ATHLETE SERIES

We are speaking to Athletes in women’s sport about their joureys.

CATHERINE SPENCER

Ex England International Rugby Player

STACEY FRANCIS

England Netball Player

Kirsty Gordon

Scottish Cricket Player

Catherine Spencer

This week, the Women’s Sports Alliance had the pleasure of chatting to women’s rugby legend and former England captain, Catherine Spencer. From World Cup heartache, to becoming an author, to finding joy in a new career,  Spencer spoke of the highs and lows of being an elite rugby player and shared her thoughts on the current state of the women’s game in England.

Spencer’s route into rugby began at an early age. Like many others to have played the sport, she attributes her rugby-oriented family to have been the main driving force behind her career. Having watched her father, elder brother, and twin brother all play for local club Folkestone, it was seemingly inevitable that Spencer herself would play rugby too.

To begin with, Spencer played mini-rugby alongside her twin brother for Folkestone, doing so for three or four seasons. However, when she was just eleven years old, Spencer was forced to stop participating, as there were no girls rugby sides to play for. Spencer explained, “Youth rugby for girls didn’t exist back then, it wasn’t a thing. So, I finished playing at eleven , thinking that I wouldn’t play again until I was a lot older.” Thankfully for Spencer, her wait to return to the sport lasted only three years, as her local club Folkestone set up a Ladies side, where aged just fourteen, she began to play senior rugby, 

Aside from family, Spencer spoke of the role that two high-profile female athletes played in inspiring her to embark on a career in sport. She revealed, “When I was growing up there were a lot less females in sports media, but in the wider context, Sally Gunnell was a female sporting heroine, and she was one female athlete that was in the (public) eye as an Olympic Hurdler. I quite liked the way she was this amazing athlete , and she seemed like a really down to earth woman, who also went to work.”  

In terms of inspirational figures within rugby, Spencer was quick to herald former England Captain Gill Burns, for being one of her early role models. She added, “As I was getting older, I was starting to hear about women’s rugby and see it , and I remember seeing Gill Burns on this programme called Rugby Special every Sunday. I was around 15 or 16 at the time, and thought she was pretty amazing, and had hopes that I could be like that one day.” As it so happened, Spencer’s career would take her to the pinnacle of women’s rugby, as just as her hero Gill Burns, she became England Captain.  

Spencer’s journey to the captaincy was far from easy, enduring many challenges and moments of uncertainty along the way. When asked to describe her course to the captaincy, Spencer smiled, and said, “When I first started playing mini-rugby, I didn’t know that women played at that level, I didn’t know that England had a (women’s) team.  For me, really I just wanted to get to the next step. “ 

She continued, “It was very much a step by step route into the England team. It took quite a while for me to gain confidence as a rugby player, but also as a person. I started to feel that I should be there and started to get myself to do more things; being a player rep and things like that. After Sue Day retired in 2007, I thought ‘I could do this, I could be a leader’.” Soon after, Spencer was named England captain, going on to lead her country through a host of standout moments, including a World Cup Final, and several Six Nations tournaments, to name but a few. 

When asked to name her top highlight from her career, Spencer paused, let out a brief sigh, and replied, “This is always such a difficult question, because I have so many highlights… I have one from mini-rugby when I remember catching what felt like a massive up and under kick. I caught the ball and ran with it, which felt so good.” 

She added, “(In terms of England) If I had to pick out one, it would have to be beating New Zealand in 2009 at Twickenham. For me, it was my fiftieth cap as well, so it was all timed quite nicely.  It was the first time I had beaten them, as England we hadn’t beaten them since 2001, so individually, and for the squad, that was a highlight.” 

While Spencer enjoyed plenty of success during her career, namely those occasions when she represented her country, she also endured plenty of struggles.  Speaking of what she believes to have been the biggest challenge of her career, Spencer affirmed, “There’s a few, not loads, I was fortunate to win lots of times with England, but it has to be losing in 2010(the Rugby World Cup Final). When we lost the World Cup Final in 2006, I was really disappointed, I felt really devastated at the time, but losing in 2010 was the emotion from 2006 multiplied by about a million times, because I really felt like we should have won that game. I was captain as well, which added another different dimension.”

In describing the difference between the two World Cup Final heartaches, Spencer clarified, “I pretty much knew at the time that I probably would not go to another World Cup (after 2010), so that was my low point. Now eleven years on, I’m still trying to deal with that…. Probably never fully will. In all honesty, it’s the obvious one, but that’s the definite low point.” 

Given that she had a career that spanned such high triumphs and such devastating defeats, it was only natural that Spencer would one day turn to telling her story, to  attempt to chronicle the emotional rollercoaster that encompassed her career. In February last year, Spencer did exactly that, by sitting down to write her autobiography, entitled ‘Mud, Maul, Mascara: When fighting for a dream can make you and break you’.  

When asked to describe the experience of writing something so revealing and personal as an autobiography, Spencer said, “I wrote the book for two reasons; firstly, for me, because I felt the need package my career up, and secondly, to try to help redress the balance, to encourage more female books to be on the shelves in bookstores. “ She continued, “It talks a lot about losing the World Cup and having to deal with those emotions. I talk a lot about being a woman playing rugby, and the need to want to be a woman, and being happy about being a woman. But also, the difference that comes because of that, both financially and emotionally, and comparing myself to male counterparts.” 

More than a decade on from retiring from the game, Spencer has continued to work in rugby, often appearing as a commentator and studio pundit on men’s and women’s fixtures for broadcast television and participating in charity projects for the Tag Rugby Trust. Having seen such change happen within rugby since she began playing, Spencer believes that the future looks bright for the sport. She noted, “Men’s rugby turned professional in the 90s, women’s rugby was obviously a long way behind that, and is just starting to creep into professionalism. I think we are fortunate in England with the structure and infrastructure we’ve got.”

Yet, in spite of the huge progress made in rugby since her retirement, Spencer was adamant that she would not swap her career for that of a current player, as she valued the balance between working and playing.  She stated, “ I think about this a lot, would I have wanted to be a full time rugby player? And my answer is definitely no. I would have been quite happy to have been a part time rugby player, I would love to have been paid so that I could train properly, so I could sleep properly, so I could organise my life properly, but I would always want something else there. “

While her passion for rugby is unwavering, in moving away from the game, Spencer has truly come into her own.  She explained, “I ran my speaker agency, Inspiring Women, for a number of years , I set that up and ran that since I retired… I got married and had a daughter, and now I’m doing a career change. I’m training to be a teacher at the moment. “ Spencer concluded, “ I’ve always had to work, I never got paid to play rugby, so I’ve always worked different jobs, but it’s brought all of that together and I’m absolutely loving teaching at the moment, and being in the classroom, both virtually and face to face.”

Stacey Francis

For the majority of girls nowadays, picking up a netball happens in primary school, where High 5 netball has been developed. However, in some instances this is still not the case.

Stacey Francis first picked up a netball at the age of 14, where she joined a club outside of school which her friends attended. One of the key reasons she joined the club was due to extremely positive reviews on the coach, which to this day, Francis is still in contact with regularly. Francis enjoyed the fun and competitive environment and started to accelerate quite quickly. 19 years later, Stacey looks back at her decorated career. She has been in the English Rose senior squad for 11 years, 2x Commonwealth Games Bronze medallist, 2x Bronze World Cup medallist, represented Team Bath for 10 years and is in her 5th season for West Coast Fever, competing in the Suncorp Super Netball League in Australia.

When asked about how Stacey juggles England duty and living on the other side of the world, Francis explained how the pathway has evolved over the last 6 years to allow the most experienced athletes to play in Australia. “Playing in the Australian League has massive benefits. It has given me the opportunity to be a professional netballer. The financial offer of my contract and the quality of netball trumped the offers I had in the UK as netball is still in its infancy in England. Playing in Australia means we can learn and bring back new skills which has massive benefits and a big impact on results.” The pathway consists of three strands:

P1 – full time England members

P2 – Roses based overseas – currently there are 7 squad members in Australia and 1 in New Zealand

P3 – trial outside of the system

Francis proceeded to state that netball is night and day to when she started. “I was 16 when I first signed for a club. I had never been payed to play in England, but now there is a minimum payment for the English Super League teams and Roses are National Lottery funded.” In 2006, Stacey chose to study Sports Performance at Bath University after being talent identified as “someone who would be the future talent for the 2009 World Youth Cup.” Bath University was the only place running a full-time netball programme alongside studying at this time. Although the netballer is a huge advocate for pursuing off court ambitions and having a back-up plan, Stacey enjoys being able to focus her full attention to netball and believes the full-time programme is allowing girls to develop.

“I hope that the highlight of my career hasn’t been and gone yet” Francis stated. “Birmingham is my home town, so I want to go to the Commonwealth Games in 2022. I chose not to be available at the last CWG where they won gold, so I want to win it in my home city.” Stacey also wants to win the Suncorp SNL. “We have placed second, 2 out of the 4 seasons I have had with West Coast Fever. I am so motivated to go that one step further this year.” Francis recalled on last season’s narrow loss. “The whole season was a huge challenge emotionally and physically. The world was going through a pandemic and for the season to get off the ground, it was carried out in a hub situation. We moved our team to the opposite side of the country to Brisbane for 3 months in order to compete in a condensed season. In some weeks we were playing up to 3 games in 11 days, which was a huge challenge, on top of being away from creature comforts and playing on an injury the whole season.”

When asked whether there were any low points in her career, the English Rose pondered on the series of events that led to her stepping away from the programme and not putting herself in contention for the CWG (where England won gold). “I remember not being a very nice person in that environment and I didn’t appreciate the opportunity that it is to step on court and represent my country. Reaching that point was a real low point, but I had to do it for my mental and physical wellbeing. To do a full circle and step back into a red dress, be in contention to represent again and for it to mean so much more, I feel really privileged to have earnt that opportunity back.”

“The best advice I was given that changed my philosophy and mentality as an athlete was when you play a team sport, it’s very easy to go along and do the team things and play at your team mates intensity, but it’s really important to have clarity over your values as an individual. Know what your strengths are and bring the team along with you on the things you’re good at, but also draw from your team mates on the things you aren’t as good at.”

Kirsty Gordon

Growing up in Huntley, a small town in the North of Scotland, Kirstie Gordon was a kid who played lots of sport. Her main interests being cricket and football. By the age of 14, Gordon had represented her county in both football and cricket, but came to a realisation that she could not pursue both forever. The left-arm leg spin bowler decided that cricket was the sport to choose. She believed she was better at it and evidently, this decision has paid off.

 

Kirstie went on to represent the Scotland Senior team after making her way up the pathway, attending a few competitions for her country. When Gordon relocated to Loughborough University to study, her thoughts became flooded with various scenarios. Should she continue to represent Scotland (an amateur setup) or push to play for England and the domestic league (professional/semi-professional setup) set-up. Kirstie chose the England route as she wanted the opportunity to play cricket full time and so fair “it has paid off.”

 

When speaking of the new regional based cricket hubs, Kirstie exclaimed that “it’s hard to see what it’s done so far, but what it will do will be huge. It gives more girls the opportunity to focus purely on cricket. You’ve now got 40 professionals based all around the country and if you miss out on a tour, you can drop back into an elite programme and continue to train with a team rather than by yourself. It is fantastic to have so many more girls able to focus purely on cricket and developing.”

 

Following on from this, we asked Kirstie what her thoughts were on the coverage of women’s cricket. “I think women’s sport in general doesn’t get the coverage it deserves”. Gordon went on to explain that the coverage for women’s cricket significantly decreases when the men are touring at the same time. This was apparent on the most recent tour to New Zealand, where there seemed to be minimal visibility on social media channels. Kirstie would like there to be more of a concerted effort from media outlets and the ECB to post similar amounts of content for both teams in the future.

 

As women’s cricket grows, Gordon could see the national team having separate social media accounts, similarly to the Lionesses. However, she believes for now it is important to grow the game and “being on the main cricket page, with over 1.5 million followers, is important to increase awareness and the publicity needed to grow the game.” Relating back to women’s sport in general, Gordon believes that TV coverage is the best way to increase and inspire the next generation. “It’s fine for us who are going to go out of our way to find links and streams to watch the games, but the average person who isn’t already interested in women’s sport, they’re not going to do that. But if they are flicking through the channels, or hearing it on the radio or in the newspaper, they are more likely to have a look. This is where people start realising… this is good, this is exciting and getting into the game. I think people still have this predisposition that it is boring and compare it to men’s sport. But its’ not the same. It doesn’t make it bad because its different, it’s just a different way of watching sport.” When asked if men’s and women’s cricket was tactically different, Kirstie replied with an insight from her coach who was a former professional cricketer. “He thinks that in women’s cricket you have to be technically better. You can’t just ‘whack’ the ball with pure muscle, you have to place it in the gaps and think where you are going to score your runs.”

 

Similarly, to previous interviews, we asked Kirstie for her highlight and lowlight of her career, as well as a piece of advice for aspiring athletes. With a big smile on her face, Gordon’s highlight was her first season in the Super League where she was seen as a bit of a ‘nobody’. She recalls playing at Edgbaston, a test ground in Birmingham, where she took 3 wickets, of which one of them was Heather Knight, the England Captain. Her second highlight being her England debut in the World Cup in the West Indies, where she took some wickets, got Player of the Match and had her family with her to embrace the experience. On the contrary, Kirstie stumbled to find a specific lowlight, but suggested that the lows aren’t based on match performances, but more around injuries, not getting selected and not being able to prove yourself. “Whilst you are young, play lots of sports. I have read that playing lots of sports can benefit your performance as you build up so many transferable skills” is the first piece of advice Gordon suggested. She swiftly added “throw yourself into all opportunities and enjoy it”.

 

We wish Kirstie the best of luck with her cricket career and look forward to catching up in the foreseeable future.