Women’s rugby Head Coach and U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee Kathy Flores died at age 66 Oct. 21 after a year-long battle with cancer. During her 45-year career as a player and coach, Flores left an indelible mark on the sport of rugby and pioneered the growth of women’s rugby at Brown.
The rugby world responded to Flores’s passing with an outcry of support, remembering Flores for her numerous accomplishments and consistent advocacy for the expansion of women’s rugby. “Her vision was the spark for the founding of the U.S. Women’s Rugby Foundation,” read USA Rugby’s announcement published Oct. 21.
Flores coached the team at Brown from 2013 until her passing. On the field, Flores was a fierce competitor with a deep strategic understanding of the game and nearly unmatched technical expertise. To her players and those who met her even briefly, Flores was caring, passionate and demonstrated an incredible capacity to offer support while expecting nothing in return.
Building from scratch: women’s rugby at Brown
After beginning her prolific rugby career with four national championships at Florida State University, Flores went on to play for the USA women’s rugby team. When the team played its first international match against Canada in 1987, Flores was named captain. Four years later, she started at No. 8 during the team’s first national championship win against England.
Between 1994 and 2010, Flores pivoted toward coaching and led the Berkeley All Blues to 11 national championships. She also became both the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as head coach of a national team, a position she held for USA Women’s Rugby from 2002 to 2011.
In 2013, Flores signed on as head coach for Brown’s club-level women’s rugby program, which transitioned to varsity status the next year. According to Quinnipiac women’s rugby Head Coach Becky Carlson, Flores’ decision to join the nascent program at Brown, given her stature in the rugby world, was crucial to the expansion of women’s rugby on the collegiate level.
“It was a really important time for women’s rugby,” Carlson said. “We needed coaches that were going to be able to transition programs” from club to varsity.
Flores’s decision to coach at Brown rather than a more established program was representative of her mentality as a coach, said wing Emmajane Rhodenhiser ’22.
“After such a standout rugby career, she came to a program that didn’t really exist,” Rhodenhiser said. “She chose to come where there was nothing and build something from scratch.”
Carlson lauded Flores for her ability to navigate the limited resources afforded to a program in its first varsity season. “You have to be pretty artful while trying to figure out how to place the pieces of the puzzle together and still be competitive,” Carlson said. “You’re dealt the hand and you play with the cards that you have. Kathy did that really, really well.”
In 2014, Flores was named USA Rugby Female Coach of the Year after she led Brown to a 9-1 record overall and an undefeated 7-0 record during Ivy League conference play.
In a piece titled “What our game has truly lost,” Carlson wrote that Flores took a unique approach to the frenetic rugby recruitment process. While other coaches scrambled up and down the sidelines in pursuit of their next star, Flores sat quietly – confident in the knowledge that even if she spoke to them last, her conversation with each athlete would be the most impactful.
When scrum-half Gemma Ryu ’22 began her recruiting process, Flores set herself apart from other coaches from their first correspondence. Ryu sent an email out to a slew of college coaches and Flores was the first to respond, immediately offering her a visit and asking about her academic interests. “Kathy responded within 20 minutes … For her to offer all that and to take me seriously — that meant the world to me.”
As the program grew, Flores became the largest draw for athletes considering Brown. “Every recruit that I talk to comes to Brown not because of our locker rooms, not because of our equipment, but because of Kathy,” Rhodenhiser said.
No. 8 Zyana Thomas ’22 decided to attend Brown after meeting Flores just once in March of her senior year — after having turned down a number of recruiting offers from other programs. “Something in my gut told me to come here because she made me feel safe,” Thomas said.
According to fullback Lexi Nelson ’21.5, who walked onto the team, Flores also had a unique ability to identify and develop potential in players. “Even though I was pretty terrible, she always believed in me and always gave me extra guidance or feedback when I needed it,” Nelson said. “Now I’m a starter and rugby is a huge part of my life. I owe that all to her.”
When Flores watched No. 8 Kate Molloy ’23 play in high school, she recognized potential even though it was the first game of Molloy’s life. “I was a freshman and terrified, and Kathy was there at the game recruiting,” Molloy said. “I wasn’t good, but she looked at me and could tell based on my build and the way I was running that I was going to be a good rugby player. And she started recruiting me at that moment.”
As the program’s recruitment slots increased, Flores continued to welcome new players regardless of their status as a recruit or their experience in the sport. “One thing that she always said was that no matter how many recruiting slots she got, she would always have walk-ons,” Rhodenhiser said. “She had an amazing capacity to believe in people.”
Flores’s coaching style: tough love and hard tackles
During the first day of practice this fall, Flores showed up wearing a custom t-shirt with the message “Nobody cares. Work Harder.” Her emphasis on tough love and hard work, combined with decades of experience in the sport, contributed to Flores’s renowned abilities as a coach.
“Her motto was tough love,” Rhodenhiser said. “She was like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna be hard. It’s hard to learn how to tackle and be tough and resilient.’ But she also believed in us and said, ‘No, you can get to this place.’”
Flores’ playing years made her a force to be reckoned with on the pitch in practice. “Her skill was really obvious,” Rhodenhiser said. “When she jumped into drills, she would hit us hard, take us to the ground. When she jumped into a play, she was just so agile and had perfect passes. She would throw it behind her and it would go perfectly to where she wanted it to go.”
Flores continued to attend practices with the team even as her illness worsened, embodying the same grit that she instilled in her players. “In September, she was telling people not to go easy on her in drills,” Nelson said. “It was a testament to her fighting spirit. She would play with us up until the diagnosis.”
“She was battling cancer, but she was also prepared to be there as much as she could for our team,” Rhodenhiser added. “I’m so privileged to have had that kind of support and for our team to (have been) supported by her up until the very end.”
Impact off the field
Flores’ support of her players extended off the field, where she would meet with them at Blue State Coffee to discuss relationships, academics and her dog, Manny. “She would invite us to get tea and she asked us really personal questions because she cared,” Molloy said. “She was such a mom.”
“She would always ask us, ‘How’s your mental health?’ We thought it was funny because it was such a direct question, but I think it showed that she wanted to make sure that we were all okay,” Rhodenhiser added.
According to Ryu, Flores was also adept at recognizing when her players needed their spirits lifted. “When we were putting on our cleats at the beginning of the day or walking off the field at the end, she was very good at noticing when someone was having an off day,” Ryu said.
For Thomas, Flores quickly came to act as much more than just a coach. “It was no longer (a coach-player relationship) when I got here,” Thomas said. “It became mother-daughter. I spent a lot of time with her because I lost a lot of people that were very dear to me. It was traumatic experience after traumatic experience, and Kathy was there every single time. She didn’t care how much she had to carry, even if she had to carry me on her back … I spent my holidays with her.”
A lasting legacy at Brown and in rugby
To recognize Flores’s contributions to the school, Joan Sorensen ’72 and Paul Sorensen ’71 established the Kathy Flores women’s rugby head coaching chair as an endowed position Oct. 21.
“It helps cement rugby and its position here,” Ryu said. “We’re still one of the newer varsity teams, and to have that support going forward means a lot. We want to keep building the program, and we want to keep rugby on campus and keep it growing.”
Still, Flores’s absence leaves a hole in the program. “There’s nothing athletics or anyone can possibly do that can represent who Kathy was. Kathy is women’s rugby, honestly. It was her dream to bring it to NCAA sports, and she did. It was her dream to win a Rugby World Cup, and she did. It was her dream to coach a national team, and she did … I just want the greater Brown community to understand that,” Molloy said. “She was really incredible and she made this program what it is.”
Carlson — along with other coaches in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association — recognized Flores’s significance and quickly took action to ensure that her impact on the game would not be forgotten by maintaining the spirit of community and collegiality that she brought to the group. Before Kathy’s passing, “we had never had a text stream between all of the NIRA coaches,” Carlson said. “When Kathy passed away, we were all saying, ‘We waited too long to do this — everyone needs to know that she was a legend in the game.’”
Moving forward, Flores’s goals and values will remain at the forefront of players’ minds. “Kathy was always fighting for more recognition — to get us to varsity, and then to get us more recognition there. It was always about the next thing. The next thing for us after becoming varsity was winning a national championship — there’s always another goal to strive for,” Ryu said. “It’s up to us to help continue growing the program … and to pressure rugby in the larger world context to keep growing.”
Although Flores’s time at Brown was temporary, her impact remains in the many lives she touched as a coach, player, mentor, educator and friend. “To be coached by a two-time Hall of Famer as a player and as a coach, by one of the most influential women in the game of women’s rugby, is such an honor,” Thomas said. “And to have her be my mother was such an honor. It was such a privilege.”