When double Olympian Sheila Chajira started playing rugby her team did not have a dedicated strength and conditioning (S&C) coach, let alone a female one.
Coaching was not necessarily an avenue that female players in Kenya felt was open to them as they worked almost exclusively under men.
But that is a perception Kenya women’s sevens and 15s international, Chajira is hoping to change as she begins her own journey as an S&C coach.
In November, Chajira attended a World Rugby Level 1 S&C course hosted by the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) in Nairobi aimed specifically at women and youth. Of the 11 participants, four were female.
“I decided to go into strength and conditioning because there are no women in strength and conditioning, and I wished to be part of the first [group],” Chajira told World Rugby.
“It’s difficult for a ladies team to have a male S&C and it's easier for a woman S&C to be with a women’s team. So that's why I decided to do that, to make it easier for women's teams.
“I think it’s [about] understanding women… a woman understands another woman. Not every man will understand how women are doing, the way they treat their body [when they’re] not feeling well.
“He won't understand on such a level how she's feeling. ‘Why is she feeling that?’ ‘Why can't she do this?’
“So, for a woman to understand another woman, it's easier and makes the work easier.”
Chajira represented Kenya at both the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and says that having a dedicated S&C coach “made a big difference in the field” as it gave players “courage” during matches.
Courage is something that Chajira now wants to pass on to the next generation of potential women’s rugby players in Kenya.
Although not quite ready to hang up her boots just yet, the 28-year-old has begun thinking about the future and wants to help encourage more young women and girls to play sport.
“I want to make sure that people are courageous enough to go into sport even if people say that it’s a male sport,” she said.
Making a difference
Traditionally, Kenyan women have been introduced to rugby in high school or at college but Chajira dreams of watching a generation of young girls playing from school age all the way to the national team.
Having begun volunteering with an academy in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, she is hopeful she can unearth some talent while providing the children there with an escape from the troubles of their daily lives.
“A lot of things happen in slums,” Chajira said. “[But] they know, ‘Oh on Saturday morning, we're going to play rugby’.
“So, as they're going back home, they are still engaged with what they've been doing, so you take them away from their stress. Maybe they didn't have a meal the previous night or they don't know what they're going to eat the next day.
“So, you just get them away from that environment for some time.”
Chajira has been “very impressed” with the girls she has been working with. “I can see the growth,” she said.
“I can see the determination of people who have a goal of maybe playing in the national team because that's the aim of each and every girl who's playing rugby in Kenya.
“So, at least seeing them happy you can talk to them about what's going on in their family and it helps you even feel like you are making an impact in someone's life.”
“In Tokyo we were ready”
It must be inspirational for those young players too to be able to learn from someone who has achieved not only their goal of representing Kenya but doing so on the Olympic stage.
Kenya finished 10th in Tokyo, an improvement of one place from their showing in Rio five years earlier. Chajira played in all 10 of her nation’s matches at both Games.
“In Rio, we were just excited to play in the Olympics,” she said. “But the second time in Tokyo we were ready, we had prepared very well for the tournament.
“So, at least we went knowing the goals that we had, what we expected. So, we knew what we were going to do.”
Chajira has represented her country in 15s too, lining up in the Lionesses back-row against South Africa as recently as last August.
She was not part of the team that lost to Colombia in Nairobi later that month to end their hopes of qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2021 but she sees reasons to be positive as Kenya’s wait for a first tournament appearance goes on.
“It was a lesson, not only for the players but for the Kenya Rugby Union,” Chajira said. “I’m so proud of the ladies because they decided to work their hearts off.
“The ladies have been working very hard. We would have loved to be with all the teams that qualified for Rugby World Cup and play for the first time.
“We would have been the first team in Kenyan rugby to qualify and play in the World Cup, so it would have been a big achievement for us.
“Unfortunately, what happened, it's disappointing, but it's a stepping-stone. We know what to do next, what to work on next.”