Ruggers Ready to Rumble
Could the Pasadena Women’s Rugby Football Club teach an old ‘hooker’ new tricks?
By Carla Sameth 02/26/2014
In college I decided to show I was athletic and tough by going out for the women’s rugby team. I had loved playing tackle football in the local park back home in Seattle. Even after Peter Collins’ knee went into my face and gave me a massive bloody lip, I lived for rushing. I used to be fearless about trying things that went contrary to my natural skills — things such as auto mechanics and chainsaw work. I don’t know why, except that I was — and still am — a tenacious young rebel.
Unlike the other members of the rugby team, I had never played organized soccer. I wasn’t particularly fast, and I certainly wasn’t athletic. In fourth grade I was the best girl baseball player at my rough elementary school. (Back then they called me “Sammy Boy” and I fought against bullies with my three “boy friends.” We were a regular United Nations gang of four — German-American, African-American, Japanese-American and me, Jewish.) By the sixth grade, however, I was always the last picked for teams.
Fortunately, in college, there were no tryouts — being a new team, they took anyone. This was UC Santa Cruz — the Banana Slugs. They welcomed me to the team and made me a hooker. I was definitely our worst player, but at least I finished out the season without any injuries before retiring my cleats.
When I discovered that Pasadena recently formed a women’s rugby team, I wondered if I could return to a game that I wasn’t good at in the first place and maybe get better. I am now almost 55, but somewhere in the back of my mind lurks the notion that rugby could change my life.
I have nothing to draw from as a former hooker other than remembering that my job was to throw in the ball. Beyond that, it is all a blur. I suspect I was like the little kid in the outfield staring into space as the ball soars past.
Pasadena had the world’s first women’s rugby team — the Eleanor Rugby Club of Pasadena makes this boast. The current team is not the original Eleanor Rugby but a new one that started last summer. When I attend their first pre-season game, it is clear that I remember next to nothing. I do recall that you can only pass backwards, but I have no memory of teammates being lifted up by their shorts during a line-out. I learn that the hooker position is called that because you “hook” the ball with your foot, and I realize that it’s unlikely I ever did that.
I am surrounded by beautiful, focused women who are much younger than me, yet many have had long athletic careers. The most notable feature of this team is the remarkable camaraderie. The very nature of a scrum seems to guarantee that you become connected to your teammates. You share your love for each other as you share the urge to tackle, bring down the other team, and win!
The team practiced all summer, conditioning and playing “sevens” — a shorter, more intense version of the usual “fifteens.” I can only imagine that it would mean a lot of sprinting — not my forte.
In this game, team captain Myra Jimenez makes sure everyone plays. “Great job!” she cheers them on. “Way to keep clear! Way to bounce back!” She exhorts them with “stay classy, but fuckin’ hit hard!” After the game, Jimenez dispenses some rugby Zen: The game is not over. Be one with your thoughts. Reflect on new goals. It’s all about playing together. No one plays alone.”
One of their coaches, Chris Angelica — a member of Pasadena Rugby Football Club since 1996 — says, “They hit hard and love each other unconditionally, in spite of — and many times because of — all their imperfections.”
I ask some of the players what they love about rugby and am reminded of what attracted me to the game. They feel powerful and energized by being able to tackle and survive. “Contact really makes a difference,” one of them said, “and being out there with all the beautiful women.”
I’m not the only one fascinated with women’s rugby. Documentary filmmaker James Brown, a Welsh former rugger, has been filming rugby for years. His short film about the Pasadena Women’s Rugby Football Club (https://vimeo.com/channels/americathebeautiful) attempts to answer his question, “What made these American women want to play what I thought of as a tough UK men’s sport?” Brown found that “most of the women seem to be looking for physical contact in a game as well as friendship.” There aren’t really women’s sports other than rugby that allow that kind of contact. Knowing they can do it helps women feel better about themselves in many ways — off the field as well as on. Brown tried to convince me to give rugby a chance, saying, “There’s a place for everyone on a rugby team.”
Coach Chris agrees. “In order to progress the ball downfield, each member of the team plays an equally important role,” he says. “It is a sport of continuity and forward momentum that is made possible through player support and unselfish play.” According to Head Coach Dr. Michael Bryant, “Rugby provides a culture that is nurturing and provides mentorship on and off the field.”
Bryant raves about the tremendous value of having multigenerational rugby players — men, women and children. Angelica adds, “Men, women, boys or girls — rugby can help everyone.”
I try to convince myself that it’s a far safer sport than football or hockey, but in the first quarter of the game, Pasadena team member Barrie Maust goes down. I hear the ambulance coming, but the constant refrain is “precautionary only.” She turns out to be OK — just soft tissue injury. I have to wonder, though: If I took the same hit at 54, would I still be in one piece?
I learned of the Pasadena women’s rugby team through Barrie’s husband, John Maust, a rugby player who teaches at my son’s former high school. I had talked up my experience as a hooker, and he told me that his wife (age 34), his mom, Debbie (59), and his brother’s girlfriend (24) are all on the team.
I ask Barrie about being taken away by the ambulance. “It was basically like a whiplash type of thing, but … they like to be careful. I didn’t think it was serious; I was more upset that I couldn’t play. I felt like I was letting the team down.”
Barrie, who had wanted to play in college but “didn’t have the guts,” had been asking her husband if Pasadena was ever going to have a team. When he finally said yes, she told him, “Sign me up. I’m in!”
Erin grew up with organized sports. She was working out with Barrie when she decided that joining the team would be a better way to stay in shape.
Debbie said that she was brought on to inspire women like me. Her son asked her to join because he wanted to recruit players, and he said, “The first thing they will do is come out with a whole laundry list of excuses.” His reasoning was, “If I can get my mom to join, whatever they say, I can refer to my mom: You are not too old; you are not too out of shape; you are not unable to do sports. Basically took away all the excuses.”
Debbie never played organized sports before, but it’s clear to me she would have if there had been girls teams when she was growing up. She seems fearless and was embraced by the team from the start. “To be honest, from the moment I joined — obviously I’m the weakest, slowest — but I’ve never felt isolated,” she said. “I thought I would be put out in the field, just an ornament, but everyone calls me ‘Mom,’ and they all encourage me. If I’m running in last place … they come running back … total encouragement!”
And “Mom” is an inspiration to the team. She isn’t “coddled;” she is pushed to do more, and her teammates are pushed to keep moving when she does. Erin tells herself during drills, “I’ll stop after ‘Mom’ stops. If she can push, we can push.”
In Saturday’s game, Mom got a stiff arm in the face. “I was mad,” she said. “They played rough, dirty.” Of course, after the game “they were all nice.”
Rugby is known for a culture of camaraderie, off-the-field socializing and crazy drinking songs. It is mandatory for the home team to host a social at which they feed the other team, drink and share stories. In no other sport do you clobber an opponent on the field and then, as soon as the whistle blows, drop all animosity and eat and drink together while sharing your love for the sport. At the raucous post-game social I attended, I saw the beauty of feeling alive, of having pushed their bodies, as well as the bonding — with both teammates and opponents — during the traditional, bawdy rugby songs that seemed to meet the vulgarity needs of straight and lesbian players alike.
The “type” of woman who plays rugby varies greatly. Beyond a willingness to get past gender stereotypes and acknowledge how good it feels to be aggressive on the field, the players seem to have little in common. “I think that’s a good thing sometimes,” Erin observed. The team captain is a litigator who relishes a good fight. There’s also a mild-mannered science teacher, a bartender, a nanny … “You name it,” says Erin, “they are on the team. Gay, straight, big, small, every ethnicity and race, all ages from 19 to 59.”
“Maybe it’s just that we all want to run and hit someone,” Barrie adds. The players are all different off the field, but they all use the same words to describe themselves as members of the rugby team: “aggressive,” “funny,” “family.” I sense the feeling of being powerful and connected — part of something much bigger.
“It’s awesome,” says Barrie. “How you feel when you are all playing. When you walk off the field, everyone’s your friend. We all love each other, and we’ll do anything for everyone.”
“Just do it.” They tell me. “You gotta just do it. Just do it.”
Somehow I believe that playing rugby would make me feel like I could do anything. But I am not quite convinced — even after meeting Debbie — that I have what it takes. “Maybe we can create an older women’s club,” she suggests, and I take heart. If I’m the youngest, and the other players go up to 80 or so, absolutely I’d play!
I am also inspired by Coach Chris’ outlook. “For me,” he says, “it is a metaphor for how to live life. In rugby, as in life, people will try to push you to the ground and take things from you. Despite the screaming pain in your strained muscles, cuts to you head, and bruises to your ego, get up and drive forward. Do not be selfish; support your friends. Grind it out; push forward. Score a try, smile to yourself and say nothing. Go back and do it again. Do this and you will win. “
The team has grown from the seven people who first showed up last June to 32 registered players today — all through word of mouth. Pasadena’s current season record is 0-2. However, their first game was against Las Vegas, an experienced team full of — as one player put it—“really big Amazon women.” In the season’s second game, Pasadena showed substantial improvement, holding their own in a close game against Fullerton.
The women’s rugby team, sponsored by Rugby XV, Burke Williams Day Spa and Sada Systems, is looking for more players — all ages, sizes, colors and professions. The coaches always start with fundamentals and fitness — since a lot of the women who join have never played before.
Caught up in the rugby spirit, I declare, “I’m going to get in shape. I’m going to show up.”
But first, I’m going to have a bone density test. I don’t want someone jumping on me and saying, “We barely hit her and she broke; let’s get ones with more durability.” And I’ll make sure my foot has healed from last year’s surgery.
The truth is I don’t know if I can stay awake until 10 p.m. for the practices and the bar socializing afterwards. But I do think that rugby could change my life. It is already changing the lives of the women on the Pasadena Women’s Rugby Football Club.
Any women interested in playing rugby can contact PasadenaWomensRugbyEC@googlegroups.com. Young women who want to play can contact Coach Tim Cutress at firstname.lastname@example.org.