Taking Women's Rugby to the Final Four
The Sports Foundation Annual Fund at Work
When Sandra Kimokoti ’15 walked onto a rugby field during her second week at Brown, she’d never played the sport before. But the tackling and running were a breeze after a childhood filled with physical activity growing up with four brothers in her native Kenya.
Sandra, who developed a taste for travel during a high-school exchange trip to the United States, was drawn to Brown’s open curriculum: “I wanted to explore,” she said. That exploration has led her to a double concentration in biology and chemistry, with the goal of working on sustainable biofuels in the developing world.
It was chance that brought Sandra to Marvel Field, where the Brown Women’s Rugby Football Club practices. But it felt like fate: she took to the sport immediately, and the team took to her. “I like how it’s really physical,” she says. “And I love my teammates. Most of us didn’t play before we came to Brown, so we commit to daily practices. It’s a bit of a leap of faith.”
If we didn’t have the Brown University Sports Foundation Annual Fund money, we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.
—Coach Kerrissa (Kerri) Heffernan
Despite the players’ lack of prior experience, Brown fields one of the best Ivy teams, making it to the Final Four of the National Championships every year for the past eight. It’s also one of the most diverse teams on campus, currently boasting players from Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Haiti, as well as three Native Americans and women from all over the US, including underserved neighborhoods. “These kids—each one, you would want to tell their stories,” says volunteer coach Kerrissa (Kerri) Heffernan, a professor of education and director of Faculty Engagement, Royce Fellowships, and the Brown International Scholars Program.
Heffernan is getting ready to launch the club’s 35th season. She’s coached it for 12 years, propelling individual players to great achievements: The team has produced eight National Team players and 19 All-Americans; two alumnae are on the World Cup team, one is in Olympic residency, and one young player is in the Olympic Development Program.
Heffernan raises $60,000 a year to pay for everything from uniforms to a medical trainer, who goes through pounds of tape and bandages treating a range of player injuries. She contends that for these women, the physical danger has an upside. “Getting into med school doesn’t scare you too much after you’ve tackled a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound player diving over the line,” she says. “The players support each other to the max, and take the team’s 3.6 GPA as seriously as they take winning the next match. They’re smart and tough and creative and they’re a family. It’s very Brown, and it’s terrific.”
The club is a victim of its own success—going to the Final Four means steep expenses for travel and lodging. Heffernan says she relies on the Brown University Sports Foundation Annual Fund to make up the club’s annual shortfall of around $20,000. “If we didn’t have the Annual Fund money,” she says, “we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.”
For Sandra, the support means continuing to build on the skills rugby has given her, which include prioritizing her time and not being intimidated by high standards. “Brown expects us to give our very best,” she says, “and it only makes sense for Brown to support us so we can.”