England rugby union full-back, 2014 World Cup winner, scoring 16 points in the final, and captain of Team GB sevens at the Rio Olympics
Two years ago everything changed for women’s rugby in this country. We won the World Cup in France, but it was not until we arrived back at Heathrow airport that it dawned on me how important that was and what an impact it had had on the country.
Walking through the airport and seeing our story either on the front or back page of every newspaper was incredible. When we were at the World Cup we were a little bit oblivious to all of the coverage. It has become something of a cliche for sportspeople to say they are in a bubble at big tournaments, but it is so true.
We were shut off from the increasing attention the game was getting, but then suddenly to see this was immensely rewarding and uplifting, even if a little weird too at first.
That was the turning point. Smaller steps had been taken before then in women’s rugby, but that was one big step. The exposure we got was unprecedented. It was such an exciting time and we get the opportunity next year to do that all over again when the tournament is held in Ireland.
On the back of 2014 we saw a huge increase in participation. We suddenly saw clubs running age-group sides. For instance at my own club of Lichfield we now have under-13s, under-15s, under-18s before girls move into the seniors.
When I was younger I left playing with the boys at 12 and jumped straight into an under-18 side, which was rather daunting to say the least.
That was such a massive advance. It was not just about having the opportunity to do something you love all day, every day, but being able to spend hours on the little bits of your game, those extras that you just didn’t have time to do when you were working.
When I was teaching PE there was always too much to fit in and often something had to give. Now we also have the time to rest after training, which is also so important.
When I was growing up I could never have dreamt of being a professional rugby player. That is something that is now so exciting for young girls.
They can aspire not just to play rugby but to be a professional too. And, with the introduction of sevens in Rio recently, you can also aspire to be an Olympian. All that makes the game so much more attractive.
But this does not mean that we cannot work harder at improving the game’s standing and reach. Women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, with 26,000 women and girls now playing regular contact rugby and 300 rugby clubs with women’s teams. The targets set by the Rugby Football Union after the World Cup win have been attained, but the numbers can always be improved.
We need continued exposure of the game, not just at international level but at domestic level too. That is where there is still huge scope for development because, after all, that is where we all start. The footballers seem to be doing it pretty well at the moment in terms of their domestic game. It would be very exciting if we could do that too.
It is why Women’s Sport Week is vital. There is huge interest after the Olympics and a lot of the national sides are doing really well. So it is essential we have a week that recognises that and makes these national sides and icons even more visible, so more females can aspire to be a woman in sport.
Four-time Olympic medallist and Women in Sport charity patron
It was sport that gave me my belief in myself. I found something I was confident about, and that has given me so much more than Olympic medals. Just by being involved in sport, I have benefited for life, which is why campaigns such as Women’s Sport Week are so vital.
It is all about inspiration. Women’s Sport Week is really well timed this year to keep the momentum going from the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games, which brought so much more women’s sport to TV than usual. But sport is not only about becoming an Olympic champion: it is a lifestyle. If you are active when you are young, it goes on for the rest of your life.
I know from my role as patron at Women in Sport that girls begin to drop out of sport from a very young age, so it is an important life skill we need to teach girls when they are young, in the same way and to the same level that our society consciously and unconsciously does with boys.
In fact, I am not always a fan of the word ‘sport’ as that implies something that has to be competitive, and that can put people off. It is about a lifestyle: being active, fighting obesity and physical and mental health issues, making friends.
I feel very lucky to be involved in what is a better sport for gender equality than a lot of others. Unlike many sports, in swimming you are taught in mixed gender groups/lessons from the age of three all the way up to adulthood. Men and women receive the same pay in my sport and we are rewarded on ability.
For teenage girls, however, swimming has all the predictable issues that come into play when it comes to drop-out rates. Body confidence, periods, make-up washing away to reveal spotty skin, being half-naked in front of other people, boobs, body changes, leg shaving, wet hair… it all comes with the package for teens and swimming.
But swimming did give me the confidence as a teen to get over that stuff for the sake of a sport I loved. It changed my attitude. My school friends looked great dressed up for school, but my swimming made me comfortable to go to school as me and save dressing-up for when I went out.
I learnt that, in the pool, no one is staring, no one is thinking about what you look like. You realise you are all in the same boat. You get to know those who go regularly, you make friends, and overcoming those barriers together becomes that little bit easier. Swimming can feel comfortable.
I was very conscious of my body as a teenager. I was bigger – “big boned” – had big boobs and weighed the most in my swimming programme. I have the type of genes that meant that I automatically put on weight from just one chocolate bar. So I experienced many of the insecurities and body hang-ups that teenage girls face, and went through these with my sport too, even as an elite.
It has made me passionate about dispelling the idea you cannot be a successful sportsperson if you are not a certain size. But every sport is different, with any and many body types. For swimming, my body was my tool and I tried different things to make it work for me, but when I did weights, I got muscly, so that did not work for me in water.
The biggest hurdle is getting the so-called ‘non-sporty’ girls engaged in sport. How do we do it, with so many potential barriers and fears to trying new things? That is why school visits are so important to inspire young people. I know so many Olympians who go to schools and I did not have that to inspire me growing up.
The visibility of sport for young girls – in our everyday lives, in the media, through more women’s sport on TV –is at the heart of keeping them motivated and engaged, not just every Olympic cycle or for an amazing week out of the year.
Ex-Surrey and England cricketer, 32, turned Test Match Special commentator and Director of Women’s Cricket for the new T20 franchise Surrey Stars in the Kia Super League
I was the first woman on the academy at Surrey, with Jason Roy, Stuart Meaker and Zafar Ansari [all members of England squads]. Gareth Townsend, the director, started hitting balls at me and I said “hold on, I’m a girl” and he said “you’re here to train like everyone else”.
There are fewer opportunities for girls but I have been very lucky. Maybe it was timing, maybe it was the club I was at – I had been around at Surrey since I was 10 so when I went into the academy I was already part of the environment. I know a lot of people have experienced a lot of stuff but I have been with good people who have treated me just like everyone else.
What I have experienced is a lot of comments like “shouldn’t you be in the kitchen?” or “why don’t you use a tennis ball?” from club cricketers or going round the community. I came into the England Women’s team at a stage when Clare Connor had just taken over (as director) and we started getting a lot of support with kit and travel, and I got a Chance to Shine contract. So by nature of playing in a women-only team I think you are protected, but I know it’s not the case for everyone.
I have coached a lot of girls through the years and you can engage girls into softball cricket pretty quickly. If you have got a mix of boys and girls when you bring the hard ball in, you see the boys getting quite excited about the progression, they almost see it as a toughening-up exercise. And you see the girls split – the naturally sporty girls will gravitate that way but the majority will get nervous and you hear girls saying that they feel uncomfortable and they do not want to get hurt.
I fully understand that because I had three elder brothers and I was used to being roughed up with a ball from an early age! I think if you get girls before 10-years-old they are up for it; once they start hitting 12 they start worrying about lots of things – about boys, and how they look, and peer pressure.
On Test Match Special I expected to have more issues but in fact everyone has been great.
I suppose I was lucky because when I went into the box I knew a lot of the players and commentators already, so it was a nice and easy transition. Do not get me wrong though, you definitely get tweets giving you a bit of gyp.
I have to say well done to Adam Mountford (the producer of TMS), because one thing he could have done – which he did not – was make a thing of saying here we are, we have got women in our box and make a big hoo-ha to try and get plaudits. He just seamlessly integrated myself and Isa [Guha], while Ali [Alison Mitchell] was already there before, which made it more natural.
The Kia Super League has been great. You want to see sport normalised for girls, and seeing so many boys watch and support this summer has been a game-changer.
Without doubt girls feel empowered. It normalises the conversation and breaks down so many barriers. I really like the fact that it’s not called the Women’s Super League, it is just called the Super League.
Casey Stoney has won 118 caps for England and played for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics. She plays her club football for Arsenal Ladies
Women’s football in this country has undergone a revolution in the 15 years since I broke through.
When I started out at Chelsea, we played in kits that the men had used the previous season. They were far too big and completely impractical. We also had to pay to play – £3 to train, matches a fiver. I held down a series of jobs in addition to my training and matches.
In the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, for example, I was getting up at 4am to train, doing a full day’s work – and I have had jobs in McDonald’s and betting shops to make ends meet – and then training again afterwards.
Now we are full time and paid and have the right kit. Our profile has gone through the roof and England’s run to the semi-finals in last year’s World Cup made a huge difference to how we are perceived.
The public know who we are now and want to hear our stories, which would never have happened a few years ago. That is not to say things are perfect – far from it. For a start, women’s football is not financially viable yet and we are run at the largesse of the men’s clubs.
In addition, we need more teams and more quality right through the system. It is expanding next year but we had only nine clubs in the Women’s Super League, which really was not ideal – you should never have rest weeks because there is an odd number of teams.
We also only have a maximum of 24 club games a year, which is not enough to develop as we need to, or to be financially sustainable. I would also like to ensure that clubs do not play at the same time as their men’s teams, as many fans cross over. This season, Arsenal Ladies have played at the same time as the men’s team, which means you lose much of your fan base.
I would also like our BBC highlights show to be shown straight after Match of the Day – that would be fantastic.
One particular bugbear of mine is that Manchester United do not have a women’s team. As arguably the biggest team in the country, they should be providing a public service, and I think it is an embarrassment for them that they do not.
I still encounter sexism, but it is now sporadic over social media rather than every day, as it used to be. You see it in other aspects, too – my little girl has to buy small boy’s shinpads, for example, as the major companies do not seem to make them for girls.
But we have come so far, and I can see the day coming where a woman takes a high-profile job at a men’s club. That idea would have been laughed at when I started, when we wore hand-me-downs and had to pay to play.
But we are on the right track, with participation numbers increasing every year, more teams taking up the sport and the national side going from strength to strength. We should celebrate that, and it is essential we make the most of it.