I recently spoke to the England Sevens Rugby player, Deborah Fleming, all about her unique way of getting into the sport through the Power2Podium program, her Olympic dream, her strong Christian faith and how that intersects with her sport, whether she considers herself a role model for young women of colour and most topically, how the recent move to cut the 7s programme has affected her and her career.
Tell me a bit about your experience with sport when you were growing up. I read that you grew up in a small Cornish village, tell me about that!
Yes, I grew up in a small village called Heamoor in Cornwall. I was always very active just because I lived by the beach and in Cornwall, it’s generally all about the great outdoors, so mum and dad always encouraged us to be outside. I lived on a cul-de-sac, and I was the youngest around, so I just learnt to keep up with the older kids when we were playing.
Athletics was always on our TV! I always knew I was fast because of sports day every year, where I’d always be faster than the boys. It was at age 9 that I said, “I want to run like the people I see on TV.” When I said that to my dad, he just said “that’s fine but that’s going to take a lot of work.” That notion didn’t bother me – I was happy to train, so my dad started training me. I started competing with my local Athletics club, doing 100m, 200m, long jump and high jump. At college in Truro, I continued doing Athletics, but I also took up Netball. After 2 years of playing, I had England Netball trials. I then went to the University of Bath and played Netball and I loved it. Ultimately, Netball retaught me all my hand-eye that had perhaps been neglected slightly whilst I concentrated on Athletics. But eventually, I stopped playing Netball to focus on Athletics again in my 2nd year and I got really strong. In my 3rd year, I then did the Power to Podium program and this is where I discovered Rugby.
So you discovered Rugby as part of a talent identification program. Had you ever considered it before and if you had, what were your reservations?
I knew Rugby because of Cornwall, and how popular it is there. But there were never any provisions for girls, so I didn’t really consider playing it. When I was at Truro College, the boys’ team were very successful, so I used to continually watch it and support them. In that sense, I understood it from that side of things, but I wasn’t great on the rules and obviously had never played it. At college, we played a lot of Aussie Rules because it was a game we could play with boys and girls, considering there was only me and one other girl on my sports course.
Ultimately, I had an understanding of elite sport and I always knew that I wanted to be an elite athlete. My character is very drilled and I’m very disciplined. In fact, I bumped into an old teacher 4 or 5 years ago, and she said that aged 5, I said to her that I was going to represent my country in a sport.
That being said, if you’d have said to me aged 13, “you’re going to play Rugby for England”, I would have stopped playing sport! But everything I did made me the rugby player I am today. Obviously, running and power are big parts of game, and from Athletics, I had those. But for me, Netball was one of the most important sports for my development – it’s completely underrated. Not only did it teach me great hand-eye, in relation to Rugby, it’s brilliant in the way in confines your decision making.
The actual Power to Podium program is interesting. You apply, and then you’re invited to testing days. When I quit Athletics, it was my Athletics coach that encouraged me to apply because he shared my belief that it was my purpose to complete in elite level sport, whether that be Athletics or Rugby. I was in a 2-hour testing slot, which was completely savage. Whilst queuing, Susie Appleby, who at the time was an assistant coach for the England Women’s sevens, tapped me on my shoulder and took my details.
From there, she got in contact, and I watched videos of 7s highlights and realised I’m about Rugby. Ultimately, stopping Athletics was a really difficult decision for me because I’d always thought it was my Olympic dream. But I had to fill this gap with a different sport and that’s what Rugby was. In a way, although I never expected to be playing Rugby, it was freeing to just let what happen happened. I was the actually the only one ever to be contracted from that original group of talent identified athletes.
Did you have an ‘ideal body type’ for Rugby? Does that notion of an ‘ideal body type’ annoy you?
I suppose I do. I mean, Susie Appleby tapped me on the shoulder largely because of my body type. My build is one that could go across many sports, and although I’m not as tall as I would have hoped, my arm span is ridiculous.
I’m lucky because I’ve always thought of body quite positively. I’ve always seen body features like my long arm span as beneficial for sport, rather than ‘unfeminine’ as such. To be honest, I’d always stuck out in Cornwall, because I was the only black or mixed-race girl in the school!
When do you think was your first big break with Rugby?
It was definitely when the talent transfer merged with the England Development 7s. It was so nerve-racking! A small group of walked onto the pitch, and down the other end were the Squad training. We thought, “we can’t do that!” But the players and the coaching staff had amazing patience with us, and I think that’s because we all had a good attitude of getting stuck in. If they told us to run, we ran. If they told us to lift weights, we lifted weights.
At this level, I got to do lots of tournaments. In particular, the 2013 World University Games tour changed the course of my adult life. I had an amazing time and I remember thinking I love this sport. That was definitely when I found my feet as a player and thought this is what I’m going to do.
I got into the main England squad the next month. However, after 4 days after this announcement, I dislocated my knee and ruptured my ACL, so was dropped from the system. I was devastated but if didn’t have tour prior to that, I think I would have given up Rugby. Because I realised my love and commitment for it, I didn’t mind doing the hard graft to recover quickly and get back to it. It took a year’s recovery before playing back in the Premiership and two years to get back into contention for England selection and get contracted.
Is Rugby 7s something you do on an international level but not at a domestic level?
Previously until the dismantled program, you would be contracted and employed by the RFU and compete on the World Series. We weren’t allowed to play 15s for 4 years. We would be away so much, and when we weren’t, we would be training Monday to Friday, normal working hours, with the men based at same place.
Can you tell me a bit about the RFU’s plans to cut funding for the majority of 7s players with the Olympics being delayed? How does the funding work? Do you have another job?
With the postponement of the Olympics, the whole Rugby 7s program has been dismantled and I believe this is permanent. It’s devastating because going from the Olympics being your sole focus in life, to now possibly not having that and having to find a full-time job, it’s been a lot. I think all the 7s girls have now gone to 15s club and many are playing in Allianz Premiership.
I now work as a General Manager for the Gym Group, and I’m fortunate that they have always supported my playing for Saracens alongside that, but the transition to 15s has been difficult. We still want to go to the Olympics, whenever that may be so it’s difficult trying to maintain 7s fitness whilst doing 15s training.
How important is life off the pitch for you? I notice you’re an RPA Player Representative. What does that involve?
So important. I used to joke about when you actually breakdown what Rugby is. We’re just chasing a sack full of air around, but it is entertainment! It has an amazing ability to influence and motivate and inspire. But you have to realise that that ability to influence doesn’t just come from playing. You have to do the rest – the human side of it. You realise that the legacy you leave is way more important than your day-to-day playing career.
How do you see women’s rugby going forward? What are your opinions on equalising the women’s game? E.g. playing back-to-back, kit launches at the same time. What’s your opinion on the women’s Six Nations being delayed?
I’m excited about the future of women’s rugby. I’m happy to see it progress and I love championing it when it’s on TV. I go between that excitement and also that real frustration and anger that it’s still not on par with men. When I think about having children, I want my little girl, if I had one, to think her journey with Rugby or sport would be the same as her brother’s. I’m excited for the development of it but I still do expect more. We can never just sit back and be satisfied.
I’m not an ideas girl but moving the Six Nations I think is a good idea. During the men’s Six Nations, there’s so much Rugby on, and this leads to rugby fatigue for the women’s game. People are already choosing between watching the Scotland game or the Wales game, we can’t then expect them to choose between all the women’s game.
More generally with the women’s game, we have to be doing actual action and making practical steps forward. We firstly need investors. When you look at the women’s game like a business, you have to realise that when you start a new business, it takes a while to even break even. You have to take that hit to eventually get success. The problem is people don’t see the women’s game as a business in this way.
I feel at the moment, it’s a lot of people saying the right things and working behind a bit of a smokescreen. Rugby is still at its core, white and male dominated. People in charge want to keep people oppressed because that’s how it’s always been; the system is built like that.
When you look to create a product, you look to create a product that doesn’t exist, and women’s sport is this gap in the market. But if you’re business-minded and you are not investing in women’s sport, you are not getting the gap in the market. People know men’s sport is there, it’s already been invested in, so leave it to make its own money. Why can’t we, as women, make the same money? That’s why we can’t just sit there and be thankful.
Rugby has a long history, like a lot of sports in this country, of being a very white, middle class sport? Have you been or are you conscious of that?
It’s interesting because I kind of had a personal momentum gain in realising the deep-rooted racial injustices in this country, at the same time that the world did, with the Black Lives Matter movement this year. Prior to this, I’ve definitely had more of an awareness of being a female athlete, over being a black athlete. Now, as a black athlete, people do look to me as a spokesperson of sorts. Part of me that questions that and the motivations behind it, but on the other side of it, it’s important for me to be embracing my race and position, because I’d love a little girl who looks like me to realise she can do what I’ve done if she wishes. I do ultimately believe that being unaware of all the injustices in the world is a choice.
Can you tell me a bit about your faith and how you feel that intersects with your sport?
For me, faith means you believe in purpose and being created for a reason. That includes the way that you’re built, your characteristics, your passions and your talents. For me, the identity side of it is huge. I have my identity in something that is unshakeable. A lot of people put their identity on something that isn’t stable but putting your identity in God is stable. It doesn’t matter what you come up against, a failure isn’t fatal and experiencing a failure doesn’t make you a failure. I believe that you have your false self, e.g. I’m Deborah, I play Rugby and I work for the Gym Group. But my real self is all the deep workings of who I am, and in that way my identity can’t be attached to the other things. I am by no means a perfect Christian. But for my life and my sport, being a Christian helps me to look at my failures and my identity in a specific way.
Do you think your faith has provided you with that sense of optimism and confidence that some athletes lack following setbacks or obstacles in their sport? Do you think that’s why you hear a lot of athletes thanking God in their post-match interview, or someone like Usain Bolt with make the Sign of the Cross before he races, for example?
I think when you are having to overcome something, you realise how insignificant you are. Children should be taught about spirituality rather than religious studies, because society almost anaesthetises you all the time with what it wants you to fear, enjoy, etc. So you never have time to think about your authentic self. In sport, you’re pushed to your brink and your extreme so it might make people realise how insignificant you are.
I see it as God gave me the giftings that I had, but it’s up to you what you do with that. Personally, I decided to apply that. It’s crazy that I made that declaration as a kid that I was going to represent my country in sport. Consciously I couldn’t have come to that decision on my own. It’s an unwavering belief that that is what I’d do with my life, not coincidence. God put that in me from a kid; I don’t consider it an accident.