Saving Lives And Scoring Tries
When she’s not bringing the firepower with Harlequins or Scotland Rugby, Jade Konkel is fighting the blaze with the London Fire Brigade – and she wouldn’t change it for the world
By Eleanor Lee
Photography by Ossi Piispanen
Most would head home to sleep after clocking off from a night shift with the London Fire Brigade. Not Jade Konkel. Instead, the 28-year-old jumps on a train up to Scotland to join her teammates in preparing for their shot at the World Cup. Crazy? Perhaps. Inspiring? Most definitely.
“From a very young age, I’ve wanted to be involved in rugby. I always remember when I was a toddler, I spent my Saturdays running up and down the sidelines at my dad’s game to the point where I once ran on the pitch and he had to scoop me up mid tackle,” Jade explains. “I played for a year in an all-boys’ team but because there was not much rugby to move on to from a girl’s perspective, it just never really seemed like it could ever be a career. I just wanted it to be a hobby and I was quite proactive at trying to make that happen.”
When she wasn’t busy with rugby as a teenager, you would find Jade playing basketball for Highland Bears, winning two gold medals in the Army Cadets athletics with shot put and discus or gaining a black belt in Goshin-Ryu Kempo. Perhaps it was this full-throttle active lifestyle that prepared her for what was to come.
“When I was on my lunch breaks at school, I’d use the library computers to go onto the Scottish rugby website and look at the Scotland women profiles. I remember reading through them, thinking they were superheroes, but even at that point I never, ever assumed that (rugby) could be something I’d do,” says Jade.
“It wasn’t until I was 17, when I went to a development trial day. It wasn’t because I had an aspiration to take (rugby) further – I just wanted to play more. I tried out for that and that’s where it took off – I was put into the under 20s and later, into the Scotland squad. So I made the decision to take time out from university. I didn’t finish my last year of uni and left with a form of diploma degree because (to graduate with an honors) I would have had to do a 100-day placement which I wouldn’t have been able to balance rugby with. I made the decision to go head first into rugby and that was even before I was contracted.” In 2016, Jade made history, becoming Scottish Rugby’s first full-time female player. “Prior to that, I didn’t really know that (playing rugby professionally) was a thing – or was even on the cards. It didn’t seem like it was achievable,” she explains.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Jade left university, and so a year was spent juggling both her studies and rugby career. “It was a case of attending my lectures and then straight after I was going to the gym, doing my skills, at training or doing analysis on the computer – it was much like my life is at the moment.”
“My parents and older brother have always been really supportive and it was good to get their advice. They were under the same illusion as me, thinking that ‘you don’t know until you try’, so they fully supported my decision to finish university early. It gave me that confidence to continue pursuing (rugby) – without their support I’m not quite sure what would’ve happened.” Jade’s rugby career has been full of opportunity. After making history with Scotland in 2016, she went on to join Lille Metropole in France before returning to the UK to play for Harlequins. However in the back of her mind, she has always had a passion for another industry.
“Since I was at school I’ve always thought it would be amazing to join an emergency service. I spent five years in the Army Cadets, my dad was in the Army, one of my uncles was in the fire service, one of my aunties is actually in the fire services now – so it’s always been on my mind and something I’ve thought of as a career I’d love to do. I thought ‘well, why don’t I just apply and see what happens?’” she explains. “From a rugby perspective, I’m not getting any younger and you never know when your last game is going to be. As much as women’s sport is pushing forward, it’s not going to set me up comfortably for life. So I thought that hopefully I could start developing a career that is going to be long lasting whilst being able to balance my rugby.”
You would have thought that someone who has spent years representing their country on a national level, playing in front of huge crowds, wouldn’t fret over the first day at a new job. But Jade found it difficult. “(My first day at the fire station) was nerve-wracking! I can stand up and do a talk in front of 200 students but turning up on my first day at the station, when you don’t know anybody and don’t know where you’re going, it was pretty much on par with going to a really important game just before kickoff. But it was definitely a special moment – finally getting to a station and being able to be operational, which is a lot of fun.”
People don’t often associate playing sports with fighting fires but having spent time doing both, Jade has uncovered the synergy between the two – using both jobs to help her improve in the other. “Literally everything you can possibly imagine (in rugby is transferable to working in the fire brigade). With both, it’s very much the mindset of ‘I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine’ and you have to make it work,” she says.
“It’s like flying for those inches on the pitch and everybody’s got a role to play. It’s the same when you’re at an incident; everybody has a role and everyone’s got to simultaneously work together whilst making sure that all the elements are covered in order for the incident to be a success.” And, as she goes on to explain, that’s where communication plays an important role. “On the rugby pitch, you need to constantly be talking, there’s no such thing as being silent and it’s the same when you’re at an incident. You’re talking to each other, if you’re in a fire and you’re wearing your breathing apparatus set, you go in in a minimum of two and you have to communicate with each other. And you’ve got to communicate with the outside, because you’re the eyes and ears inside that incident, so everything transfers, but just in a different way.” Juggling a professional sports career with another job can prove a tricky feat for anyone, but throw emergency service night shifts into the mix and many would find themselves really struggling.
“It’s tiring, but you make it work. I love both elements of what I do and I’m really fortunate to be able to do both. If I’m on a day shift, I usually go in early and get a gym session in before work. If I’m on a night shift, I’ll usually go to Harlequin training during the day and then go into my night shift. During a quiet period, I’ll try and get into the gym on my shift as well so I can kill two birds with one stone and rugby training definitely transfers into how fit you need to be to be a firefighter,” Jade says. “I try to prioritise sleep and we sometimes get a chance to rest, but you can’t ever bank on that happening. If you have a busy night, then that’s how it is. A couple of weeks ago we had a pretty busy night and the next day I flew to Scotland to go into camp, ready to play Japan, so you’ve just got to take it as it comes.”
One thing that does help her through it all is adrenaline, dubbing it the handiest tool she has. “Every time I hear the bells at the fire station, my heart races in a good way – I get excited. I know I’m quite new to it, but I definitely want to do a good job. It’s the same as rugby: I’ve played for Scotland since 2013 and there’s not been a single game where I’ve stepped onto that pitch and not been nervous, but nerves are good because you get that adrenaline going and that’s when you know it’s where you belong.”
As if firefighting and rugby weren’t enough, Jade is also a personal trainer, managing a few remote clients to help them feel healthier within themselves. When she finds herself on a day off, she explains how she’ll be typing up programmes, replying to messages, and going on WhatsApp to help clients with extra support. “I’m on the go all the time and I like it! Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to sit down and put your feet up every so often – I think my partner would appreciate that! We like to go out on walks and love the odd sunrise breakfast, so we do stuff together when we can which is nice,” she tells me.
It doesn’t stop there, with 2022 being a major year for both her personal and work life. “The World Cup in New Zealand was supposed to be in 2021, so I deliberately planned my wedding for June 2022, but everything is happening this year!” she laughs. “It’s a huge year for rugby. I’ve been in the squad since 2013 and I’ve never been to a World Cup until now. It’s been a long nine years of setbacks which have taught us to be resilient. I finally think we’re ready, so qualifying and receiving a call-up is the highlight of my entire rugby career.” And in between all of that, she still plans to find time to work the other half of her double life. “From a firefighting perspective, it is all about development. It’s a job that you’ve got to keep learning, regardless. No matter if you’ve been in a couple months to five years, to 10 years to 20 years, there’s always stuff to be learned or read or practised. When we talk about professional sports players, we often talk about how to try and survive at the very top. Jade Konkel has proved that she’s not just here to survive – she’s here to thrive.