Bulldozing The Odds
Just how do you bring up three babies and play rugby at the highest level? In her own words, Zainab Alema aka The Bulldozer details her balancing act
By Zainab Alema
I’m Zainab Alema, and I play loosehead prop in the Championship for Richmond Women RFC. I’m known as Zee in the rugby world or, even as I like to call myself… The Bulldozer. I’ll explain more about that later. I grew up on a council estate in West London and rugby wasn’t on my radar at all until one day when I was 14 years old, my PE teacher decided to bring some balls in for us to give it a go. I remember being the only one out of my classmates who was buzzing about trying it out. I just remember having the ball in hand and running through everyone and all I could think was, where has this sport been in my life?
It wasn’t as if I didn’t love sports in general. At school I loved playing team sports such as rounders and basketball although I was rubbish at football. I was the kind of player that would go to kick a ball and would fall over and the ball would be in exactly the same spot. As for athletics, running was my thing but no more than 100-metre sprints. Sports Day was without a doubt my favourite event in the school calendar. My next encounter with rugby came about three years later when I was studying for my A-Levels, aged 17. I had chosen Physical Education and my teacher said I needed to choose a sport. I immediately remembered how much fun I had aged 14 trying out rugby so that’s what I chose. My teacher at the time went out of her way to speak to our headmaster about my choice. He authorised payment for my membership and before I knew it, I was on my way to Ealing Trailfinders, my first ever rugby club, with my teacher in her car.
People often ask me about the challenges that I’ve faced since starting my rugby journey and I can list a whole range of them, some relating to my identity, faith and culture but one of my biggest challenges and one that is continuous is balancing motherhood with sport. I’m a mother of three children aged six, four and three. I started playing rugby long before I became a mother and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to get back on the pitch after the birth of each of my children. If anything, the urge grew stronger with each child, rugby was what kept me sane!
My personal experience was that there were times where motherhood would consume me, in the sense that I would be giving everything to make sure I was caring for them the best way that I could, but in that process I would almost lose myself. I would catch myself thinking, who am I? Where is Zainab? Where is The Bulldozer? The feeling of the fear of losing myself was so strong, especially the third time around. So much so I rocked up to county trials with my eight-week old in a car seat. I wanted my identity back. I got a few looks from people and I believe many of those faces read, ‘why the hell is there a baby in the changing rooms?’
Looking back, it wasn’t an appropriate thing for me to do as my body wasn’t ready at all. If it was an ordinary club training session, one could somewhat justify it but this was a trial. The best of the best in the county were going at everything 100% in order to get into the county squad.
I remember feeling like I was reaching my limit after the warm-up, which was probably a good indication that I wasn’t going to do well. I didn’t make the squad. I’m sure that being only eight weeks after the birth had a lot to do with it but I was still gutted. I can say now that it was most likely a blessing in disguise as I could have sworn my pelvic floor was non-existent at that point. In fact I wish I had known more at the time about the pelvic floor when it came to getting back into rugby. Fast forward to now. One word. Childcare. Finding childcare in order to play and train consistently has been a struggle. I have family that help out whenever they can but there are times where I find myself unable to train or play because I can’t get childcare.
I really do count my blessings every time I’m able to pull on a jersey and play rugby, especially knowing what it takes for me to be there. The planning, the logistics, making sure everything is sorted for the children before I leave the house. I hear of some mums feeling guilty about leaving their children to go to work or do other things and that’s understandable. I know I cannot pour from an empty cup – I need to fill mine in order to pour into theirs. And rugby is what I fill my cup with. As young as they are I think they get it, especially my six-year-old who asks me if I’m going to play rugby when she sees me pick up my coat – and sometimes I have to say ‘no darling, I’m just going to buy milk’. I love that she’s asking because that tells me she is aware that I’m not only her mum but I’m also a rugby player. I hope what she’s getting from that is, she can also have multiple hats when she’s older.
It’s quite normal in society to see women stop or pause their career in sport in order to start a family. But I’m basically doing the opposite. I’ve had my family and now is when I want to start my career in sport. I practised as a neonatal nurse for eight years and just over a year ago I decided to put my nursing career on hold to focus on rugby. My dream is to one day play for England. If it happens, I will make history by being the first Muslim woman to do so. I honestly get chills when I think about it. Before I left nursing I was balancing it all, being a mother, working in the NHS and playing rugby. One time someone asked me: “How can you be a nurse and play rugby?” It was implying that they were opposite sides of a spectrum and I simply answered: “Well I don’t go around tackling all the babies do I?” Jokes aside, one thing I do know is that there are many transferable skills when it comes to rugby and healthcare. The ability to stay calm in highly pressured situations, to be able to respect those that you come into contact with regardless of your differences and being able to communicate effectively and control your emotions.
I often used the rugby card when I was working on the wards, especially if the parents /carers of the baby I was looking after were very anxious. I would tell them about how I was born 26 weeks premature, weighing only 930 grams and I’m now a rugby player. Their reaction was always priceless, the look of shock layered with hope that their baby will be just fine. Nursing was my dream job and I’m so grateful I was able to do it. As life changes, sometimes one’s dreams do too and sport for me has given me so much. I’ve met many incredible people and it has opened up some fantastic opportunities, including more recently being part of the Women’s Sport Trust Unlocked programme and having Clare Balding as my activator. I’m currently writing a book as part of my project with Clare, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while – so watch this space!
Not many people can say they are friends with Clare Balding yet all this links back to sport and the special networks and relationships it can bring you. It’s time to explain my nickname “The Bulldozer”. A bulldozer is a piece of equipment usually found on building sites that smashes and breakdown buildings. As a Black, Muslim woman within rugby, a career woman and a mother, I am smashing stereotypes and breaking down barriers in the same way. However, the significance of a bulldozer isn’t just about breaking things, it’s also about paving the way for new things to be built. We all have it in us to be bulldozers.
My advice to anyone thinking of a career change or to parents who are unsure about playing competitive sport is to give it a go, you don’t know unless you try. Yes it may be challenging but if there’s a will there’s a way. On the Monday morning school run when everything hurts and I’m walking like a crab having played rugby the day before, I can say all the juggling is worth it. Especially when my 6 year old says over and over again she wants to be a rugby player – just like her mummy.