The synchro swimmer changing rugby for good

How did a Kiwi synchronised swimmer become the global head of women’s rugby? Suzanne McFadden talks to Katie Sadleir, who’s responsible for empowering women in rugby, inspired by young girls from Mongolia to Uganda and Syria.

Twelve-year-old Ugandan Lucky Nirere is one incredible young woman.

She started playing tag rugby at the age of two, and began coaching the sport as soon as she started primary school.

At nine, she represented Uganda at the 2015 Rugby World Cup as a ball deliverer, leading the Australian and Welsh men’s sides onto the field at Twickenham.

Now, as she starts high school, Nirere is a coach educator - working with 50 grassroots rugby coaches – and is proudly “the best junior referee in Uganda”.

Nirere hopes to follow her mother, Fortunate, into the Ugandan national women’s rugby team, the Lady Cranes. Only then, will she be allowed to play rugby in boots – not bare feet.

Although they are 6500km apart, and have never met in person, Nirere and Katie Sadleir – a Kiwi Olympian living in Dublin - have become firm friends.

And although Sadleir represented New Zealand in synchronised swimming, winning a Commonwealth bronze medal, it’s rugby that’s brought the two together.

It’s girls like Nirere who inspire and drive Sadleir in her role as World Rugby’s first general manager of women’s rugby.

“She’s so passionate about rugby and what she’s doing in the game. It’s just amazing,” Sadleir says of Nirere, who she was introduced to her by Regina Lunyolo Okoit, the manager of the Lady Cranes.

When Sadleir sent some World Rugby paraphernalia to Nirere - like a backpack, and a diary - she sent back a video of herself unwrapping the gifts in front of her village. “She’s such a special kid – I thanked for being such an inspiration,” Sadleir says.

Encouraging young women around the world like Nirere to play and stay in the game, by giving her opportunities on and off the field, is all part of Sadleir’s brief to accelerate the global development of women in rugby.

The women’s game is already growing at an astounding rate.

In New Zealand alone, female players rose to 27,838 this season - with 3500 new players signing up. NZ Rugby’s head of women’s development, Cate Sexton, put the almost 15 percent growth down to more resources being poured into the women’s game here.

Globally, it’s a similar success story. Since 2013, the number of female rugby players has increased by 60 percent, so more than a quarter of the 9.1 million people who play rugby are women and girls.  

While Sadleir wants to ensure that growth remains healthy, another of her goals is to strengthen the 15s game. “There’s been this question: should women’s rugby be sevens only, especially since it became an Olympic sport? Is that the game to follow?” says Sadleir, during a visit home for New Zealand Rugby’s inaugural Women in Governance Conference.

“But [World Rugby chairman] Bill Beaumont has been adamant that 15s is the DNA of the game, which is a great message.”

One way is to build the traditional game is to close the gap in winning margins between countries that qualify for the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup (which New Zealand and Australia are bidding to host). World Rugby has just reviewed the high performance programmes of the top 22 women’s unions, and are looking at ways to lift the competitiveness of the bottom six nations.

There’s also a review into the international calendar to ensure there are more tournaments for the 15s women’s sides – which could mean more regional competitions.

“One of the challenges we have as a sport globally is that there are so many different formats of rugby – 15s, sevens, even snow and beach rugby. And we’re responsible for them all,” she says.

Yep, snow rugby is a sport - and it’s played by women. As part of developing the new strategy for the global women’s game, Sadleir went to Mongolia, where they play snow rugby.

It was there she saw little girls in Mongolian orphanages running around dressed in Hong Kong team rugby gear. 

Asia is a real focus for rugby expansion. Sadleir has spoken to the general manager of Syrian Rugby about the future of the game there. Syria’s women’s sevens team made their international debut in a tournament in Lebanon earlier this year.

“It’s really opened my mind to the challenges women and girls around the world face to play rugby,” Sadleir says.

Katie Sadleir sees herself as a "myth buster" in World Rugby. “When I started, people said ‘There’s no way World Rugby will have women on its council’. Now there are 17."

Sadleir admits she’s never played a game of rugby in her 54 years. She was a water baby.

Born in Scotland, and raised in Canada, Sadleir came to New Zealand with her family as a teenager, and immersed herself in synchronised swimming and water polo. She went to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in synchronised swimming with her sister Lynette, and won bronze for her solo routine at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Eight years later, Sadleir returned to the New Zealand team as their deputy chef de mission for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada - the beginning of an illustrious career in sports administration.

When she received a Sport New Zealand lifetime achievement award two years ago, her citation described her as “the architect of many of the systems and programmes fundamental to the high performance sport system in New Zealand today”.

She led the establishment of the New Zealand Academy of Sport in the late 1990s, and had ground-breaking roles in SPARC. But her career has been all about sport - she had major leadership roles at ACC and Wellington City Council; and was the project director at Te Auaha, the New Zealand Institute of Creativity in Wellington, when the rugby job came up.

“When I won the lifetime achievement award, it made me feel like I had more to give to sport,” she says. “Two weeks later, the job at World Rugby came to my attention. And it’s been fascinating ever since.”

Since synchro swimming and rugby are poles apart, is she amazed at where she’s ended up? “Yeah!” she laughs. “But I’ve always been a career planner. I did a plan at 45, and decided I wanted to get involved in using sport for social change. From that perspective, this job ticked a lot of boxes.”

Part of her unofficial job title is “myth buster”, she says. “When I started, people said ‘There’s no way World Rugby will have women on its council’. Now there are 17.

“I came to work in an organisation which had been governed since 1886 by a council of men. Thirty men were on the highest decision-making council, and not a single woman. We were at the bottom of the pecking order,” she says.

Last year, World Rugby created a new strategic direction – that by 2025, women in rugby would have equity on and off the field, through the five pillars of participation, performance, leadership, profile and investment.

When the discussion moved to leadership, and setting quotas for unions, Sadleir spoke up. “I said, ‘You know what you guys? We cannot start setting quotas for people around the globe unless we address the elephant in the room – what’s happening at World Rugby’,” she says.

Beaumont agreed, and led a drive to create dramatic change - increasing the council by 17 members, and all of them women. “We went from zero to 35 percent in the first year,” says Sadleir.

She knows she has some work to do to help balance the boards of the world’s rugby unions. A World Rugby survey of six regional associations and 14 unions around the globe showed only one had 33 percent women on its board – the recognised percentage for effective impact. New Zealand Rugby has just one woman – Dr Farah Palmer – among its nine board members.

“Canada made a change this year to have a minimum 40 percent of either gender on their boards,” Sadleir says. “It’s rolling a lot faster than I expected. My role is very much to support and encourage those changes.”

It’s also Sadleir’s job to look at “great things” happening globally in women’s sport and learn from other codes.

She has a close working relationship with fellow Kiwi, Sarai Bareman, the chief women’s football officer for FIFA. “We were appointed around the same time, and we made a commitment to share and engage with each other,” Sadleir says. They also catch up regularly with former English cricketer Holly Colvin, who’s the women’s cricket manager for the ICC. 

Sadleir is also trying to ensure accountability lies in the right place for women’s development in rugby. At a forum in Thailand this December, she’s bringing together all women in unions across Asia to “expand their mindset about what’s happening in global rugby – men and women.”

“I’m always very conscious of the fact that these people are not there to represent women in rugby; they are there for rugby,” she says.

“I’m really trying to emphasise they aren’t women’s issues, they are sports issues. Everyone owns the issues. And if I do my job well, normalising women in rugby, ultimately I’ll make myself redundant.”

But until that day, Sadleir is revelling in her role, and happy living in Dublin. The global nature of the job brings her back home often to see her daughter, Abbey.

“It’s the most amazing job because you get to influence people everywhere,” Sadleir says. “I’ve been really fortunate in my sporting career; I’ve been to the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. But what drove me into this job wasn’t necessarily the glitz and glamour of the World Cups or the Sevens series. It was what rugby does to people’s lives globally. It’s truly incredible.”

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