Episode 20: WERKIN with Maggie Alphonsi on banging the drum for women in sport

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On the latest episode of WERKIN with, Hayley chats to Maggie Alphonsi, rugby star and prominent commentator. Alphonsi describe why it’s important to bang the drum for women in sport, the mentors who have supported her along the way, and storytelling as a superpower.

 Alphonsi’s journey as the UK’s most recognizable women’s rugby player began with a fated wander through the halls while skipping class. She ran into her PE teacher, who had visible injuries on her face. Curious, Alphonsi asked what had happened. Her teacher, Lisa Burgess, replied that she played rugby, and observing Alphonsi’s athletic skill in PE class, invited her to check out the club. The rest is history.

“I went to a rugby club, I picked up a rugby ball and I played and absolutely loved tackling people, I loved running past people. I just loved it. I fell in love with the sport because it suited my attributes. I was big and I was strong. I was quite aggressive.”

Alphonsi’s gateway into professional rugby was also her first experience with having a mentor, as she describes Burgess, her PE teacher,

“I still keep in contact with her, she's a mentor to me. It's amazing when you have one person in your life who can change it in the simplest way. She said, ‘just try the sport out,’ and that's been the rest of my life for the last 30 odd years. I owe a lot to her.”

Burgess was just the first of many mentors to have supported Alphonsi’s journey,

“I think mentors have been quite significant in my life. You don't just have one mentor, you have several different types of people who come into your life, who come along with you on the journey, and then you dip in and out with them to get support to keep going forward.”

Paying it forward, Alphonsi has taken it upon herself to promote women in sport,

“We do need a lot of people to bang the drum and make a lot of noises, otherwise there won't be momentum, we've got some great shifts now. We need to keep pushing at it, otherwise we could revert backwards. What's great is that there's a lot of strong women out there, a lot of strong men out there, who are supporting the change, who are pushing it. If we keep doing it, then we'll continue to get success and women in sport will be in the limelight more often.”

Getting women in sport into the limelight matters because representation matters, helping fans and young girls to see themselves in professional athletes. Alphonsi has found that off the rugby pitch, her voice has a greater reach,

“It's hard when you're an athlete and you're playing, all you can do is play and you've got a voice, but it's not as strong. When you leave the sport, you become stronger with your voice because you can talk a bit more freely and actually create greater change and make a bigger noise.”

While Alphonsi was still playing professionally, she recalls the moment at the 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand, when she felt her power as a pro athlete,

“We had 14,000 people come to watch the game. I think it's the first time we've ever had that many people coming to watch a women's rugby match, which just blew us all away. We had people watch it and go ‘wow, women can play the sport. We had lots of new converts.’”

Having made a career leap from professional sport to journalism as a commentator, what advice does Maggie have for women considering a change?

 “Step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. That's one thing I learned more so in my career. There will be many times where, I probably didn't step out of my comfort zone and I was very comfortable with the things that I was doing.”

Alphonsi also notes the importance of owning your journey, “You sometimes doubt yourself, and you need to not doubt yourself, in business or in sport. You've got to fake it til you make it, and step into that role and actually just own it and then let the rest come.”

The rugby star’s transition from pro-athlete to commentator has unleashed a newfound reverence for storytelling,

“Everyone's got a level of inspiration in them, everyone's got a different story. You don't have to be an athlete to have a great story. Everyone's got a really interesting story. Through the life I live now, I tell my story quite a lot, and through telling my story, it means others open up about their stories.”

For more from Hayley’s interview with Maggie Alphonsi, listen on iTunes or Soundcloud.