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Meet the Badass Kenyan Women Rugby Players Going for Gold in Rio

Kenya's Lionesses have the hopes of Africa on their shoulders and they're cool with that.

Women's Olympic rugby debuts this year in Rio and only one African country is competing in the women’s rugby 7s tournament—Kenya.


Before independence in 1963 Rugby in Kenya was associated with white settler males. Even after indigenous Kenyans took over the sport post-independence, women were never really part of the picture. While the first recorded match in what is now Kenya took place in 1909, women's rugby didn't officially begin in Kenya until 2006. It was soon eclipsed by the more popular, successful and better funded men’s team.

For readers not familiar with the game, it requires a team to pass an oval shaped ball to the opponent’s side, similar in movement to American football—except players do not wear protective gear.

One of the biggest challenges for Kenyan athletes overall is funding. The women’s league knows the struggle of relying on their own resources to honor matches, get their kit and travel expenses covered. Even the national team has experienced set-backs that confused the public. In 2014, the Kenya Rugby Union decided to disband due to internal conflicts. There are plans to promote rugby at Secondary schools, and the Kenya Rugby Union is working hard to raise support and awareness about the women’s national team.

Conversely, the men’s side has enjoyed extensive media coverage and support from some of Kenya’s biggest corporates, including telecommunications company Safaricom and Kenya Airways. President Kenyatta even rewarded the men’s team KSH 10 million ($98,659) for winning the main cup title, at the Singapore leg of the World Rugby Sevens earlier this year. Kenyatta remains one of the few Kenyan presidents to consistently applaud and support Kenya’s arts, culture and sporting sectors.

Some of the most notable achievements from the women include being silver medalists at the Confederation of African Rugby (CAR) Women’s Sevens in 2014, and Plate Finalists at the Dubai Sevens Women’s International Invitational Category in the same year. The Kenya captain Kate Abilla, is quoted on the Kenya Lionesses Facebook page as saying: “We will be out to make an impression in Rio as we not only carry the hopes and expectations of a nation, but of the entire African continent as well. We will put our best foot forward in Rio.” Abilla’s 24-year-old assistant captain Janet Okello, is one of the team’s most valuable players who scored Kenya’s first ever try at the HSBC Women’s Sevens World Series in May 2016.

One of the country’s iconic fashion labels, Kiko Romeo, dressed the women’s team for a beautiful photo-shoot a few years back. Check out the picture on Instagram here.

This year, rugby is the third team sport to represent Kenya at the Olympics after hockey and volleyball. The rugby tournament begins on August 5-11, and Kenya’s first match is on Sunday August 7 against New Zealand.

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Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

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