Curiosity Breeds Success

“I remember playing at Twickenham and the next day I was up on a pub roof putting a fire out.” Variety is the spice of life for rugby athlete Shaunagh Brown

By Kate Carter

Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway

Shaunagh Brown is curious. Incredibly curious. The Oxford English Dictionary defines that as ‘Eager to learn, inquisitive,’ but they could just have a photo of her. Her CV includes: World Cup-winning rugby player, Commonwealth games hammer thrower, Strong Women competitions, a professional boxing match and the Highland Games. And that’s just the sports section. Take this, on how she ended up training as a diver: “Myself and my mum were at a local sports awards. On our table were a couple of guys who said they were commercial divers. I asked, ‘What’s that?’ So they described it to me as labouring, testing, sometimes very basic tasks, but all just underwater. I turned to my mum and said ‘I want to be a commercial diver.’ And that’s pretty much how it went.”

Rugby player celebrating

And so that qualification was added to the CV, alongside gas engineer and firefighter. Yet none of this is to suggest that she is fickle. Instead, she is that rare and curious person with the drive to realise dreams that, for the rest of us, remain just that. “I think it’s the need to try something different” she said, with some understatement. “If I do something, I’m giving it all or nothing – but sometimes I do feel that I can give my all to two things.”

Having these parallel strands to her life, she explained, also keeps her grounded. “They’re in separate spaces, especially the fire service and rugby. Rugby is essentially fun and games. It’s about winning; getting a ball past the line. If I have a bad day at training, or a bad match, that’s all it is, it doesn’t matter to the rest of the world. But if I’m at work at a fire station and we have a bad day, it can be life-changing. I remember playing at Twickenham and the next day I was up on a pub roof putting a fire out in the middle of Kent.” Grounding, indeed.

Female rugby player illustration

Shaunagh was clearly a whirlwind of energy from the get-go. “I’ve got a big sister but she’s 16 years older, so in terms of the group who played together, I was the only girl, and my family life was all about just keeping up with them. I wasn’t ‘Shaunagh the girl’ – I was just another cousin. I wanted to be faster, to climb just as many trees, to play and fight with them – that was very much my normal.” That energy and competitiveness found a focus in sport, albeit with limited opportunities. “As a girl, even at 12, it was hard to find things you could do, there weren’t many team sports.” A good PE teacher at school sent her off to do trials for the Mini Marathon (London Marathon’s three-mile race for kids) and they happened to be at an athletics track. “While I was there, I asked, ‘Is there a team that trains here?’ The answer was yes and that was the start of that.”

The start, in fact, of what you might call Shaunagh Brown’s First Act. County athletics, then a bronze medal at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, followed by 11th place for hammer at the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow. For most people, that might be the culmination of a career, worth resting the laurels on. Not for Shaunagh. Having contemplated retirement for about 0.1 milliseconds, she took up an invite to try out rugby at a local club, Medway RC. Did she know much about rugby at that point? She laughed. “Growing up, rugby just wasn’t really a thing at all – in school or in my family. I tried watching it but I didn’t have a clue what was going on. At athletics, you’d get the rugby boys at the athletics track in the summer doing shot put because they were the biggest ones in the class. That was my first interaction with rugby players – the fact that they were slowing down our training!” Her first training session was in the summer of 2015. Within two years she was an international – all the more remarkable considering it was a period interrupted by those months of training as a commercial diver.

“My first game, the coaches told me: get the ball and run,” she remembered, “If somebody else with a different colour shirt to you has the ball, tackle them.” That’s how rugby works in Shaunagh’s head, it’s a gloriously simple strategy, and clearly it pays off. Perhaps it’s also part of keeping herself grounded – in which her mum also plays a key role. “She’s very blasé about everything now. I’m like, ‘Hey mum, we won the World Cup final!’ And she’s like ‘That’s good. How lovely. What are you doing next week?’”

Spending time with her family, acting like children again, is how she likes to relax. “I love dancing – I can’t dance to save my life, but I love it.” More seriously, we talk about family as the space where she can be herself. “There’s certain words that if I said them on a rugby pitch or in a rugby setting, people wouldn’t know what I’m saying. Sometimes I have to consider: if I say this as it comes into my head, would it come across too aggressive? Do I have to tone it down? Whereas at home, I can say either highly sarcastic things or I can be blunt and to the point, and they get it.”

rugby player illustration
Shaunagh brown illustration

Of course, this is more than just family vs strangers – it’s about race. “Yes,” she agreed, “when I speak to Black friends, and how they think they’re perceived, it’s similar and you have to tone it down.” And not just how you talk, but how you look: “Depending on the work you do, especially men, they’ll have to think about whether to grow their hair and how that’s perceived. And if you’re a woman, it’s what hairstyle you have; wondering whether cornrows are seen as professional or considering wearing an afro at an interview.” Is this all more noticeable in rugby than athletics, which, after all, is a far more diverse sport? “They are different worlds. My mates from athletics don’t know how I do it, being around white rugby players all the time and not being able to listen to certain music on the bus or talk about certain cultural issues. It means there’s work to do in rugby, and work to get more people playing.” She is passionate about opening up these conversations. Talking about the importance of language, she explains how she pulls people up when they constantly refer to “firemen” or “bin men.” She continued: “People say, ‘What does it matter?’ And I reply that it’s very important because you’re telling half the population they can’t do that job. Words have value.”

Rugby photomontage

Being part of the 2021 Women’s Sports Trust Unlocked programme is a way for Shaunagh to change the narrative. “For me, it’s about the connections with other sportswomen and taking the conversations further. I ask loads of questions, like how do football players get on having men and women at the same training ground? How do netball players feel about wearing skirts and dresses? And the same for hockey. It’s about learning new things but also giving other people things to think about.” If there’s one common theme to all of Shaunagh’s multiple interests, it is strength. Not simply physical, but strength of determination. “All of this happened because somebody asked me if I wanted to try it,” she said, “I like to say yes to opportunities when they come up.” So what other sports would she like to have a crack at? Her answer is instant: “Skeleton and luge, Winter Olympics. Feet first or headfirst down an ice mountain on a tea tray?! I would definitely give it a go.” Selectors, please take note: when Shaunagh Brown is interested in a sport, she won’t say no.

Photography credit The RFU collection via Getty Images

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