for this week i thought i might return to my crisis of masculinity, but this time with a more athletic bent. this essay is about my past & present with exercise/sports in general and rugby in particular. i am framing it through 3 games of rugby: the first, at a women’s tournament in virginia; the second, where i was named MVP; and the last, my first game playing for a men’s team.

last wednesday i went to a free/”pay what you can” yoga class in center city philadelphia, and it was the first athletic experience i have had outside of my own home since surgery. today, i went to a 2-hour session of touch (read: non-tackle) rugby in south philly, with a few players from the philadelphia gryphons, a gay-inclusive rugby team based right here in the city of brotherly love. i jogged around the pitch at columbus square park, hyperventilating at times from anxiety and exhaustion, but i caught a few passes and threw a few more. i even took two elbows to the face from a very large and very fast prop forward; it wouldn’t surprise me if tomorrow i woke up for work with a black eye.

from the gryphons’ website:

The Philadelphia Gryphons Rugby Football Club (RFC) is a sports organization dedicated to encouraging participation, building athleticism, and improving our community through the sport of Rugby.  We work to foster a diverse environment that welcomes all athletes, regardless of age, race, fitness level or sexual orientation.  We are a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, competing in Division IV play.

my fitness journey over the past few months has been [illuminating]: from zero physical activity in november, to planking and light stretching at home in december, to yoga last week and rugby today. it has been interesting to feel my body develop as it heals from the major trauma of surgery 4 months ago. it has reminded me, again and again, what this body of mine is capable of.

during my 2-year hiatus from rugby and team sports, my friend interviewed me about what.

my introduction to the sport of rugby was in the spring of 2014. i was heading into my first year postgrad, wandering through confusing gender feelings and preoccupied by the what-ifs of my time in college, particularly: what if i had played a sport? one night in february, i went to an indoor practice with new york rugby club’s womens team, and i was so nervous i could have puked on the hardwood gym floor. i didn’t say a word to anyone for the duration of the two-hour practice, except for when in the waning minutes during our introductions, i mumbled my birth name and no, i had never played before and no, i had no idea what position i would play. practice was held in a private school gymnasium on the upper east side of manhattan, and every face showed the same surprise when i told them that no, i had never played before.

“how’d you find out about us then?”
“google,” i answered simply. and i was right; NYRC is the first result that pops up when you search for ‘women’s rugby in nyc’, and i sent an email to the New Recruit Coordinator on the website straight away.

i remember the fitness drills, the sprinting, going to modell’s and buying boys’ football cleats before i knew rugby boots are banned from having a toe cleat (i sawed off the little black stubs with a serrated knife in my bedroom), walking from the 6 train across park avenue to practice every tuesday night for a month.

that march, i played my first game. it was at ruggerfest in virginia that april. ruggerfest is a big rugby weekend held every spring, and every year it is hosted by the DC furies, one of the country’s oldest women’s rugby clubs (unrelated: one of my good friends, who played rugby in college at Texas A&M, went to 2 practices with the furies during her 9-month stint in the capitol —before quitting altogether because the team seemed, in her opinion, “cliqueish, white, and elitist”). the tournament is two days in early march, and the team drove down in packed cars from new york the preceding friday, picking up liquor and water jugs at gas stations along the way. my coach maura put me in at wing for fifteen minutes of our second game on saturday.

on april 1st, i wrote a quick facebook status on the M train home after practice:

God, I was in a terrible mood all day and rugby practice just made me feel like I was full of honey and trombones (thanks for the phrasing, Anis Mojgani). It’s early in the season, but so far I love this weirdly beautiful, stupidly violent sport.

i came on in the second half, my heart beating hot and wet in my neck as i slapped the starting winger’s sweaty hand. i was named the MVP of the match afterwards, much to my surprise (i must have blacked out the 40 minutes i had spent on the pitch): my coach called me a tackling machine. i still have pictures of me wearing the “rookie suit” (a bright orange onesie) after the game.

my most recent game was this past fall, more than two years since i had last stepped onto a pitch. in many ways, it was identical to the last: another game at randall’s island, pulling on a tight sweaty jersey in new york orange & blue. that time, however, i took to the field with the men’s team. it rained hard that entire afternoon in august, but when the sun came out, my teammate (and our starting scrumhalf) gave me his bucket hat to wear. i had forgotten my cleats at home and hadn’t really expected to play, so when my coach stu told me to “boot up” and sub in for one of our wingers i was shocked.