Grace Adhiambo Okulu is living her dream as a rugby player.
The Kenyan star is one of the fastest rising players in her team, yet she only stumbled into the game while playing football in primary school.
Pleased to be able to study and play, Okulu enthusiastically grabbed the chance but it was not without a fight.
Her mother backed her as a footballer but was petrified at the thought of her daughter playing a contact sport.
It meant training in secret for the then 12-year-old.
“I used to say I am going to football training, but I was training for rugby. One day I got a wrist injury and I couldn’t do the dishes, and that’s when she discovered I was [playing] ‘tough’ sport.”
Okulu has enjoyed a challenging rise to prominence since her debut for Kenya at only 17.
She is now a key member of the team commonly known as the Kenya Lioness and played a crucial role in their qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The ‘tough’ sport has given her comfort and a second chance in life.
“Rugby has given me a name... Rugby has given me a good life, and an education,” she told the Olympic Channel from Nakuru, Kenya’s fourth-largest city.
Difficult, nervy Sevens debut
2016 was a memorable year for Okulu. She earned her first call-up when the Kenya Sevens team made their debut at the Women’s World Series in France. She was fearful of playing along and against older players at a major tournament - a huge leap from her remote local club.
The thrill of travelling calmed her nerves and steadied her raw skills for the biggest game of her life.
“I started rugby when I was 11 when I learned that there were some girls that got a chance to travel to the U.K. for a tour. Then I told myself I wanted to do this sport,” she said of her formative years.
But even the years of training could not quite prepare her for top-level competition.
“I remember my first game [in France] was against England. I made a lot of mistakes and struggled to find my rhythm. My teammates were very mad at me. I really gave my best. I played all the rugby I knew, all that I had been taught in training but it was not good enough,” she added ruefully.
The pressure was intense, but it never muted her passion for the game.
“I was scared because at 17 I was the youngest. I thought the other older players will look down on me or mock me because I was still in primary school.”- Grace Adhiambo Okulu to the Olympic Channel.
“I had a lot to endure while growing up. I started school late when I was 7 years old. My older brothers were in high school and college, and my parents, because of their limited resources, preferred to educate them first.”
Circumstances surrounding her upbringing weighed her down even on the pitch.
Only her coach understood her internal struggles.
“I used to hide her age from other players, just to protect her esteem and morale, and trying to get her to fit in." Felix Oloo - Kenya 7s coach.
"People never understand why at her age she is still in school. It was difficult for her,” explained the Kenya Women’s coach Felix Oloo who introduced her to the game.
Rugby's life lessons
The challenging start has since turned into a badge of honour.
“I come from a very humble background. Growing up most of our days were hard. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play rugby when I was so young,” said the 22-year-old who is currently in her final year of secondary school.
“It has been a great journey. I got an education sponsorship through my coach, and I save some of the money I get from Kenya Lioness to pay for my sister’s school fees. My first thing is to make sure my parents live a better life.”
“Sport has given me a name. Rugby has given me a good life, a second chance and an education. I can support my family with my earnings from rugby. Playing the sport has also taught me humility and self-discipline.”
Her mother still frets over her choice of sport but is relieved she never held Okulu back from striving for her dreams.
“Since I joined the national team, my mum has seen the good side of rugby. She still stresses sometimes, but she has accepted it,” said the player who also features for the 15s side.
“I can never forget the first time I told her my plans to play rugby and she vowed to never to let me practice sport if it wasn’t football. She even went to the rugby coach to ask him to never let me train with the team.
“For her, it was a sport that was too tough for girls. She was terrified of the sport and always imagined I’d go home with a bad injury.”
Grace sat out the Olympics at Rio 2016. Instead, she prepared for her final school examinations.
The schoolgirl returned to the team in 2017 and has become a permanent feature since.
“Now it’s easy to pick me out on the field by how hard I play. I give my all, 110%. I like to be creative. I tackle hard. When I am on the pitch, I have the potential of taking down even three people, I am so aggressive,” said Okulu, who lists the 2018 Commonwealth Games as one of her career highlights.
She was the only Kenyan on the scorers’ sheet against Fiji in their placing match at the Gold Coast.
Okulu has become a dependable try-scorer and played a crucial role in her team’s Olympic qualifiers in October 2019 in Tunisia.
“I get such a good feeling when I cross the line for a score. My opponents underestimate me as I don’t look big or strong enough to take on someone. My size is my secret weapon; small but lethal.”
National team coach Oloo agreed.
“She has given me a lot of options. She can play in almost all positions - scrumhalf, fly-half, centre or winger, apart from forward. Any coach would love to have her on his or her team.”
Tokyo 2020 Olympics
The Olympics postponement to July 2021 brought mixed emotions, her desire to play at the Games is so intense but she now has time to concentrate on her final school exams.
“I can’t wait to go to my first Olympics, it’s the biggest stage. It will change our lives and our mindset and boost our game. I think being called up to the Lioness at that stage, and even playing at the Games will be a huge honour.”
"Playing at the Games will be a huge honour"
For Okulu it’s one of her many desires, “I dream that we can be the African champions, qualify for the World Cup and work our way to become one of the core teams of the World Rugby Women Sevens series. I always see myself playing consistently at the top level.”
Huge dreams for a squad that, like their male counterparts, contains players with semi-professional status.
“Outside the national team, I would like to play professional rugby in Canada or Australia,” she said about the possibility of being one of the first Kenyan female players to go pro.
“I have learned to believe in myself, keeping the focus on the goal and remaining true to the calling.”- Grace Adhiambo Okulu.
New Zealand's Olympic silver medallist Portia Woodman has inspired Okulu even more profoundly.
“I have always liked how Portia Woodman plays, and after meeting her, I told myself that I can also play my best and be a mentor to someone. Whenever I play I know someone is watching and saying that they want to be like me.
“There are many Kenyan girls who now want to play rugby or are playing, and they tell me that they look up to me. I feel good, knowing I am already inspiring someone.”