Rugby gave me hope by Verity Smith
Updated: Jan 10
Let’s focus on the word ‘rights’.
We all have a human right to participation in sport. We need to support, we need to be seen and we need to challenge the myths that we are not able to participate in sport and physical activity. Whether it be real barriers or perceived barriers that stop us. The more we as a community get involved, we are showing we have a human right to participate, we have a right to educate and we have a right to be involved. Let's be the best version of ourselves and I don't mean just through transitioning, however that may look for someone. Or about disabilities that limit us. But about being our best selves for our mental health and our physical health. Sport doesn't just teach you the skills. It also teaches you social skills, compassion, self-worth - it gave me a family.
I am a proud trans man and ex female rugby player in both codes (Union and League). In 2018, I was in transition and still playing women’s rugby when I was assaulted on the rugby pitch during a game and had blood spat in my mouth. I was outed over social media and my story was sold to the press.
I've also been removed off the pitch and told I was a danger to women. I have been refused entry into my own changing rooms and toilets by the opposition. For anyone wondering, I would rather have played there than be told I could no longer play at all and have my world pulled away from me.
I thought that was it and I wouldn't be allowed to play again. But I was wrong. Everyone in my rugby family stood up and supported me. They pushed for changes and challenged the powers that be for my right to carry on playing during transition. I was told I could either let these people win, or I could turn everything that happened into a positive.
I went on to win the national ‘Prop Star’ award. I
was the first transgender person to be nominated nationally and won by a public vote. Winning it meant the world to me, showing that inclusion is moving forward and that as a trans person in sport, that people will get behind and support. It gave me a platform to show the next generation to not give up on what they love.
I have been given some amazing opportunities which I am proud to be moving forward with.
But then disaster struck 18 months ago. I took a bad tackle in a match whilst out on loan. My spinal cord was crushed, which resulted in nerve damage to my left leg and foot, and issues in my spine. I thought everything was over. I went on to have spinal surgery and then further leg and foot reconstruction. My heart sank when I got the news major nerves had died and that I would never play the running version of the game anymore. My mental health dropped and thoughts rushed through my head. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wasn't Verity without rugby, so who was I?
I didn’t cope well asking for help and fought against everything, losing part of myself along the way. I thought coming out as a gay trans man was hard but this was another level to overcome. I started wearing leg braces; night and day ones, air boots and finally using a wheelchair for parts of my day. It was so hard to drag the weight around and I just dropped into a mental black hole.
I saw an advert for a wheelchair rugby team and part of me came back to life. But I was scared; what would they think of me? Would they accept me? What if I was no good? The thought of the chair scared me even more. It took me six months to write a message to the club. I wanted to so many times but I was scared they would say no and I could have something taken away from me again. The first message I sent was, “can I play because I'm trans?”
Eventually after a few months of messaging my best mate’s wife took me to a training night. Soon as the rugby wheelchair came into sight I burst into tears. I turned and started to walk away. I couldn’t do this. Why was this happening to me? I wanted my life back.
But life has now changed. I joined in the session and everyone made me feel welcome. The first pass of the ball was like the feeling of being home for me and a spark of warmth for the first time in a long time. I was having feelings and emotions again other than just feeling pain and fear since the accident.
I may have lost the life I had but I am trying to find new ways through and how to adapt so that rugby, a game I am so passionate about, can still be part of me and who I am. Being trans, for me, was a small part of who I am. Rugby was the rest.
Don't give up on who you are and how your life may look now. You can get support if you reach out and you can find new things to get involved in. I have a new team: the Leeds Rhinos wheelchair rugby team and a new family. This is the most inclusive team I have ever had the pleasure to be part of.
The world is changing. Don't give up. We are here to show we do exist, we are human, and that as a society and a community we need to educate and not discriminate. Though gender, sexuality and disability are only but a small part of who we are.
Don't give up on the things you love. Or yourself.
For anyone wanting to get involved in rugby:
Find your local team and make contact. It’s about where you feel comfortable playing as there are so many versions to pick from: tag rugby, touch rugby, wheelchair rugby.
Wheelchair rugby is mixed gender and mixed ability, including able bodied players and anyone on the gender spectrum. It really is open to everyone and everyone is welcomed.
If you want to play the mainstream game, make contact with a club and find out their guide lines. Remember every case is individual so don’t assume you will be turned away! For more info, get in contact with the RFU and RFL governance teams.
Also check out https://inclusiverugby.com/
Give it a go! It could be the best thing you ever do. I have played 28 years now and I would take every break and injury to be able to do it all over again.
If anyone has any queries or questions I'm happy to answer anything that comes up or help support find a team or applications.