July 29, 2021
Kristen Thomas was introduced to rugby sevens in a rather rude way: She was knocked on her tail at the University of South Florida. Ariana Ramsey began playing when she was at Upper Merion High School and would curl up into a human speed bump each time someone imposing ran at her with the ball.
The Philadelphia-area pair could not have walked into a more obscure sport for women in more diametric ways. Together, they’ll play vital roles for Team U.S.A. when the women’s rugby portion of the Olympics begin this week.
Thomas, 28, is a 2011 Hallahan graduate who received her B.A. in women's studies and theater studies at Central Florida. She plays what is called the hooker position, which during scrums is in the front row, responsible for ‘hooking’ or ‘raking’ the ball back with the foot.
Ramsey, 21, is a 2018 Upper Merion graduate who will begin her junior year this fall at Dartmouth after taking a year off to commit to the U.S. national team. The 5-foot-3 wing was a competitive cheerleader for six years, ran track and even wrestled before committing full-time to rugby.
“I think I started to realize when I played in the junior Olympics that I could maybe even go further to the Olympics,” Ramsey said. “I liked track, but track was individual, and I stuck with rugby over track because of the team aspect and I got to run away from people. I got recruited to play rugby at Dartmouth.
“My parents were accepting. They knew I was always rough. I wrestled in seventh grade. I’ve been rough for a while, and my parents let me do things that I wanted to do. They let me try new things like rugby. Dads do not like to see when their daughters get hit, but my dad liked that I was risky and I was rough. My father was excited for me more than anything.”
Ramsey receives a lot of incredulous looks followed by the perfunctory question, “Girls play rugby?” when she tells people what Olympic sport she plays. “A lot of people don’t know what rugby is, let alone that women play,” Ramsey said. “People are always shocked that someone small like me plays rugby.”
Thomas was introduced to rugby by a friend when she was a senior at Hallahan. She waited, however, until she was at Central Florida before she stepped onto a field.
She had grown bored of running track and playing basketball. Rugby was a new, curious endeavor. Thomas played for the Central Florida club team, playing on a Southern college circuit.
“My very first practice, one of the forwards knocked me clean on my butt, but I really didn’t think too much of it,” Thomas recalled. “It was kind of like a joke. It was one of my first experiences with rugby that I could remember. I stuck around and kept showing up for practice and it was a really good time.
“The contact took a little getting used and the rucking [after someone is tackled, two opposing players compete for the ball] took some getting used to. I never played a sport that was similar to rugby. I liked the physical part, and I loved the tackling and the rucking.”
Thomas had a bit of dilemma, though. She came home with bruises and bumps and she actually kept it away from her father at first that she was playing rugby. When her parents attended a game that Kristen was playing in Annapolis, Maryland, in her junior year, her parents, Larry Thomas and Kimberly Jenkins, cringed.
Through time, they came to accept Kristen’s new passion. She lives in San Diego, CA, committed full-time to playing for the National Team.
“I didn’t even think of anything like this,” Thomas said. “As a woman, there aren't as many opportunities for us to play full contact sports. Rugby offers women that opportunity. It’s what I learned to like about rugby. Most people don’t know what rugby is. They ask me if it’s the sport with the sticks. I tell people that rugby is a full-contact sport is like American football, with a little of everything.”
The United States is considered one of the favorites, along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Competition in rugby sevens begins July 29. The U.S. will be in Pool C with Japan, China and powerhouse Australia. The medal matches will take place Saturday, July 31, with the bronze match taking place at 5:30 and the gold medal match at 6.
“This team can go very far, but we need to take it one game at a time and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Thomas said.
“How good can we be, we can win the gold medal,” Ramsey said, “that’s how good I think we can be. It would be nice for my parents and family to be there, but once I come back home, it will be all of the same love and all of the same joy, so I’m excited.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here: @JSantoliquito.