England Sevens players defiant in pursuit of following Tokyo Olympics dream

Kate Rowan
·5-min read
Holly Aitchison (left to right), Deborah Fleming and Amy Wilson-Hardy have the Tokyo Games in their sights - GETTY IMAGES
Holly Aitchison (left to right), Deborah Fleming and Amy Wilson-Hardy have the Tokyo Games in their sights - GETTY IMAGES

Members of the women’s England Sevens squad have vowed to train for the Tokyo Olympics even if they lose their central contracts at the end of this month and are forced to seek alternative employment.

Telegraph Sport revealed last week that the Rugby Football Union plans to cut funding for the majority of England Sevens players, even though they are likely to make up the bulk of the Team GB sevens sides due to compete in the Games next year.

Many in the women’s squad feel their only option is to make a temporary switch to XVs and play in the Premier15s to keep up competitive rugby. With the English women’s top tier still mainly amateur, however, players are also seeking full-time employment or educational opportunities.

Deborah Fleming, who was part of England’s bronze-medal winning side at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, has talked of “struggling” emotionally over the past few months, but that has only strengthened her resolve to push towards Tokyo.

“For me, it was like heartache, I had heartache about the Olympics being postponed,” she said. “I had a heartache because you have to realise you may not be selected and come next year I may not be able to maintain the fitness, strength, power, speed and skill set to contend anymore for a position because I am going to be working full time.”

Unlike the majority of Olympic sports, sevens does not receive any funding from UK Sport.

With the RFU projecting losses between £73 million and £107 million for this financial year, players were advised to explore other options between now and the resumption of the Sevens World Series in the new year.

Fleming, 29, who first took up sevens in 2012 having represented the South-West in netball and athletics, says that she has secured a “nine-to-five role” in the corporate world and will be working 40-hour weeks. “I recognise the challenges of going into full-time employment and how that is going to have a large impact on my training ability and the kinds of sessions I can get done, but I think everybody recognises that you have to pay bills,” she said.

Fleming and team-mate Amy Wilson Hardy have found themselves in this position before of balancing elite rugby with full-time work or study, but there is a younger cohort in the squad who have only ever known professionalism with the England Sevens programme.

“Deborah, myself and maybe two of the other girls have experienced what it is like not to be a professional athlete, but the majority of these girls have come straight into professional sport,” said Wilson Hardy, who was part of the 2016 Team GB squad who finished fourth in Rio.

“I don’t want to speak out of turn but maybe because it is a younger squad, there is less financial pressure on some of the younger girls but some people do have mortgages to pay and financial stress.”

One of those younger players who looked to be part of the first generation of full-time female rugby professionals in England is 22-year-old Holly Aitchison from Formby.

Aitchison admits that taking on an apprenticeship and part-time job alongside rugby will take some adjustment. “From a younger player’s perspective, we are definitely a bit naive because we have never known anything other than being professional,” she said. “There is also a massive point there that we don’t know what it entails to train and to work. We were anxious.

I was privileged that I was never anything but a professional and I am scared to not be professional.”

Another disadvantage the players will face is being unable to train together regularly over the next five or six months. Fleming said: “You can do weights or running sessions alone but actually it is really important to have those relationships on the pitch and to spend as much time together as possible on the pitch. We are reducing all of that. Ideally, I would like to be still playing with everybody as a collective to keep that going.”

Sports Briefing
Sports Briefing

With the players on furlough since March, the psychological strain has impacted them in different ways. Wilson Hardy struggled on what would have been the day of the Olympic opening ceremony but says she had been experiencing some anxiety around weight loss in lockdown. “There is a lot to the emotional roller coaster. For me I am five kilos lighter than I was at the start of lockdown. That isn’t good for a rugby player; don’t read that like, ‘Oh, it is great, she has lost weight’. I will be trying my best to put that back on,” she said.

“That has almost been more of an effect up here (in her head) than with my body and we are lucky none of us have been affected by coronavirus.

“There is more to it than the physical health, for me personally there is also the mental challenge, the mental health and keeping happy in myself albeit being on this journey not knowing what is going to happen. The future is so uncertain.”

Wilson Hardy strikes a note of defiance. “We are not here to plea for anything, we are here to tell our story and to show that, like how everyone is struggling in their own ways, we are overcoming and we will overcome,” she says. “We are still excited at the prospect of the Olympics but it is a lot more challenging now but we will find a way to do it.”