Female rugby player fights stereotypes and teaches her sons respect


Kipras Štreimikis

“Rugby reminds me of life: no matter how much it tries to bring you down, you have to get up”, says the player of the Lithuanian female team and children rugby coach Austėja Minkevičiūtė. The young mother speaks from experience, as it was exactly rugby that helped her to overcome had obstacles in life.

At 7AM, Austėja’s home in Šilutė starts buzzing. 4-year-old twins Adam and Kyle are eating breakfasts, preparing for kindergarten and searching for Adam’s missing hat. He’s refusing to leave home without it.

“It’s the same every morning”, laughs Austėja and quickly convinces her son that the missing hat is not a reason to stay at home. In the mornings she’s like a hurricane. Not only does she manage to pack the children’s backpacks, but she also reads their favorite book and smiles at their loud clamor.

After taking her kids to the kindergarten, she heads out for her personal training session. Austėja usually trains in picturesque locations near Šilutė. That morning she did this among wind turbines.

33-year-old Austėja is considered the pioneer of rugby in Šilutė. After returning from Ireland more than 4 years ago, the member of the Lithuanian national team works as a children’s coach, manages a department of the rugby club “Klaipėdos kovas” and works at Šilutė sports school.

Although smile rarely leaves her face and good mood seems to be her constant companion, the beginnings of her rugby career in Šilutė coincided with dramatic personal events of her life.

Rugby gave strength to withstand

Four years ago Austėja’s life turned upside down. After spending over a decade in Ireland where her rugby career started and where she gave birth to her twin sons, Austėja returned to Lithuania, where she had to face a painful and difficult divorce and postnatal depression. At the time, it was not only the support of her closest people and the help of her mother that helped her to keep her head high.

“I started the rugby community in Šilutė during the most difficult period of my life. I was trying to get used to the fact that I was not going back to Ireland and that I would have to raise my children alone. Rugby helped me to survive the divorce and to quickly recover after giving birth. I participated in the first competition together with the Lithuanian national team when my sons were 9 months old.

My physical shape was far from perfect, but the desire and the determination to represent Lithuania made me get up every morning and move. Just like did the wish to promote rugby in Šilutė. There also were the twins… I had a lot on my plate.

Therefore, I didn’t really have time to mourn after the divorce. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. In time the pain eased off. Self-realization and love for my kids and sport helped me to recover”, recalled A. Minkevičiūtė.

Support of men

Austėja’s story marks the second part of the campaign “HeForShe”, initiated by the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee (LNOC).  This United Nations project aims at inviting men to actively join women in their fight for gender equality, to discard old stereotypes and to become a united and outstanding force that brings change. “Although me and my husband went separate ways, I can list a lot of men who believed in and supported me. Those men contribute to development of women’s rugby everyday, because they understand that it is our common concern”, said the athlete.

Women’s rugby is one of the priority areas of the Lithuanian Rugby Federation, therefore its General Secretary Irmantas Kukulskis is constantly encouraging A. Minkevičiūtė to participate in international projects, to improve her qualification and bring change in Lithuania.

“Austėja is an incredibly positive person who strongly believes in what she is doing. In Lithuania, rugby is still often considered a male sports, but with her work, example, and determination Austėja is helping to discard this belief. She is a human engine that energizes everyone around her. If everyone were like her, rugby would be No. 1 sport in Lithuania”, thinks I. Kukulskis.

Austėja started communicating with the federation and the women’s team coach at the time Donatas Streckis while she still had been playing in Dublin’s team. She planned to join the national team, but her pregnancy changed everything.  However, the contact remained.

“When I came back to Šilutė, I shared with Donatas my idea about training children. At the time it was only an idea, as I didn’t know where and how to start. And the he simply said – let’s do it”, recalls Austėja.

Donatas encouraged the rugby player to complete a qualification course and then to join him in training children. Finally, he offered her the position of head of Šilutė department of the rugby club “Klaipėdos kovas”, that he himself had founded.

Equal team members

Austėja calls D. Streckis her teacher who, four years ago, did not let her doubt herself and encouraged to make a bold decision. He, on the other hand, denies the praise and claims that the boost of rugby’s popularity in Šilutė is Austėja’s merit.

“Donatas is an overachiever, you would never hear him say “we will fail, we can’t do it”. He is always looking for ways to do things better and more efficiently. He had gone through the whole process of founding a clubs, so he was able to give me a lot of advice and help me solve bureaucratic issues, manage finances and sports halls.

At first, I was his student and the implementor of his ideas, but now we are a team that compliments each other’s strengths.  He gave me all the tools and information, so now I can do a lot of things myself, and he can spend less time working on rugby in Šilutė, although the first year he put an insane amount of work into it. This constant support and encouragement made it all happen. It would have been very hard to achieve anything in a new and unfamiliar area”, said Austėja.

“I would call myself maybe an ideological teacher, but everything that has been done in Šilutė is her work. I think, the most important thing is her feeling that we do care. She is a part of our club’s organism. If she feels bad, we do everything in our power to solve any problems. Should the need arise, a hundred rugby players can come from Klaipėda and pull out weeds from the stadium by hand.

Discarding the stigma

Having received a lot of support herself, today Austėja tries to discard the stigma surrounding rugby and encourages girls to try playing this sport. Also, she is a member of the Gender Equality in Sport Commission of the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee.

“It is a painful topic”, chuckles A. Minkevičiūtė when asked whether the Lithuanian and Irish societies view female rugby players differently.

“It is very different. First of all, in Ireland every club has a women’s team. During their games the stadiums are full, around 3 000 people gather. Rugby is very popular among girls. In Lithuania, these numbers are much lower.

There are Lithuanian girls who want to play rugby, but the society still considers it a men’s sport. The girls are constantly being warned that they will get injured, will have to roll in dirt, become big and muscular which is, they say, not appropriate for a woman. Alas, we still have a strong cult of beauty. What is there to do? Simply respect a woman’s choice. If she chooses rugby, she knows there will be dirt and there will be bruises, and that’s not something anyone should comment on.

Sometimes, after children’s training session, I need to go to a shop to buy milk, but does that make me feel bad? No. I believe in what I do, and I like it. I have received a lot of commentary that I don’t look feminine and that I will never find a husband. I’ve never felt such pressure in Ireland. If during a conversation with a man in Ireland I would mention that I play rugby, I’d get only questions about my team, my position, victories, and tournaments. In Lithuania I get sneered at and told that people should beware and fear me.

Sometimes it seems that a woman’s choice does not belong to herself, that in order to take up some activity she must first get an approval from the society or her partner. I really don’t know why men’s and women’s choices are judged so differently”, pondered A. Minkevičiūtė.

Invitation to try rugby

D. Streckis also encounters lots of stereotypes about women’s rugby. However, he has a suggestion to everyone who thinks that this sport is unfeminine.

“When I used to train Klaipėda’s women’s team and heard such opinions, I always suggested to come to a training session and to try this sport out.

We used to hold rugby training sessions by the sea, where both men and women would come. Passers-by observed with astonishment how a 112-kg man tackles a 62 kg woman, who then quickly hops back on her feet and tackles the same dude herself. This really helps to change people’s views.

Women really need support because they work as hard as men do. In rugby, just like in basketball, the audience often becomes the sixth player. Feeling and hearing their support brings goosebumps and gives wings to the women playing in the stadium.

Teaching children respect

Austėja’s biggest support team is her two 4-year-olds. During a training session of the Lithuanian national team there is a big chance to see Kyle and Adam running around noisily. They like attention and surely would come closer to any willing person to introduce themselves and to get acquainted.

“They are always with me, even during my personal training sessions. They ride their bikes while I perform my exercise routine. Sometimes I even use them as weights. How? I hold one of them while doing squats, then the other one holds my legs while I do abdomen exercises. I am not only mom, I am also an athlete who is very passionate about the things she does. That is why I really try to include them in my activities. They like it a lot”, said Austėja, smiling.

Austėja, who has encountered lots of skepticism about her choice, from very early days teaches her sons to respect every person’s choices.

“I always emphasize the importance of respect, no matter the gender. I really don’t teach them that a man has to respect another person just because he is also a man, and vice versa. I want them to become tolerant, to respect different opinions and choices. Although they are twins, they differ a lot, so sometimes it is hard for them to even accept each other.

 They spend a lot of time with me and observe what I do, so I hope that it helps them understand that women can be versatile. They can be strong or sad, they can enjoy dancing or playing rugby. All we have to do is support her and her choice. Support them in the stadium, watch the competition broadcasts, encourage female relatives or friends to try some sport out. Not necessarily rugby. If you meet a woman engaged in some sport, simply wish her luck.

For me rugby is freedom. It is release from all the stigmas, an opportunity to stop thinking about how I look and simply play and do something that I love”.

HeForShe is a solidarity campaign for the advancement of gender equality, initiated by the United Nations. In 2014, the campaign was launched with a speech by the famous actress Emma Watson about her own path to feminism and her call to involve men and boys in promoting gender equality. During the three first days of the campaign, it was joined by 100 000 men, among the former US President Barrack Obama. In Lithuania, the initiative’s patron is the former President of the Republic of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė.

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