While the women’s game may still be in its infancy in the UK, you’d be wrong to think the passion and skill of those involved is small too.
Many people we’ve profiled on the page have almost found the game by accident and this would be the case of our latest blog profile, Oli Davies.
Oli has been in contact sport for a long time, with a huge background in rugby, but spotting a Facebook post about development days has brought her a whole new sport, experience and opportunities.
“I’d wanted to try football for years but didn’t know women played in the UK. I came along to one of the first development days, Jim Messenger (head coach for GB Women) utilised my ball handling skills and familiarity with contact and speed so threw me in with the receivers. I went to all the development days and have never left!”
From there it was to the Diamond Series and then Oli was selected to the Great Britain team and played in the first international 11 a side game against Sweden, which the team won. Wanting to stay in the game she joined the Hertfordshire Tornadoes, one of the country’s first three established women’s teams and has become an active member of the side and the GB side playing in all the internationals to date.
But there is so much more to Oli’s story than that! Her background as she says is in rugby and she started out with Richmond when she was 18 and has spent 15 odd seasons playing Premiership rugby. That experience of playing top level sport has helped to give Oli the ability to make such a smooth transition to American Football.
“I learnt from an early age how to best optimise my training and nutrition, what fitness work I had to do and how to be mentally tough. I play with and against the best players in the country, sport gives you set backs but also you need to have the mindset to deal with big occasions too.”
And being on the big stage or handling the big occasions is something that Oli has become accustomed to over her career. Her highlights reel of her career would take a long time, simply as she’s achieved so much across both sports. Within rugby she’s won three Premiership titles and three National Cups with Richmond – with all three main titles having significance for different reasons including recovering from an ACL reconstruction, wondering if you’d ever play again let alone lift a title! She’s also represented her country for rugby, played for England students to gain her first international honours, represented the Nomads (female Barbarians) and played in a championship game televised live on Sky.
And to American Football? The opportunities just keep on coming. After Oli played her most recent Premiership final for Richmond in January 2016, she was straight into the football season – but via a flight to Kansas first!
“I am always looking at how I can increase my ability and skills as a footballer and with the Kansas City Titans it was about taking that to another level, being able to play 11 a side, week in and week out. I could only do that in the States realistically so I got in touch with an old friend of mine who had played rugby in England and she put me in touch with Liz Sowers at the Titans (and USA national player) and after a tryout in October 2015, I joined the side in January 2016.”
Oli gained a sabbatical from her work as a firefighter and went out and embraced everything that Kansas had to offer.
“It was the best experience – from the people, the city and the climate, to training four times a week and with such experienced players which brought on my game considerably. I’m normally a wide receiver or a tailback but they had me playing corner which again helped improve my understanding of a game. And away games provided even greater experiences like playing in Denver in a foot of snow as well as seeing places such as Dallas and St Louis, which a few years ago wouldn’t have even seemed imaginable.”
But that’s what makes Oli so special and the person she is, is she takes the opportunities that come her way, listens, learns and builds to make herself the best athlete she can be. From those development days to having her GB debut, she has come a long way, but she still is humble when she speaks about playing for her country in American Football.
“Every time you pull on the GB jersey, it is the most terrific honour. From that first time I played, I think I was on a high for weeks. We had no expectations of ourselves, it was the first ever international, and we won. From the moment we warmed up I felt myself moving up another level and the game shot past in an instant. We’ve been on an incredible journey and we’re still growing all the time.”
From the early games and the qualifiers to reach the Europeans, the Championships themselves were a very special part of Oli’s sporting career. For her, nothing is more special than playing for your country, and doing that in an international tournament is the icing on the cake.
“In the Europeans in 2015 it really felt that there was the most incredible bond as a squad, that our level of football was on another level and the memories from the championships will stay with me forever.
Of course there are highs and lows, it’s a tense situation and there are 50 odd people all together but we pulled together when it mattered most. From that first game when we took out Germany we surprised people but the final against Finland, was my favourite game. I think if we had a chance to replay Finland we could beat them another time, but I am immensely proud of our silver medal. We might have been second but we felt like we were champions.”
That gave Oli the hunger to want to go for more and from there it started the process towards the Titans, but this year in the winter she was in the States for a different reason – the Pro Bowl. This year it hosted the 4th Women’s World Football Games where female players come from across the globe to play together.
“It was incredible, and a brilliant event arranged by some of the most forward thinking pioneers of the women’s game. There were over 200 women there, being trained by the top USA coaches. I went last year too and knew I had to be a part of it again. At the end of the week players were selected for games and myself and Phoebe Schecter were selected to the advanced game. We played on the Pro Bowl field, just after the NFL players had been on there! Such exposure for the Women’s game and we got to meet so many legends – Drew Brees, Richard Sherman and Travis Kelce to name just a few.”
With a busy last few years don’t think for a second that this season will be an easy going one for Oli. Not a chance and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Post the Sapphire season she’s back off to Kansas City with the Titans to help her get into the best possible shape for the summer ahead without any distractions.
“I’ll be back home at the end of May for the GB camps before heading out to Canada for the World Championships in June. I literally cannot wait! I want for the Worlds to be successful – both for us as a team but also to play well myself. I set myself high standards in terms of fitness and skill and make sure I can do the best I possibly can.”
It may come as little surprise but Oli would encourage anyone to embrace the sport of American Football and to not hold themselves back. “If you’ve seen the game played, you think it looks like fun, then please come and give it a go. It really is for everybody, no matter your shape or size or ability. You can try flag or tackle, or both of course, and trust me it will become more than just something to do for fun, you’ll gain a whole new healthy lifestyle and a whole extra family.”
For Oli, the next steps outside of her own personal game, is to see the wider game grow and develop. Building participation in all areas of the game, from playing to support staff to gaining the recognition that it’s played is a big goal for her and others involved.
“It’s such a great sport it would be great to see Women’s football start to get the coverage and recognition that is starting to be shown in women’s rugby over the last few years. With the popularity of the NFL and the growth of the men’s game, I hope it’s a realistic goal that the hard working athletes and coaches get more kudos.”
For Oli, her journey in sport continues and building up to potentially the biggest one in her career. For a sporting life that has been so varied and so full, she takes inspiration from so many people particularly ones who have overcome and fought individual battles.
“I’m inspired by people who have reached the pinnacle of their career whatever that might be as they have worked and fought to do that – so that could be Roger Federer in tennis, Valentino Rossi in MotoGP or Tony Romo in Football.
I am always inspired by my teammates and the work that they put in. As a young player at Richmond, I had many internationals to look up to who gave me an example of what I need to do to success. Liz Sowers who I’ve worked closely with at the Titans is an incredible receiver and all around athlete, and I use my time there to absorb so much information. On a local level then Phoebe Schecter is the most incredible captain for us at GB. She is so positive, such a motivator, pushing herself and the team to new levels. Her leadership at the World’s will give us another edge.”
But most importantly, Oli motivates herself. She wants to succeed, she wants to excel and that is something that only she can give herself and have the passion to see it through. Having spoken to her we don’t doubt it for a second and know that she is just a part of a group of women who will do our country proud this summer.