UChicago Womxn’s Rugby Creates Inclusive, Successful Athletic Space

The club rugby team finished as conference runner-up this season, matching its on-field competitive success with a welcoming and inclusive environment.

By Blair Penn

The UChicago Womxn's rugby team is an eclectic group that embodies the passion, selflessness, and drive that makes up the core of any great team. 

While a club team, womxn’s rugby is extremely active throughout all three quarters of the academic year. During the fall, the team practices two to three times per week and plays matches over the weekend. The format of these matches is called 15s; it’s an 80-minute game with 15 players on each side of the field. Opponents include mostly local schools, such as University of Illinois Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, and DePaul University. Co-captain fourth-year Ally Bartholomew, who has been on the team since her second year, said that the team has historically “had a winning record in the regular season” and this year “was able to secure conference runner-up .” 

During winter quarter, the team shifts their focus to intense conditioning. Second-year Julia Fennell, who plays prop—a position for the stronger players on the team, who take most of the heavy hits—said that winter practices are typically half an hour of conditioning, including stairs, running, or body weight exercises, followed by an hour to 90 minutes of skills training. The team uses the winter quarter to prepare for the upcoming spring season. During the spring, the team plays 7s, instead of 15s, where each team fields seven players on each side. “This year, we’re planning on traveling all over the Midwest for tournaments almost every weekend, with the goal of making the bid for nationals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the end of April,” Fennell said. 

Rugby is an extremely physical sport. Austin Fitzgerald, a fourth-year rookie on the team, said that rugby is “like football but literally rougher.” She claims to have a permanent dent in her leg from the only rugby game she has played in the past few months. The only protection the players get is a mouthguard, but the team heavily emphasizes and enforces safety protocols. Co-captain fourth-year Dosia McKinney, who plays fly half, said that “one of the first things you'll learn to do at practice is to fall safely.” McKinney, who has been playing rugby for eight years, said, “The worst injuries I’ve gotten are ankle sprains.” 

 While many members on the team are fortunate to have avoided any big injuries, it is impossible to play without accumulating bruises. “Crazy bruises are inevitable… I’ve been known to crash in bed for hours after a match,” Fennell said. Their position as prop requires constant scuffling for the ball; once, her arm was “pinched under a tackle—40 percent of my upper arm turned deep purple.” Still, Fennell has “never faced an injury that kept off the pitch.” The team chooses to embrace the sport’s inherent roughness; Fennell says that “after matches, we all send pictures of our most impressive bruises in the group chat.”  

The roughness of rugby only brings the team closer together. “Because of how physical the sport is, we have to physically put our bodies on the line for each other and trust that our teammates will be there and support us,” McKinney said. Fennell agreed, adding that, “The bond forged on the rugby pitch is unlike any other. There is something indescribable about throwing your body over a fallen teammate to ruck after a tackle and knowing they would do the same for you in a heartbeat.”  

The team has also had to battle and rise above many challenges on and off the field, individually as well as collectively, as a team. One repeated challenge has been funding, or a lack thereof. Since the team doesn’t have access to the same resources as varsity sports, they have to fundraise to support their tournament entrance fees. “The way we have worked through that challenge has been by participating in team fundraising efforts, such as our Valentine’s Day card and button sale and our ongoing Redbubble store,” Fennell said. She added that “some seniors have even used Dean’s Funds to get us more funding.”  

Luckily, the team has had a lot of support from Hyde Park’s local women’s teams. “They work so hard to make sure we have everything we need, and we are so grateful for them,” Bartholomew said.  

UChicago Womxn’s rugby has learned to combat the challenge of overthinking. “Rugby is hugely a mental sport, and, especially at a school like UChicago, I feel like it can be hard to overcome perfectionism and overthinking tendencies,” Bartholomew said. “Being a perfectionist or overthinker isn't the worst thing in the world, though, and can even be a competitive advantage in sports if you learn how to harness your thoughts in a productive way.” Bartholomew added that “the flip side of having a lot of perfectionists and overthinkers is that we’re a very smart, strategic team, so it's a lot of fun to talk strategy with my teammates.”  

Everyone on the rugby team found their way onto the team differently. Fennell described her journey to rugby as “more of a recruitment” as she wandered around the club fair as a first-year. When she passed by the rugby booth, the team immediately began trying to convince her to join the team—she was bigger and stronger than most of the players, and they needed a few more props. “It was love at first ruck,” Fennell quipped.

Bartholomew joined the team because her twin had joined the team in her first year and Bartholomew “really missed team sports and being active.” She came to one practice and stayed because the “team is just the most supportive, kindhearted, and inclusive group you could ever imagine.”   

Fitzgerald always has had friends on the team who would tell her to join. During her fourth-year summer, she went to a game and “absolutely loved watching it.” Watching the match inspired her to join the team, and "the rest is history,” as she put it. Fitzgerald added that the team has “been a really affirming place as a queer person. I really appreciate that, because I didn’t come from a space like that at home.” She is grateful for the team culture and feels like she can express herself within it. “We push each other in every aspect, and we celebrate each other's victories, personally, professionally, academically, and athletically,” Fitzgerald said. 

Every member of the team shares the same love for each other and the sport of rugby. Fourth-year and co-captain Chloe Bartholomew, Ally’s twin, said that rugby has greatly enhanced her college experience. She said joining the team was “the best decision I’ve made in college for my mental and emotional wellbeing,” and that “being part of this community in college has been instrumental for my growth as an athlete and as a person.”  

Fitzgerald is grateful for how she was welcomed by the team. “I have never met a more supportive group of people and I feel like they became family pretty quickly,” she said. Ally Bartholomew agreed, adding that it is, above all, the “ability to love each other so much through thick and thin that I am incredibly grateful for.” 

McKinney agreed that rugby has been an extremely positive part of her life. “I cannot honestly put into words how much rugby has done for my mental health and self-esteem… the love I have for this sport is unmatched. I wish I could share it with everyone,” she said. The team’s love of rugby does not just stay within their own roster. After matches the team often attends socials with their opponents. “ spend time together and sing songs, so our relationships with the local teams are really close,” Fennell says. 

The UChicago Womxn’s rugby team takes great pride in being a warm and welcoming environment. They are always excited about the possibility of newcomers to the team. Fennell’s advice to people interested in joining is to do it. “Come ready to get hit,” she said. “And more importantly, come ready to get picked back up.”