María Pruijn draws power and strength from a sport not known for being played in Mexico, especially by women.
Picture a rugby player. Most people wouldn't immediately envision a young woman. María Pruijn is trying to change that. The 22-year-old photographer and trainee physiotherapist from Mexico City is here to charge down lazy assumptions and crash-tackle everyday sexism. All the raised eyebrows only fuel María's mission to prove to the world that women of all sizes can find their place in the sport.
We meet María on her team's dirt pitch after a rainy training session. As she packs up her kit, we chat about how sport has helped her better understand her role in the world and who she is.
How do people react when they find out you play rugby?
The most common reaction I get is shock—not necessarily negative shock, more like, "Oh! I barely knew that sport existed, much less for girls". I'm fortunate enough to have parents that supported me when I started. I know of other girls who struggled with that, because their dads would tell them that it's a sport for men.
Something I have noticed, though, is that people assume my body isn't built for rugby; they think I'm going to get broken in half on the pitch. But when you start playing, you realise that no body type is an impediment in and of itself. Nearly everyone can fit into one position or another if they train strategically and hard enough.
What position do you play?
My main position is fly-half. In rugby, there are 15 players per team: eight forwards and seven backs. Backs are those that sprint the most, that dodge other players, pass the ball; and forwards are more physical, lots of crashing into other players. My position is kind of like the connection between both parts of the team.
Rugby isn't exactly mainstream in Mexico. How did you get into it?
The first time I learned about rugby was in a cinema in 2009, watching the film Invictus [about the impact of the Rugby World Cup in post-apartheid South Africa]. It sounds like such a cliché, but I saw it on the screen and thought, "Wow, I want to play that!" There were only male players in the film, so I thought maybe it didn't even exist for women. Then, years later, I started high school and rugby was an optional sport you could sign up for, so I did, and I met a friend there who told me she knew a coach outside the school that wanted to form a girls' team to represent Mexico City.
And is this your team's home ground?
We've had others in the past, but this is our training spot now. It's not ideal because it's not actually a pitch designed for rugby. We don't have grass here, and there are no lockers for our bags or equipment, but it's the cheapest we've found and we can train here every day if we want to. It's also in a safe area with good transport connections. As an all-girls team, it's important that we feel safe when we're leaving and that we don't have to walk around in the dark too much to get to the underground. And the rain today, well ... we like to be optimistic. When we get to a match and the pitch is grassy and the weather is nice, we'll say, "This should be a piece of cake!" because we train in such sub-par conditions.
"I can take on anything, and nothing can bring me down".
Why do you enjoy playing rugby?
Feeling capable makes me feel powerful. The idea that I can run faster, that no one will reach me, no one will push me down, that I can tackle someone, hard. Seeing myself as physically capable has made me confident in setting other types of goals in my life. I've always been skinny, and suddenly, to be able to say, "I can tackle anyone, and no one can tackle me", or also, "I can take on anything, and nothing can bring me down", is so exciting and rewarding.
Has rugby changed you in ways that aren’t physical?
So many, mostly because it's a team sport. I always think, "I can get a thousand times better, but that's worthless if it doesn't help my team". And I've learned to apply that mentality to my life in general. I want to be a good person so that I can contribute to the world, not just to pat myself on the back for being a good person. In rugby, if you don't have a team mentality, you won't accomplish anything.