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Currents: bleeding pink

'Real Ruggers Bleed Pink': Colby-Sawyer Women's Rugby Tackles Breast Cancer Awareness

Imagine seeing a van full of college-aged women dressed in hot pink jerseys empty onto an athletics field, laughing and joking with each other as they make their way to the sideline. Now imagine watching them spend the next 80 minutes playing a body-slamming, mud-eating game of rugby, hot pink jerseys and all. This was the scenario at each of the games the Colby-Sawyer women's rugby team played during its 2009 season, as the players showed their support for breast cancer research by donning bright pink jerseys and selling pink merchandise to raise funds.

The women, with the encouragement of Coach Chris Reed, decided in the spring of 2009 to plan ways they could give back to a cause or community while fundraising for the team as well. Reed, who has been with the rugby program since the men's team was initiated in 1998, explains that he wants the teams to focus on something outside of athletics. “I want the teams to have some sort of civic mindedness and provide local support through community service. It helps the teams gain a little publicity while supporting a great cause,” says Reed.

The women unanimously decided to support breast cancer research, as Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October coincides with the women's competitive season. Senior and team treasurer, Lynn Williams, says, “It was a great cause that made sense, because countless people can relate to breast cancer on a personal level.” She also explains that their support for breast cancer showed that the women's rugby team was about “more than running around and crashing into each other.”

After the initial plans were made to purchase hot pink jerseys and other merchandise that would boldly display the team's support for breast cancer research and awareness, the women realized that the cost of the project would exceed their budget. As a club sport, the team receives just enough to cover official fees, transportation and a limited amount of miscellaneous expenses. Because the jerseys the women planned to purchase cost about $80 each before any customization, they realized that they would need to find outside resources to help with their expenses and enable them to continue in their quest.

The women came up with a plan to seek sponsorship, offering individuals and companies advertising space on their jerseys in exchange for supporting the team. Junior team member Sarah Lewis stepped forward and reeled in a few big sponsors, including Titan Contractors and an anonymous donor. In addition, the team also received support from local donors such as Keelin Studio for Strength in Newbury, N.H., and New London's Country Houses Real Estate. With their help, the women were able to lower the out-of-pocket cost of the customized jerseys to about $75 each.

Although she spent her summer months seeking donations for the rugby team, Lewis and her teammates credit their success on the field and in their charity efforts to Coach Reed's contagious enthusiasm and generosity. “I can't take all the credit for landing some of these sponsorships. Coach pushed us to not only make a big commitment, but to make it work,” says Lewis.

Running with the pink theme, the women decided to do more than simply show support through jerseys and launched other efforts. They designed and purchased t-shirts, key chains, bracelets, pins, and even made pink baked goods to sell at games, on campus, and at a booth during Family Weekend. The proceeds from this merchandise, totaling close to $1,000 by the end of the rugby season, were donated to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, a global leader in the breast cancer movement that has invested nearly $1.5 billion since 1982.

The positive response the women received for their breast cancer awareness efforts was overwhelming. Their jerseys became an instant hit in the rugby community when the Colby-Sawyer women proudly premiered them during the recent fall season, earning team recognition and accolades from their competition. The idea that “pink is the new black” spread quickly through the northeast rugby community. “I think it just made sense for the women's rugby community to start paying attention to this cause,” Lewis reasons. “Strong women battle and live with breast cancer, so why shouldn't they receive support from strong women in a sport like ours?”

While their pink jerseys inspired teams throughout the region to make their own plans for raising breast cancer awareness, the women were also applauded for their efforts on campus. Putting in time at the fund raising booth at games and during Family Weekend, Williams experienced more gratitude from students, parents and other community members than expected. “I had so many people thank us for doing this,” she explains, “It seems like everyone had a story about how breast cancer affected their lives, and a lot of people went out of their way to give generous donations to the Susan G. Komen organization.”

The fund raising effort also inspired the camaraderie that transformed a team from a group of individuals into a support system, and the women's rugby team gained a significant presence on campus for the first time in years. Students who had never played rugby joined the team this fall, some of them already halfway through their college career at Colby-Sawyer.

Junior Cheryl Meserve, a first-year player, enthuses, “I encourage freshmen and other students to join the team as soon as possible – they won't be upset they gave this experience a chance. The lasting friendships and support you receive are so valuable.”

Williams, who had also never played the sport before, also explains the benefits of being on a team.“I had never played a team sport before rugby, but it doesn't matter if you're good or bad at the game – everyone is supportive.”

As the team grew in size and its members made their voices heard for a cause, the women's rugby team became a well-recognized group of student-athletes this fall. Through their work to raise breast cancer awareness, the team broke through tough-girl stereotypes and earned a new reputation as a group on campus who works hard not only to better themselves, but also the community they live in.

-Jessica K. McLavey '10, November 2009

Jessica K. McLavey is an English major and an intern in College Communications at Colby-Sawyer College.