Amid political turbulence, these women find comfort on and off the field
While the president of the University of Minnesota Women’s Rugby team, Anna Jacobsen, was fundraising with her team at a local fun-run last year, she expected to work concessions to lessen team dues and bond with her team, not encounter aspiring female fans.
Yet as a third-grade girl showed up at the team’s concession stand in her rugby jersey and a ball to sign, Jacobsen was prepared to be a representative for women’s rugby and overall female empowerment.
“[The girl’s] mom was saying that she had just joined a touch league team where she was one of three girls, and none of the boys would pass to her,” Jacobsen said. “We passed around with her. Tackling is something you always see boys do, but girls never do. It’s really empowering to play a physical sport, because we are 100 percent capable of it.”
The Women’s Rugby team is coming off of a successful fall season. Ranked 18th of the top 20 in the nation this past fall, they were one game shy of the national championship match, losing their spot to Air Force.
The team was nationally ranked for the first time in its existence at the University, according to Jacobsen. They’ve proved themselves to be successful on the field, but have also been advocating for a larger program within the University to heighten female empowerment and include anyone on campus who feels marginalized.
“There are so many different positions on the field, and every body type can play. From tiny, 5-foot and thin, to 200-pound women,” sophomore player Ashlee Beauchamp said. “Everyone is welcome. Everyone is from a different ethnicity or sexual orientation. It really was a safe space, and we all feel like a family in this team atmosphere.”
While playing rugby is central to the team’s involvement with one another, it isn’t the only thing that brings the women together. This past year, the women have been supporting each other in light of the political climate. In attending Black Lives Matter rallies and the Women’s March together, they have strengthened the familial bonds on their team.
“Because we’re so diverse, this election has definitely rocked us. We put our battle armor on and fought together,” Beauchamp said. “I have no idea what the struggles are of being an African American in this political atmosphere, but I can support people that do, to make sure they have that safe space to fall on no matter what circumstances you come from.”
Beauchamp recalls her first instance with the team. “Literally from practice one I felt welcome. Especially with the political atmosphere right now, if you felt scared or anything, you had this family to fall back on. That’s U of M rugby to me.”
The team is a club sport at the University of Minnesota, meaning it is a student-run program that competes nationally as a Division I program. While there are no cuts or try-outs, the team’s members pride themselves on their inclusive attitude toward anyone who would like to attempt the sport.
While a club team, the women represent the school and receive some funding, although not enough to pay for all of their expenses. The women have to fundraise regularly in order to travel and compete with fellow Midwestern teams.
Various teams across the nation are varsity and offer scholarship. While being club allows the team to accept all who attempt the sport, players have to put in much more effort to achieve means to travel and to experience certain sport traditions together.
“We can only fundraise through the U of M, which is really restricting. We don’t get recognition through the U to get proper funding,” Beauchamp said. “Next spring we are planning a spring break trip to Wales. We are fundraising currently so that we can go to a country where rugby is very prevalent.”
Little awareness of the sport is part of the reason the team is so passionate about its exposure efforts. The team rents out University practice fields and turf, but would like more recognition within the school to expand their program, especially because scholarships are not offered.
There were more than 2 million women and girls playing the sport in 2016, a 17 percent increase since 2014. Women’s rugby also continues to experience record growth in popularity, attendance and media exposure driven by the success of Women’s Rugby World Cup and Olympic Games inclusion, according to World Rugby’s website.
Within the sport here, growth has been substantial. “My freshman year we had 17 players, and there are 15 on the field. The next year we had 23, and this past year we had about 30,” Jacobsen said.
The team recruits from high schools around the area and promote themselves on campus.
Jacobsen credits the inclusivity of her team to the sport of rugby itself. After every game, the women host the visiting team, and all the players have a meal after the game. It’s expected of the opposing team too when they’re hosting. “Rugby is much more of a community than any other sport I’ve played, which is really something special,” she said.
As a contact sport played with no padding or a mouth guard, the women know it may seem daunting. The girls are taught how to hit correctly, though, and it even strengthens confidence off the field.
“It’s a really cool feeling, as a woman, to actually feel strong. To be able to walk down the street and feel like I could protect myself, it’s really empowering,” Beauchamp said. “Yes there’s some blood and bruises, but at the end of the day, you feel empowered and strong as a woman and a human being.”
The coaches extensively train the girls to approach contact in a safe way, though. Jacobsen credits the coaches as being the driving force behind the team.
“Good teams have the mentality that they are willing to sacrifice their own bodies for their teammate next to them. Much like a family,” head coach Rebecca Radtke said, “We make our practices physically and mentally taxing on the women. They bond over the pain they endure together knowing it is making them better players as well as people.”
The team hopes that with the success they’ve had, they will win a championship within the next few years and continue to expand the program.
“They’re the most inclusive group of women I’ve ever been apart of. I think Rugby is the reason I’ve been able to find a home at the University of Minnesota,” Jacobsen said.