Pitch Perfect

By Chuck Benda

Ashley English ’98 discovered a lifelong passion when she took up rugby in her first year at Carleton. She went on to become captain of the USA Rugby Women’s National Team, which competed in the 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup, and she continues to inspire young women with her love of the sport, both on and off the pitch.  

When she came to Carleton, Ashley English ’98 knew next to nothing about rugby. Soccer was her sport. But a few friends from her dorm floor played rugby, so she decided to give it a try, primarily as a way to keep in shape for soccer during the off-season.   

“I liked rugby immediately,” says English, who soon fell in love with this sport in which her physical attributes—her size, her strength, and her speed—along with her aggressive nature, were valued. “I was always one of those soccer players who slammed into people,” she explains. “You’re technically not supposed to touch the opposition in soccer, and you’re not supposed to knock them over. In rugby, using your body with force is an asset.”

Rugby World CupIt was an asset she used well—and almost exclusively—in the beginning. “At first, I mostly ran over people,” says English, who played outside center in college. “But then I started to learn the position.” As she polished her technique and improved her play, so did the rest of her Carleton teammates. During her junior year, the Carleton squad made the playoffs and English caught the eye of the rugby world. She was named an All-American that year, got an invitation to try out with the U.S. National U23 Team (for players age 23 and younger), and earned a spot on the team.

After graduating from Carleton, English returned to the Bay Area of California, where she had grown up. She earned a master’s degree in education from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002 and began teaching kindergarten and first grade. At the same time, her rugby career continued to blossom.

“I wanted to play for the Berkeley All-Blues,” says English, “but they were pretty much set at outside center, so I learned to play fullback.” The All-Blues—a perennial powerhouse in the Women’s Premier Rugby League, the highest league in the United States—won three national championships before English joined the team in 1998 and then went on to win nine more.

English was named to a number of all-star teams in recognition of her performance with the All-Blues. But the highlight of her playing career was being named twice (in 2006 and 2010) to the USA Rugby Women’s National Team for the Women’s Rugby World Cup games. The United States finished fifth both times. English was a team captain for the 2010 World Cup in England.

Rugby World CupAs a member of two World Cup teams, English enjoyed perks normally not part of a rugby player’s life—training camps and trips to England and Scotland—but it was the camaraderie of being part of a team that she treasures the most. “I got to play with many great players,” says English. “And simply being chosen to represent the United States in the World Cup was a tremendous honor.”

English got to end her playing career on a high note. “In my last game as an international athlete against Canada I scored a try [worth five points],” says English. Those five points turned out to be crucial: The final score was United States 23, Canada 20. 

After the 2010 World Cup, English decided to retire as a player. “My body was hurting after 16 years of nonstop playing,” she says. “Plus, I have heard that there are other things to do in life besides play rugby. Rugby has given me success and confidence, which I have been able to apply to other areas of my life.”

Recently having started her third season as coach of the Berkeley U19 Girls Rugby Team, a city team for girls age 19 and younger, she finds new opportunities every day to help her athletes, both on and
off the pitch. 

“High school girls are worried about what people are thinking about them,” says English. “Rugby empowers them to be strong women. In fact, I think it’s one of the most empowering things they can do. In rugby, your teammates need you to step up, be aggressive, and be strong.”

Convincing parents that their daughters can play the game safely is one of her biggest challenges. “A lot of people think of rugby as a violent game,” says English. “It’s not. It is a contact sport—but if you learn the proper techniques, it’s safe, too. It’s a beautiful game that involves a tremendous amount of teamwork.”

English’s Berkeley team has yet to win a game, but she’s not worried. “Most of these girls have never played rugby before,” she says, adding that rugby is one of the fastest-growing high school sports in the United States. “The improvement they’re making is visible at every practice and every game.”

Whether her team notches its first victory this season or not, their experience will be worthwhile: “Through rugby,” says English, “these girls are growing into more assertive women.”

Web Extras:  Learn more about the women's national team or view a replay of the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup match between the United States and England

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