In Shona, a Bantu language spoken by a large percentage of the Zimbabwe population, the name Takunda means “we have overcome, conquered.” And true to that definition, 19-year-old Takunda Rusike is creating a lane for Black women to play a sport that historically has catered to the opposite end of the color spectrum.
According to the Washington Post, Rusike has long had an affinity for rugby, thanks in part to her cousins and uncles in Zimbabwe who taught her the nuances of the game (including one uncle who played for the country’s national team). And after finally playing herself at Towson High School in Maryland’s Baltimore County, after her field hockey coach pushed her to embrace her fate as a rugby player, Rusike has gone on to create the second-ever HBCU women’s team at Howard, with her eyes on making rugby a more accessible sport for Black athletes both locally and throughout the rest of the country.
“It’s growing, and there are definitely more Black women getting into the sport, but when I was playing in Maryland in high school, there was not many Black girls,” Rusike told the Post. “I would really love to create a program where years down the line there are little Black girls who know, ‘I love rugby, and I can play it at Howard.’ ”
While Rusike’s aspirations may be years away, there are others in her community intent on making that dream a reality much sooner.
Carille Guthrie enrolled in Howard over two decades ago, but never thought to start her own rugby team since one didn’t already exist. She instead joined a local club team, the Maryland Stingers, and in the years since has remained involved in the sport as a youth coach. During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, as fans of the sport were unable to play together due to the unprecedented circumstances, she stumbled upon a Facebook group full of ruby players who were Black, Indigenous, or identified as people of color. In those groups, a master plan was hatched to develop more rugby programs at historically Black institutions and universities.
This led to the eventual launch of the James G. Robertson and Clive Sullivan Rugby Foundation (RSRF), which “will provide schools with funding for equipment, uniforms, and travel expenses, as well as establish partnerships with local rugby clubs,” according to its website. It will also assist student-athletes in founding rugby clubs throughout the Washington D.C. metro area, with a pilot program that will develop both men’s and women’s teams at Howard University, in addition to Morgan State University, Bowie State University and the University of the District of Colombia in the upcoming years.
“I travel a lot, internationally and domestically, and whenever I move to a new city I find the local rugby team, and that’s automatically my new group of friends, my new family,” Guthrie, who serves as president of the foundation, told the Post. “I had a smidge of that experience in college, but because I was with the senior women [on her unaffiliated club team], we weren’t really as bonded as it would have been with a college team. I just want the college kids to get that experience from the jump. […] They’ve got the athletes. The talent is there on campus. They just need to be provided with the opportunity to play.”
This two-pronged approach could create a seismic shift in the popularity of the sport and has already yielded immediate results.
From the Washington Post:
Guthrie and her group began fundraising on behalf of both [the women’s and men’s] teams. She serves as a de facto adviser and helps lobby Howard’s administration on their behalf, most notably supporting the effort to classify the women’s team as an officially sanctioned NCAA program.
“I want us to be a force to be reckoned with. I want us to be a topic of conversation,” Rusike told the Post. “In the next two to three years, when people talk about the top women’s rugby teams—when they’re talking about the Penn States, the Lindenwoods, the Life Universities—I want Howard to be in those discussions.”
Call it a hunch, but with hyper-focused women like Rusike and Guthrie at the helm, I like their odds. To learn more about how you can support the amazing work that the James G. Robertson & Clive Sullivan Rugby Foundation is doing, check out their website.