A safe space in sports: Sophomore Genevieve Hankins feels at home on the rugby field

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SOPHOMORE GENEVIEVE HANKINS FINISHES AFTER A THURSDAY EVENING RUGBY PRACTICE. “I REALLY, REALLY ENJOY IT. YOU’RE ALL KIND OF TOGETHER … AND I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A KIND OF ROUGH PERSON, SO IT’S REALLY NICE TO HAVE SOMEPLACE TO TAKE THAT OUT, ON THE FIELD, AND USE IT TO OUR BENEFIT,” GENEVIEVE SAYS. “AND IT FEELS NICE TO WORK TOGETHER.” PHOTO BY JAYNA DIAS.
by Jayna Dias, PERSONALITY EDITOR
28 May 2019

She breathes heavily, small beads of perspiration forming on her forehead as she settles with her hands rested on her knees. It doesn’t matter that her body aches from the tackle she just endured a minute ago, besides, only football players would wear pads for protection. She looks to her left, than her right. Nothing but a lineup of her strong teammates, females in a similar stance, greeting her vision. They stand with confidence, enduring the shouting that comes their way from the coaches. Plays, mistakes and commands barked in their direction, and instead of complaining, they take every word, even shouting ideas back. It doesn’t matter that she feels her legs tighten up from soreness from the powerlifting workout the day before, besides, it only made her bigger, stronger. No, the pain and the hard work instead brings a smile to her face, one filled with pride and poise, despite the sweat that coats her skin and uniform. It’s what makes her dive for the ball, in the sea of the rest of the players. After all, it’s her liberation, her freedom, her out. It’s rugby.

Sophomore Genevieve Hankins decided to ditch the tennis rackets and swim goggles for a rugby jersey when her friends pushed her to join the team. Since rugby is not as popular in the United States as it is in other countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Genevieve’s friends continued to ask her in the likes of gaining more recruitment. Eventually, she finally caved, a decision that would change the course of her life forever.

A welcoming community

The first few practices weren’t all fun and games. Rugby is a contact sport in which the players tackle without the use of any type of padding or guards. Genevieve was quick to realize the difficulty and physical demand of the support, but it was a challenge that she believed was well worth pursuing.

Genevieve began to incorporate powerlifting in with her training, something that was easy to do as her mother is an owner of a Crossfit gym, which improved her shape and overall wellness. As Genevieve got more comfortable with her teammates, a process that didn’t take long at all, visits to her mother’s gym became a team activity, and it was clear that she had found her place.

But the reasoning behind her gravitation towards the sport lied further beyond the warming and cohesive teammates. Genevieve explains that when she had first joined the team, they were quick to answer any questions that she had about the sport, assisting her in anyway they could. All the sports prior to her involvement in rugby lacked that supportive connection, and upon further involvement, Genevieve was able to pinpoint why. The rugby team was more than just a strong bond between athletes; it was a safe space and community.

“I identify as a gay lady,” Genevieve states with a grin that was easy and relaxed, her voice prideful yet effortless at the same time. “There’s a large LGBT community in the rugby community … there’s a lot of acceptance there.”

What was missing from the other sports that she had involved herself in was that acceptance and liberation that rugby brought. Genevieve recalls what that experience had been like, the underlying sense of not belonging and a need to conform from the other girls that previously surrounded her. She sat up straighter and squinted her blue eyes slightly, bringing back those moments from the past. Genevieve recounts that there is oftentimes a femininity that girls are expected to maintain in athletics with sports like cheerleading, and vice versa with males, expected to display masculinity in a sport like football. So, when Genevieve was involved in those other sports, the part of herself that wanted to be rough and masculine, seemed to divide her from the others as though she was being watched through a microscope.

“A lot of times when people are expecting a very specific gender role of you … and you don’t conform to that, it makes a disconnect there,” Genevieve says, interrupting herself to express just how kind and open her rugby teammates were in contrast.

Insecurities & self-discovery

After playing and practicing, it was apparent to Genevieve that she truly found a place in which she belonged and felt accepted. A newfound confidence surged through her as the sport was able to liberate and solidify her own attitude towards herself. Genevieve sits up straight in her chair, gently pushing back a stray piece of short, brown hair from her line of sight when describing how self conscious she used to be before getting involved within rugby. Specifically, her size was something that she had found difficult to come to terms with prior to joining the sport.

Genevieve isn’t petite with a small waist, slim thighs and a narrow arms. Plus, she has a good couple inches on other girls in her grade—all contributing to Genevieve’s prior lack of confidence. She used to clothe herself in baggy sweatshirts and sweatpants as a means to hide her figure, her body being something she loathed—until rugby came along that is.

“I’m a bigger person, but in rugby it’s like, if you’re a bigger person then that’s just better for you to tackle,” she shrugs with a smirk that brightens up her face. “[I’m] just getting stronger. I never feel self-conscious with myself anymore about that kind of stuff, you know, being big and strong which is generally something a girl is not supposed to be.” Genevieve’s shoulders roll back as she speaks, her posture held just a strongly as her diction.

But Genevieve’s self-acceptance didn’t come through just her own salvation through the sport; she lends a great deal of her confidence to her girlfriend. In fact, they met though rugby, and play with one another as teammates.

Genevieve’s partner used to be a football player at Yorkville, the only girl on the team, a detail that Genevieve adds with a flare of her hand and a prideful grin. She goes on to describe how kind-natured she is as well as accepting. The pair powerlift together, an activity that makes Genevieve more comfortable with the changers her body underwent as a result of lifting, only enhanced by the compliments that her girlfriend showers over her. She notes that she is specifically grateful for the fact that she always compliments her strengths, rather than things that are ordinary and superficial.

Total support

One thing that Genevieve has not struggled with during this process, is gaining support. Unlike most mothers would be, Mrs. Hankins was ecstatic that her daughter was going to do rugby, a sport that’s grueling on the body and potentially very dangerous. Genevieve wasn’t surprised at all with her mother’s acceptance as sports had always been involved in her own life, and she’s no stranger to breaking past gender conformity herself. Genevieve’s mother is the owner of a Crossfit gym, and has served as a role model for her daughter with the way in which she trailblazes.

“She’s very athletic and being healthy and being strong is something that’s very important to her and I think that’s something that kinda helped me be more okay with being in a sport, being strong stuff like that … she’s a short just buff lady. Being a female gym owner itself is something that’s not super common, and I think that’s super cool and she’s been a big role model for me in that way,” Genevieve says. 

In a similar fashion, both parents were quick to accept and support Genevieve in the discovering of her sexuality as well. She recalls that back in middle school was the time in which she began tapping into the acceptance of her identification as “a gay lady.” The support from her family, and her mom telling her that it is okay to be LGBT, gave Genevieve the confidence to come into her own.

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GENEVIEVE AND HER GIRLFRIEND. “I MET MY GIRLFRIEND THROUGH RUGBY, SO I WAS ABLE TO MAKE A LOT OF THOSE CONNECTIONS,” GENEVIEVE SAID. “I THINK THAT’S WHY I CHOSE THE SPORT OF RUGBY COMPARED TO A LOT OF THE OTHER CONTACT SPORTS LIKE THAT.” PHOTO COURTESY OF GENEVIEVE HANKINS.

Prospering in pride

Genevieve will continue to play for the Chiefs, and is looking forward to what else the sport has to offer. After coming into her own and finding a home on the field with her teammates, all that’s left to do is to perform and play to the best of their abilities. The team is competitive, in hopes of winning state titles, and even playing abroad as they’ve gone to England in the past.

One of the three coaches for the team, Doug Kantola, expresses his pride in coaching his athletes and seeing each one grow more knowledgeable and skillful in rugby. He smiles in great content, his eyes undoubtedly creasing underneath the dark shades he wears in the heat of an evening practice. The team has come a long way since the start of the season in January, and has made him confident in their capabilities for the next season to come.

“A lot of people don’t think rugby is for girls or for women. We have 17. I say yes it is,” Doug states firmly, with a small nod and a smirk gracing his lips.

Genevieve emulates her coaches words, and wishes that other girls can have the confidence to push away from the norm and pursue what they desire. She can attest to the loneliness of not feeling accepted by peers, having not had many friends prior to rugby, but considering her teammates as her best friends after finding her spot on the team. It made Genevieve adamant on reassuring others that there are people like them, something that just needs to be searched for.

“It’s okay to be strong, it’s okay to be masculine …  There are other people there who are like you, and it’s going to get better,” Genevieve says. “You don’t have to conform to what other people think you should be because there are other people that are going to accept you and love you for those things.”

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