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Leidy Soto: “Rugby has given us the prerogative to stand up for ourselves”
One of the ‘Unstoppables’ in World Rugby’s new campaign to promote women in rugby, Youth Olympic Games 2018 participant Leidy Soto credits rugby with giving her the means to escape not only the violence of her Castilla neighbourhood, but also the perceptions of women that pervaded both Colombia and her family.
Leidy Soto did not know what rugby was until her brother began playing the sport at university but seeing the enjoyment he took from the game sparked her own interest.
“I recall how he would get home after practice or after a match and how he would talk about it,” she said.
“He was so enthusiastic and so passionate about it, so I thought there must be something about this game.”
Before she could put her boots on, though, Soto first had to figure out where she could play.
Having grown up in Castilla, a Medellin neighbourhood she admits is “perceived as very dangerous in terms of gang violence, in terms of drugs and all those sorts of perils, especially for young people” it was not as if she could just pop down to the local rugby pitch. There was not one.
Soto was forced to wait until a friend at school pointed her in the direction of a local club and encouraged her to try it out.
“As soon as I found out I thought ‘OK, this is the place where they have a session and I’m going to go there and have a go’.”
Rugby my salvation
It proved to be a wise decision. Soto began to “train and to train and to train, and then keep training” until, just two years later, she was part of the Colombia team that won sevens gold at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games on home soil in Barranquilla.
Later that year, she travelled to Buenos Aires to take part in the Youth Olympic Games and helped her country finish fourth.
By her own admission, Soto had discovered her means of escaping not only the violence of Castilla, but also the perceptions of women that pervaded both Colombia and her family.
“It felt a lot like a salvation not just because of the issues with the neighbourhood and where I grew up but also in terms of my own family,” she said.
“In broad terms they tend to be very sexist in saying that women are just for cooking, or women are not allowed or shouldn’t be doing this or that.
“For me, and other girls in rugby, it gives us the strength to say ‘No’. I can also do it, I can also be there, I can also perform, I can also play rugby.
“It has given us this prerogative to stand up for ourselves and say ‘No, I can and I will do it’.”
When Soto first started playing rugby her mother was concerned by the potential for injuries, cuts and bruises until, that is, her teams started winning and she came to the attention of national team selectors.
“My mum was like ‘Leave that to the boys, this is a men’s thing’,” Soto recalled. “‘You’re a girl, you’re supposed to be more feminine – leave that to your brother’.
“But then they kind of got a little more comfortable with the idea when I started actually playing and going to tournaments and winning.
“But not necessarily because their perception changed but because there was some time between the time when I finished playing and got home. So, there was time for me to clean up before I got home!
“At first it was a little hard but after that they got used to the idea and started supporting me. My mum is always very supportive of us, of what we decide to do.
“It was just the first shock and then she was like ‘OK, if you really want it then I’m going to support you on it’.”
Soto has, of course, been very successful in the three years since she made the decision to pick up a rugby ball and ‘have a go’.
Her exploits at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina gave her an insight into what it will take to reach the next level of international rugby with Colombia.
“We were a little overwhelmed by the size and shape of other players when we first got there,” she admitted.
“It was not so much a wake-up call, but being conscious of the fact that we have to improve a lot. There is a huge gap to bridge until we get to that level as well.”
Soto retains an ambition to help Colombia qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, although she knows that getting past Brazil in regional qualifying would “almost be a miracle” such has been their dominance in the region with 14 titles since 2004.
But the proudest moment of her fledgling rugby career remains the gold medal she returned home from Barranquilla with dangling from her neck last August.
“Even though it doesn’t sound as grand as the Youth Olympics or other events, for me the moment was the Central American tournament,” Soto explained.
“Not just because we won gold but also because I think I had a very good and consistent tournament as opposed to other tournaments where I wasn’t sure.
“This was the tournament that when I think of something that makes me feel proud this is what comes to mind.”
Soto longs for the day when she does not have to explain to people in her country that rugby and American Football are not in fact the same sport.
But she believes that aside from awareness, the biggest barrier to more women taking up the sport in Colombia is an internal one.
“Probably the biggest obstacle would be the self-perception of women,” she said.
“Their fear of being perceived as less feminine, of them being perceived as being masculine if they take up rugby.
“It sounds almost like a cliché because it’s what everyone says but [I hope] to have more people playing and to have it sound more natural and not like ‘Oh, I play rugby’ – ‘Oh, what is rugby?’
“To have it as something that people can understand as soon as you say it.”