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Women’s rugby rises to become varsity sport

After six Ivy championships, team becomes 11th in country to achieve varsity status

The women’s rugby club team will be elevated to full varsity status in the fall, becoming Brown’s 21st women’s varsity team and 38th varsity team overall, the University announced Monday.

The women’s rugby team was founded as a club in 1977 and has become one of the top-ranking teams in Division I. It both reached the USA Rugby National Championships round of 16 and won the Ivy League Championship for six consecutive years. The team’s most impressive showings occurred in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, when it reached the semifinal national championship game.

Brown is the second Ivy League school to elevate women’s rugby to the intercollegiate varsity level after Harvard became the first last fall. Of the schools that offer women’s rugby at the Division I level, Brown is only the 11th to announce that it will raise the sport to varsity.

Over many years the team spoke with former President Ruth Simmons, Athletic Director Jack Hayes, Vice President for Student Life Margaret Klawunn and President Christina Paxson to advocate for varsity status.

The road to the change was a “long, seven-year process,” said Lucy Fernandez ’14. “The message most of the time was that ‘we recognize you’re great, but we already have so many varsity sports.’”

But after speaking with Paxson, the team began to get “little things” along the way, Fernandez said, such as weight room access, though the team had to pay for it.

When the announcement was officially made Monday morning, it came as a shock to all the players, since in recent weeks the conversation had appeared to die down.

“We just feel so much relief knowing we can just play and play well and go on if we qualify,” said Sandra Kimokoti ’15.

“We’ve been fortunate to have very caring, supportive alumni that have helped us raise hundreds of dollars and have always cared for the team,” said Saudi Garcia ’14. “This was especially important when we had to go to the Final Four in California.”

The team has dealt with many challenges over the years, players said. “It was demoralizing at times being kicked off the field or having the lights shut off on us during practices,” said Sydney Peak ’15. “There was very little response and support for a team that has always performed so well.”

The women’s rugby team has been playing other varsity teams for years, but “we couldn’t compete with (them) because we just didn’t have it,” Peak said. “The financial difference has always been the burden.”

From 2008 to 2012, the team reached the Final Four every year but one, each time just missing the final championship game.

“If we had all the resources, we would have been able to go all the way,” Fernandez said.

Peak praised Kerrissa Heffernan, who was the team’s volunteer coach for 11 years, as one of the main reasons why varsity status was finally achieved.

“She really built the program. … It wouldn’t have happened without her,” Peak said. “She dedicated her whole life to the team and sacrificed so much.”

“Kerry really stepped up to the plate to offer comprehensive support to the players,” said Elena Suglia ’15. “She has been the heart and soul of the team.”

The team’s current head coach and first-ever paid coach, Kathy Flores, has “really walked into that legacy” since beginning in 2013, Suglia said.

“She was another stepping stone to becoming varsity,” Peak added.

Players noted that a family with ties to the team promised to donate $1 million if and when rugby became a varsity team.

“Changes are going to be huge in a way that we don’t actually understand yet,” Fernandez said.

For the past 37 years, the team has been able to travel and practice freely. With varsity status come certain limitations, specifically on practice and travel times.

But the new status will also bring huge benefits, including the availability of the training room and preventative care, neither of which the team previously had access to.

“We’ve really lost a lot of players to concussions and injuries that could have been prevented with preventative care,” Peak said. “This will be huge in relation to socioeconomic status and being able to support female athletes from diverse backgrounds.”

Organizational obligations will no longer fall on the athletes. “We used to have to organize every logistical nightmare, which could’ve been a full-time secretarial position,” Suglia said.

“As an alum I wanted to throw up in joy,” said Mai Nguyen ’12. “Being a part of the team that has always been so close, always getting so far … the news was overwhelming.”

For younger players, the news marks a big change for the team. Varsity status also means that official recruitment spots will be allotted for the team.

“I feel so privileged to have this incredible foundation of work built under me,” said Oksana Goretaya ’17. “It can only get better.”

“The Brown spirit is so real on this team,” Nguyen said. “We don’t want this grit of the club and underdog feel lost, but because we’re Brown I think we’ll always have that history. We’re very proud that we’re here where we are.”



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