it's just that playing sport was always part of my lifestyle and the career bit just happened to come at the right time because I was young enough still to be a full time athlete.
In terms of getting into rugby, I didn’t play at all until I was about 25. I never played rugby, never knew about rugby, I don't come from a rugby family or anything. I stopped enjoying athletics and I always said if I stopped enjoying it I would stop. So I was just going to have a normal job like a normal person, come home from work, watch TV, go to bed. That lasted about 2 minutes! I thought there must be something else I can do and I remembered that rugby existed because there used to be a few rugby players would come down to the athletics track during the summer when rugby season was over and they would tell me about it and I thought well, that sounds cool, like running into people and being all rough and tumble. I couldn’t do it alongside my athletics career but then once I retired I thought I’d give it a go and started playing aged 25 at my local club, Medway – and within two years I was playing rugby for England!
What are some of the challenges you've faced as a Black woman in sports, and how have you overcome them?
With athletics I would say there wasn’t an issue at all, it just wasn’t something I recognised. There weren’t many people of colour who took part in the throwing events which I did, but events I went to were combined track and field events and most of my friends who were jumpers and sprinters were there at those. I never really felt out of place in athletics, then I came over to rugby and it was the biggest culture shock of my life! It just seemed to be white people everywhere, essentially and that’s not to say that's a bad thing, but it was just a different experience. And yes, there's different shapes and sizes in rugby, but it’s not a sport that’s played that much in state schools. The first issue is, it's a sport where you need grass if you are going to do it at school and I went to Addey and Stanhope in Lewisham which was a good school, but didn’t have a playing field.
There's been a lot of times in my career when I have thought like, wow, I'm just alone, I have nobody to have a chat with, even just about my hair. Sometimes people wouldn't even understand the words I would use and that's not a colour thing, it’s a culture thing. Most people in rugby aren’t from the part of South London I'm from, so lots of the words, TV programmes, the foods we eat, the drinks etc. It’s just different.
So yeah, in the beginning, it I did feel very different. I didn't feel attached to the sport partly because of the amount of alcohol in rugby as well. And again, that's not a colour thing, that's a culture thing and that's a rugby culture. But one of things I really dislike about rugby, is how much alcohol is involved on a on a regular basis. It’s used to celebrate, it’s used for initiations, but I just don’t drink like that, so I struggled to find a sense of belonging on the pitch.
Being that bit older when I came into rugby was a bit tricky for a variety of reasons in the beginning mainly around fitting in and it feeling the need to change myself to fit in.
I shared a room at the World Cup with Sadia Kabaya and she’s a good ten years younger than me. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a bit strange, like one of my best mates is over 10 years younger and you're sharing a room together. But we're in a team, this is rugby and that’s what you do. She's the one that I can relate to most. She's from south London as well, she's black, she's got similar hair. We talk a similar language but the age thing does get me thinking sometimes. Someone could be 18. I'm nearly twice your age and I'm hanging out with you. That’s team sport (laughs out loud).
How do you see your role as a trailblazer impacting the next generation of athletes?
It's not something I signed up for, but it's something that's come along with the job of playing rugby and as someone different to the norm and different to the usual rugby player, I like it. I do like hearing stories from people. I like it when people say that because of something you said on social media, or because of something you did Shaunagh, I now feel braver to say something or speak out at rugby. So it's hearing those stories, hearing from those Mums who are saying, I'm now coaching at my local rugby club once a week and I love it and I think that's one of the best feelings in the world.
When I'm having my down days, when I think I should stop being so different, and just fit in, I think no, that's not my role in this world. I'm here to remind other people that you don't have to fit in with others, you can be yourself and enjoy life. And it's a lot more fun to be yourself.
What does the theme "Saluting Our Sisters" mean to you, and how do you feel about being recognized for your contributions during Black History Month?
When I hear that question, the first name that comes to mind is Mary Seacole who most people haven’t heard of if I ask them. Then I ask if they know Florence Nightingale and everyone knows her. And then I say she had a similar role to her, but she was a black mixed race woman. So then I ask, why does everyone know Florence Nightingale and not Mary Seacole? And it’s the classic example of a black woman and a white woman doing similar things and yet the white woman is put up on a pedestal. And actually, some people feel negative about Mary and even try and badmouth what she did, just based on what they’ve read in certain potentially biased history books.
But what I prefer to do, is turn it round so it’s more of a celebration. I watched Hidden Figures, the film about black women scientists in the Apollo space programme in the sixties, and what I like about that is it’s more of a celebration of the role they played, because often in black history we talk about the negatives and how tough it was, but actually, let’s celebrate the good stuff. And yes, they've overcome adversity, but they've overcome adversity to do incredible things. So ‘Saluting our sisters’ for me would be about the celebrations of how much good and how much change black women - and black men - have brought to the world.
A couple of years ago for Black History Month, I posted a story a day on my Instagram stories of someone different who inspired me. Posting it on my socials makes it easier for people to digest and it went down really well, so I think I’m going to do the same this year because there are so many stories to celebrate. The issue is the education system is not designed to celebrate black history. And so you are presented in school with Florence Nightingale, but you're not presented in school with Mary Seacole and this is something I can do to try and change that. This is my way of ‘Saluting our Sisters.’
The advice I would give is to be brave. Sometimes you will be the only person like you in the room. The only person like you in the team. It doesn't mean you have to try and be like them and you don't have to try and fit in.
Why do you believe equal access to sports is important, and what changes do you hope to see in the sports community?
Equal access is important because activity is important, and it forms a whole lifestyle. It does so much more than make you sweat and burn calories, and it doesn't always have to be about sport. It starts with just activity and movement and then it leads to social mobility. You start to mix with the kind of people you wouldn’t come across in your everyday life if it wasn’t for sport. When I was an athlete, I met a boy who went to Eton but that just wasn’t somewhere I’d heard of. And then someone else told me he went there and then I found out about people who went there like Prince Harry and Boris Johnson, and then I was like, wow, this kid from a council house in South London, brought up by a single Mum, competing with people from Eton, that was one of the great things about athletics.
Sport also teaches you so much more, it teaches you about self-confidence, about body positivity, discipline, good eating and sleeping habits, you learn what's healthy and what's not healthy. Learning about yourself like sport is so much more than what you do on the pitch, on the court, on the track and so why wouldn't we want to give that to a lot more people?
Then the more you see someone who looks like you and sounds like you, play in a sport that you've never considered before, you're more likely to think, I’ll give it a go. You might have never thought about playing hockey before because you didn't do it at school and you might think it was a private school sport. But do you know what? Someone might give it a go because you've seen and heard someone else play and she doesn't sound like she went to a private school.
In terms of changes I’d like to see more people playing more and different types of sports. I’d like to hear people shouting about and embracing their different role models, and not just for what they look like, but maybe for what schools they come from, or maybe for their accent, it's just getting sports to celebrate their role models and them as people rather than just them as players. And that's the change I'd hope to see. And that then filters down to get people to go, oh, do you know what? I'll give it a go. I think people often go to watch sports – even team sports – because of the people and the personalities involved, so we need to make sure we’re telling their stories.
Could you share a memorable moment from your career that exemplifies the power of diversity and inclusion in sports?
There’s a podcast called Black Girls Ruck and the presenter Anne Onwusiri, wanted to do more to get black women involved in rugby, so she got a team together to play in a sevens tournament made up entirely of women of colour. There was so much interest, they then arranged a full fifteen aside game and I went down to get involved in Regent’s Park in London. And unfortunately, the game had to go down from 15 aside to I think 10 on each team which of course was a shame, but the powerful thing for me is that it wasn’t the Black Girls Ruck team that was short of players, it was the opposition. The fact that Black Girls Ruck were lending players to the other team so they could have a match was an incredibly powerful moment for me and shows the impact that social media and being a leader can have.
What advice would you give to young athletes, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
The advice I would give is to be brave. Sometimes you will be the only person like you in the room. The only person like you in the team. It doesn't mean you have to try and be like them and you don't have to try and fit in. You don't have to change yourself or change who you are. It will take some emotional bravery to do this because at first you probably will get some comments or some looks but I would say, stay strong, be the person you need to be, and eventually they'll get bored of having you as the topic of conversation.
When things aren't great, try and speak about it. If someone does something to upset you or to insult you or says something you're not comfortable with, try to speak about it, either directly to the person who did it or said it, or some find someone like a mediator in the middle that can then pass that message on and see where you go from there. But don't just try and fit in, because then you'll have to try and fit in for the rest of your life and that is really, really draining.
Find out more about Black History Month 2023 here.
Image credit: Gemma Porter @Gemma.louise.photography
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