You probably don’t come across too many rugby players in your daily routine. It isn’t exactly the most popular sport in America. It is, however, a sport with a tight-knit community of players, and one that three former Wayzata High School students use to travel the world.
Bailey Johnson, Rachel Aufdembrink and Elizabeth Reding all graduated from Wayzata High School—Johnson is now a senior at Mankato State University majoring in mass communications; Reding is a junior at Iowa State University majoring in biology and history; and Aufdembrink is a junior at the University of Minnesota preparing for dental school. All three are captains of the women’s rugby club at their respective institutions and all three of them also played for the club team at Wayzata.
Their paths into the sport are varied. Aufdembrink is the elder stateswoman of the group, as her dad coached rugby when she was growing up. He started playing rugby in college when studying abroad in Wales. He fell in love with the sport and brought his passion back with him. As a kid, Aufdembrink watched rugby because of her dad, and fell in love with it for a surprising reason.
“The thing that drew me to rugby is the songs,” Aufdembrink says. “If you have ever gone to see a game, or stood in a stadium where professionals play, the songs [the players and fans sing] go down deep into your bones. It’s awe-inspiring. As I got older, I learned how much thought goes into the game, but the songs attracted me as a kid.”
When Aufdembrink started playing as a freshman, she convinced her best friend (Reding) to join her. “Rachel told me I had to try out, and that I could quit if I didn’t like it after two weeks,” Reding says. “After two weeks, I was hooked.”
Reding had played soccer growing up, but rugby was a whole new experience. She was a football fan, and with few outlets in the sport for women, rugby turned out to be a great combination of soccer and football.
Johnson also joined the pair on the Wayzata club team as a freshman, and it began a connection for the three that would bring them around the world.
Mere years removed from high school, the three compatriots have been selected to state and regional teams that have traveled to national and international competitions. The pedigrees for all three are impressive. Johnson has been named a USA rugby three-time collegiate all-American, and has played on an under-23 Minnesota select team four times, including two as captain. Aufdembrink has made the Midwest under-19 team three times and the under-23 Minnesota select team four times. Reding played on the under-23 Iowa select team this season.
For all their success, one of their most impressive accomplishments is playing together on the Midwest select team last August that traveled to Wales to compete in an international tournament.
“This was my third international tour,” Johnson says. “I have been to France, Canada and now Wales. It was an amazing place to tour, and traveling always gives me a refresher on what kind of athlete I want to be.”
Given rugby’s popularity in Europe, particularly Great Britain, playing there was different than playing in the United States. Rugby is a contact sport that can get pretty violent. However, there is camaraderie off the field between opponents in the rugby community that is rarely seen in American sports.
After matches, opposing teams hold socials, where the players from both sides come together to have a meal together and get to know one another. “Everywhere you go, there is a clubhouse next to the field,” Aufdembrink says. “Opposing players meet each other inside, and they are very respectful. Everybody wants to win, but what happens on the field stays on the field.”
In the tournament, the United States team won two out of three matches, defeating Pontyclun and Llandaff North (communities in Wales) before losing to the Welsh national select team.
Value off the Field
While winning was the goal, all three of the young women
talk about the trip more as a life experience than a rugby tournament. All three mentioned getting to see the Welsh men’s national team play a scrimmage match against Ireland at Millennium Stadium, an iconic Welsh venue that holds nearly 75,000 people. The game was a warmup match for the World Cup, which took place in September and October. Even though it was a practice match, the stadium was full.
“Everyone in the stadium sang the national anthems,” Reding says. “It felt like the opening to the Super Bowl.”
After the experience in Wales, all three are back home and preparing for their rugby futures in the United States. With their college careers winding down, each will be looking for a new place to play once they’re out of school.
Johnson plans on trying out for the women’s national rugby team that competes in the World Cup, while Reding and Aufdembrink plan to play more casually. All will make rugby a part of their lives for as long as they can. As Reding says, “People don’t really stop playing rugby until their bodies can’t keep up anymore.”