We caught up with ex-England women’s rugby player Kat Merchant about her journey to success, how she overcame self doubt and the changing face of women’s rugby.
After making a splash on the international rugby scene at the age of just 19, the now 29-year-old winger helped lead England to victory at last year’s Women’s World Cup.
Although Kat recently retired from the professional stage, she’s stayed very involved with women’s rugby and has big plans ahead of her.
We spoke with her about chasing after your goals, why strong is the new sexy and what it felt like to win that World Cup.
1. How did you first get into rugby?
Well, I was always really sporty and I tried different sports. I actually did gymnastics, but I got too tall for it. So my dad suggested, ‘Oh you might be good at rugby’ and he kind of nagged me and made me go. So I went along to join an Under-16s session at the age of 14, and I loved it and I didn’t look back.
I just loved the game – that you can do so much like run, pass, kick, there’s contact – it’s just such a great game. That was it, then I was hooked!
2. What was your big break?
In terms of [playing for] England, my big break was when I got my first cap when I was 19 and got to show what I could do. I scored a try on my first touch and it kind of went from there really.
3. What is a typical day in the life of a pro athlete like?
While we’re on camp, we’ll get up at about half seven, have breakfast and then have a team meeting. Then we’ll go out and train in the morning – it might be a contact session or something like that. Then we’ll have a break for lunch and then we’ll go back out and have team plays. Then in the evening again we’ll have dinner and a meeting.
Off camp you do your own training, so that’s not rugby-specific. I might get up in the morning and do weights and then in the afternoon do fitness, so lots of training.
4. What’s been your proudest career moment? What did it feel like?
Winning the World Cup Finals was just a moment of almost disbelief, but also relief and just having it all come together. I played in the 2010 World Cup and also at the Sevens in the 2009 and 2013 World Cups, so actually I played in four World Cups in six years, which is quite brutal on the body.
But for it to all come together and finally get that goal it was just unbelievable. The feeling now is still with me and I’m starting to believe it more now after the year has gone. But yeah, it was a brilliant moment.
5. What was your biggest moment of self-doubt? How did you overcome it?
Between the 2009 Sevens World Cup and the 2010 Fifteens World Cup I quite badly dislocated my elbow. It was a complicated one and I got told I wouldn’t play rugby again. I just remember looking at them and saying, ‘I will and I’ll be at the World Cup in five months’.
At the time there was a doubt of whether I would get back to play, and whether I’d be good enough to play for England, so that was quite a stressful time. But to be honest, I didn’t really have time to think about it because I knew I was just on such a rush to get back in rehab. I think everybody kind of has those moments where you doubt something.
6. What’s the best part about playing a sport?
It gives you such a sense of self-worth, and to be part of a team is just fantastic. I feel like with team sports you really make friends. I’m still friends with some of the people on the first rugby session I went along to at age 14.
Because you put your body on the line for each other on the pitch, you just have this kind of bond. Going out and doing it just builds on your confidence and really makes you feel valued.
7. What do you say to girls about overcoming the stereotypes of playing what some people consider to be a “male” sport?
I think things are changing. Now strong girls are seen as the new skinny. Things like boot camps are very in, and women are doing things like running Tough Mudder. There’s a real shift now actually from, ‘Oh girls should be doing dainty things’ and ‘don’t get muddy’ to athletic women, strong women – that’s the new sexy rather than trying to get as skinny as you can. I think it’s a much healthier body image to have; to be strong and athletic and healthy. That’s where rugby now will have a bigger uptake through these women who are wanting to push themselves to do something different, and feel strong and empowered.
It’s the same with cricket. Some people think cricket’s a male sport, but then you look at how well the women cricketers are doing. Hopefully the stereotypes are changing, and I would just say give it a go before you judge it.
8. What would your advice be to any novice athletes out there?
First find a club, go out and start training. Start playing it and enjoying it first to see how you get on, if you like it. Then it’s kind of the training outside of it.
So in rugby the quicker you are, maybe the better you’d be as a winger, so you go and do speed training. Or the stronger you are, the better if you’re a forward so you go and do weights training. Get yourself physically into the best place you can be to have a chance to then be good at rugby. And then obviously it’s the rugby training and the skills and the practising. I think that if you’re committed and dedicated, you do what needs to be done to get the best out of yourself.
9. What’s next for you? What are your life goals?
By Reenat Sinay