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How rugby helped Rhode Island state Senator Tiara Mack become a “natural leader”
We spoke to the Rhode Island state Senator about her other life as a rugby player, and learning from the late, great Kathy Flores.
In November 2020 Tiara Mack made history when she became the first openly LGBTQ black person to be elected to the Rhode Island state Senate.
Mack had once been a reluctant politician but her journey to public office had begun more than eight years previously, when she enrolled at Brown University and threw herself into two new passions: community activism and rugby.
“I definitely don't see myself as a politician,” Mack told World Rugby. “But I think all of the things that I've learnt through rugby have made me a natural leader.
“Rugby, at least the rugby communities I've been a part of, have always existed alongside marginalised identities – queer folks, black folks, indigenous folks, trans folks, low-income folks.
“Rugby doesn't require much money. You get a ball, some cleats (boots), you can play in shoes, it's a sport for everyone.
“And I think that some of where the social issues come from [is] knowing people from many different backgrounds and fighting for that and fighting for those identities.”
Falling in love
Mack had first been introduced to rugby as a 14-year-old when her older brother Malik began playing at the University of Georgia.
She had enjoyed watching Malik play and so when, within days of stepping foot on campus, an email arrived in her inbox from then-Brown women’s coach Kerri Heffernan, Mack decided to head down to training.
A lacrosse player at high school, she was drawn to the contact that rugby offered and was soon hooked, playing throughout her time at university, bar a short break when her grandfather died.
Mack’s first appearance came as a second-row replacement for the second XV, but she would go on to captain the first team, while being named an All-American in her senior year.
Congratulations to Tiara Mack '16 who was named a recipient of the inaugural 15 Under 30 Award by the U.S. Women's Rugby Foundation! 👏— Brown Women's Rugby (@BrownWRFC) October 30, 2020
📰: https://t.co/8B0aE1rdx5#GoBruno pic.twitter.com/bgj0YMD0w3
“I went into my first game, fall of my freshman year, halfway through and that was when I knew. I was like, ‘Wow, I think I really love this’,” Mack said.
“We had so many high-achieving folks, both on the field and off the field. Playing at such a high level with such high-achieving people, it's like, not only do I want to be a part of this, it's a badge of honour.”
Playing for Aunt Kathy
Playing for Brown also brought Mack into contact with some legendary figures in the women’s game.
Having been coached by Heffernan in her freshman year, Mack worked under Rugby World Cup winner Kathy Flores through the rest of her college career and then, after she graduated, at Providence Women.
Flores, who passed away last October, became both a mentor and a friend. “She was just so funny,” Mack remembered.
“Her first practice, she was just a ball of energy and light. She would play Motown at practice and have all these dance moves, and she knew how to break the tension.
“Every week, it felt like there was at least half the team that was going through finals or going through exams, or had big projects, or had just spent up until three a.m. finishing a big project that they had.
“So, there was lots of tension, always and stress on the team and Kathy had this really great ‘Aunt Kathy’ way of just saying, ‘OK, practice is just going to be some games, we're going to play some really good skills games’. Sometimes they were just silly games.
“Kathy was also the type of person who would pull players aside and have one-to-ones with them, invite folks out to coffee, to tea at her office and was just like that aunt and mentor that many of us had never had or seen.
“I had only had one to two female coaches growing up, and that was in volleyball. My lacrosse team had mostly male coaches.
“To have an older, wise woman who cared so deeply about people and not just them as players. You could be a starting player or not a starting player, and she gave you the same amount of attention.”
According to Mack, players would learn something from Flores whether they were just starting out in rugby or were on the path to becoming full internationals.
So infectious was Flores’ love of the game, Mack says, that her players would want to play for as long as their bodies would let them.
“One of the best things about playing for Kathy is that she makes you want to play forever,” she said.
Given the amount of time she had for each of her players, it is unsurprising that Flores immediately threw her weight behind Mack’s campaign for office.
“She (Flores) was the first person who was like, ‘How can I support?’. [She] signed up for monthly donations, got my pins, did everything,” Mack said.
“It’s crazy to think that she was such a legend because she invested so much time and made every single person feel like they were important.”
Setting up plays and policy
The seeds of Mack’s future in policy had been sewn at Brown as she began teaching sex education at local high schools and volunteering at women’s charities.
Her interest in community activism and rugby combined during that time too, when she was part of a Title IX lawsuit against the university.
Rugby remains an integral part of her life. Mack continues to play for Providence and her responsibilities as a state Senator have only impacted on her playing time once since she was elected.
“A lot of the things I learnt in rugby carry over into real life. I mean, politics is a great example,” she said.
“In the chamber, on the field we're all equals no matter where someone else comes from.
“You can be the best player, you can be the fastest player on the field and if you don't get the ball, it doesn't matter.
“If you're not setting up plays, if you're not utilising field space, it doesn't matter if you're the fastest. If you never get the ball, if you never find the open space, you'll never get that chance.
“The same thing [is true] about working in a group of 36 other legislators. It doesn't matter if I have the best idea, the most logical idea, the most well-researched idea.
“If I'm not working with everyone in that chamber to see that bill pass, if I'm not collaborating with my colleagues, it's never going to happen.”