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Rugby on the Rise, an Interview with Professional Rugby Player and Coach, Alycia Washington.

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You are obviously a talented athlete and coach. How did you get your start in rugby at UConn?

Funny enough – my friend from high school dragged me to practice. I didn’t really want to go, but I figured, why not try it? It ended up being a social get-to-know-you practice and I ended up loving my new teammates. They were so welcoming and open, I immediately felt at home. We had an official practice a few days later and then I was on a bus that weekend to play in my first game. I haven’t looked back since, and I am so grateful for my friend for bringing me to practice. 

Clearly it is an exciting, dynamic sport – for both men and women. Given your background as a runner and gymnast, what was it about rugby that initially appealed to you?

All of it! I ended my gymnastics career partly because I was always the largest person on the team and at meets and I didn’t enjoy that feeling. BUT rugby gave me a place where my size is celebrated and gives me an advantage on the field. Both gymnastics and track really prepared me to push through discomfort, but rugby gave me the opportunity to do it in more of a team atmosphere (for context  – I am 6′ and 200 pounds).

Did you see that you had an ability right away, or did you find that there was a learning curve?

There is always so much to learn within the game of rugby. The nuances and how different athletes express themselves is ever-changing and a big reason that I decided to get into coaching and refereeing. We refer to that as being ‘students of the game.’ Rugby is foreign to a lot of Americans so it is imperative that we take it upon ourselves to stay engaged in all facets of the game. On the physical side, I was lucky to have my size and build which helped me when I first started out. At the international level, everyone is big and fast so I am working to mesh my physical and mental abilities to improve my performance.

How do you balance your work as a coach and as a player for the Eagles?

Mostly it feels like a juggling act where I am always trying to add a new ball. It is hard, but very rewarding. I try to combine the two when I can. For example, I might hop into drills and games during practice while I am coaching and I usually do my conditioning with them. This has a few advantages: my players appreciate that I wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself and I get to work on my own skills and fitness at the same time.

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Rugby is not necessarily a sport that you immediately think of for women. What are your hopes and aspirations for women in this arena? 

We are taking steps towards equality within women’s rugby, but it is 2020 and it is time to take strides and leaps. In a perfect world, children will be able to play rugby at the same rates they are playing baseball or softball. This will help elevate the knowledge and experience at the national team level. I also feel passionately about obtaining equal funding and resources for women’s rugby; this is the reason my teammate and I founded the XV Foundation. We want to diversify the revenue going to the Women’s National XV team. It is currently not nearly enough, but we are dedicated to finding the resources the team needs. 

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You mentioned that there is wheelchair chair, non-touch and tackle rugby. What are the main differences, and how do you, as a coach and player, ensure safety particularly in tackle? 

I love rugby because it is a game for everybody. Wheelchair rugby is a great adaptive option for rugby players of all abilities. Touch rugby is great for anyone who doesn’t want to tackle and is a way to stay fit and work on skills in the off season. Rugby is a wonderful game and as a community, we are all about inclusion and safety. As a coach, my athletes are always so excited to start tackling but my main concern is safety. We practice how to get tackled and how to fall to make sure it is muscle memory. After that, we advance through a tackling progression until they are comfortable going full on. As a coach, I emphasize making every rep count in every drill so they are prepared for games and feeling able to do their best. 

What is the most important thing you would say to a younger woman just starting out, or wanting to try rugby?

Just give it a try! There is a place for you in rugby. Most people join sports to find a community and rugby will give you that and so much more. Rugby has given me so much (a family, direction in life, mental and physical strength) and I want everyone to have that same experience.

How are you / your teams handling training, staying in touch and any thoughts on how COVID-19 OS impacting your (and others) in sports?

Admittedly, this situation has thrown a wrench in our calendar for this year. We have canceled one camp and a game already, and the team is hoping that everything else can stay in place for the year. Luckily, the team is accustomed to doing a lot of virtual meetings and individual training. We are also checking in on each other and sending words of encouragement to players in the squad. We will get through this!

Images courtesy of Alycia Washington. Photo Credit: Griff Lacey