Viengsamai Souksavanh has achieved a great deal in rugby since being introduced to the game in 2007, while still at secondary school.
Initially told she was too small to play, Souksavanh confounded expectations to become a national team player.
Two serious knee injuries stalled her international playing career, but she merely redirected her energy into coaching and sports administration.
Souksavanh subsequently became the first Lao woman coach a Lao national team and led her country to three victories at the Asia Rugby U17 Girls Sevens in Dubai in 2017. In July, meanwhile, she transitioned into the role of CEO at the Lao Rugby Federation (LRF).
However, when asked to pinpoint her proudest achievement in the last 13 years, those are not the accomplishments that top the 29-year-old’s list.
“I’m going to cry,” Souksavanh told World Rugby in perfect English, before reverting to Lao.
“As an only child I didn’t ever think that I would be able to support my family like I can support my family from my career,” she continued via a translator.
“In the past I didn’t think of myself as a role model, but now I can see other players and staff who are working hard, and they’re becoming really good employees.
“They’re learning a lot and they’re becoming very good at working with children, and being able to develop children. So, these are big achievements that I can see, and that I never expected to happen.”
Sense of community
It was the opportunity to make friends, and the resulting sense of community and family, that attracted Souksavanh, an only child, to rugby back in 2007.
She admits that she “couldn’t understand why” a coach would tell her that she was too small to master the game, but says that the experience only made her more determined to succeed.
“It was a really important time for me to decide that I was going to work hard and prove that person wrong,” Souksavanh said.
“After that, I could play, and I could play for the national team and develop my skills. I was able to learn a lot about rugby, and then I got injured and hurt my knee so I couldn’t play as confidently as before.
“So, at that time I really decided to put my efforts into coaching because I had been playing for 10 years or so at that point. I wanted to use all of my knowledge and experience to be able to help other girls and women, and people, who thought that they were too small and couldn’t play.
“I wanted to make sure that everyone learned and had the chance.”
That determination to help others find the community that she has in rugby remains fully in evidence through her involvement with the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
Souksavanh’s place on the programme was confirmed in May, although her plans to travel as part of her studies were put on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The scholarship has, though, allowed Souksavanh to enrol in English tuition, while she has also been able to attend leadership and mentoring courses in Laos.
“I felt really proud when I found out that I was receiving the scholarship, and that I was able to be a leader or role model for other girls in Laos and the region,” she said.
Souksavanh’s rise in Lao rugby has not come without its challenges. She admits she found the transition from playing to coaching tough, while she has encountered a certain amount of sexism.
“I have experienced some headaches,” she said. “I’m not going to stop because of that. I’m trying to overcome it.”
Souksavanh certainly doesn’t have any plans to slow down. She is back in training as she targets a return to the Lao national team, has helped the LRF launch a new strategic plan, and is hoping to raise funds in order to build some rugby-specific pitches for the union’s use.
“We can rent the soccer pitches, but we don’t have our own space, so my big dream is to fundraise enough to build a pitch,” she explained. “So, I’m working really hard on a fundraising strategy to be able to build a pitch.
“The fundraising strategy is not only to build a pitch but also to make sure the federation has enough money to keep operating and not have to stop its work. So, that’s one of my big goals, is around fundraising.
“Of course, then I’m really focused on developing coaches, staff and referees, especially women at the club and contact level. Because there are still not enough women at that level.
“So, I’m working hard to make sure that there are more coming through. I really want to see that each country in the region has more women’s teams, more women’s referees, more women’s coaches.
“They can build a base across the region so that people can see that girls and women can play rugby and overcome the stereotypes that the community might have for who can be a rugby player.”