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Kiki Morgan's women's sevens revolution

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'Rugby's unbelievable... I have done things I only thought were possible in movies'

Kiki Morgan is feeling overwhelmed. The USA sevens player has just come off stage in Dublin at a launch event attended by World Rugby big-wigs Bill Beaumont and Brett Gosper and the enormity of it all is only hitting home while she struggles to slowly chew some food.

One of 24 American athletes who have been training full-time since January at their Olympic training site in California, the 24-year-old has come a long way in a short space of time.

Not until she was 17 and a few months into college at Brown University in 2012 did she first pick up a rugby ball, but the sport has effectively changed her life.

Her backstory growing up in Rhode Island is why she has now been chosen as one of the 15 examples of unstoppable women in rugby who have been chosen to front a campaign aimed at dramatically growing the profile of a sport that Beaumont feels will be rugby’s biggest growth sector in the next 10 years as the attempt to monetise it and increase the global playing base.

The promotional Unstoppable XV is diverse and wide-ranging, drawn from around the globe with each character coming to the party with a very different tale aimed at giving some girl somewhere the nudge to come forward and give the game a chance.

Morgan’s own narrative focuses on bereavement and how she eventually battled through to blossom. She was 18 months old when she arrived in America from Jamaica and life then changed dramatically aged 10. Her mother Karlene passed away from ovarian cancer detected when she became pregnant with Morgan’s younger brother. The devastating effects were long lasting.

“She was my form of strength, my confidante. I looked up to her as the strongest person I knew and to just watch here fade away before my eyes and then have no way of expressing that afterwards really caused me to close in on myself,” said Morgan to RugbyPass.

Overnight, her personality changed. “I became very introverted, was very much living my life in my head. Afraid of the world and afraid of feeling. I still don’t like reading books unless I know it is a happy ending because life is sad enough, so why put myself through that in a story?

Deborah Griffin, Kiki Morgan and World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont at the Women in Rugby launch in Dublin (Photo by Patrick Bolger – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“I use a story as a form of escapism, I don’t want to feel sad. But rugby has changed that. I don’t need that form of escapism as much because I’m happier, I’m more present and enjoying every day.”

Morgan’s transformation was pure opportunism. Coming from a place where track and field and soccer were the only sports for girls, her introverted mind convinced her she would spent the rest of her life in Pawtucket Island just a few miles away from the house she grew up in.

Then came rugby and the world suddenly became her oyster. “The reason people stick with a sport such as rugby is because of the social aspect, because of their friends, because of the community. That was the reason I tried out rugby.

“When I first saw it, I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t think I was strong enough or fast enough but it was my friend who said, ‘You need to come out, you need to try out his sport with me and I guarantee that it will be the best decision that you have ever made’.

“I tried it and loved it… but if it wasn’t for my friends and their encouragement to try the sport, my life would have been completely different.”

It took Morgan a while to fully realise she had potential, her first invite to step on the representative circuit greeted by incredulity on her part. “A few months after I started playing I went to a camp in Boston and the then USA head coach, Rik Suggitt, was there.

Kiki Morgan of University of Tasmania runs with the ball during the Aon Uni 7s match against University of Queensland (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

“We’d a nice talk and after that camp I got an invite from the Olympic committee to go to San Diego to a US rugby camp there. I thought it was a joke. I responded to the email, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They responded back, ‘No, we are serious. We’d like to invite you out for a camp’. I said ‘Yes’.”

Ever since, rugby has taken Morgan on a journey far greater than she could have ever imagined, not only allowing her to grow as a player but more importantly as a person, the memory of her mother driving her on to this day.

“One of the only mementoes I have left of her is her ID and I always carry that around with me so that she is physically always with me.

“Rugby’s now full time. I started in January of this year. I graduated with a degree in theatre and sociology and I would have stayed in Rhode Island. I would have explored life there, but now there is so much more open to me.

“It’s unbelievable. I have friends in Japan, I have friends in Australia, I have seen the amazing buildings in Dubai, I have done things I only thought were possible in movies.”

Her script is set to become even more dramatic. As soon as the USA steps on the pitch at the season-closing sevens event in Biarritz next month, they will have done enough to qualify for next year’s Olympic Sevens in Tokyo.

USA and Fiji prepare to enter the field during the Women’s Rugby Sevens on day three of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Dan Mullan – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Those Games will be massive. So, too, the recently planned world series shake-up. Up to now, the men’s and women’s sevens have been at different stages of development. Ten pit-stops for the men, all in high-profile destinations, but just a half-dozen for the women.

While there is an overlap of the two circuits in Dubai and Sydney, the women have largely ploughed their own furrow. Colorado, Kitakyushu and Langford have been curious destinations on a calendar that culminates in Biarritz on June 15/16, the same weekend the sold-out Top 14 league final takes place in Paris.

Next year, though, there will be more equality. The women’s calendar jumps from six events to eight, with Dubai, Cape Town, New Zealand, Sydney, Hong Kong and Paris hosting combined men’s and women’s events in the first year of a new four-year cycle.

This alignment is part of the reason why World Rugby is keen to strike now and get the message out there that it has some inspirational women involved who can greatly help grow playing numbers and profile.

“This presentation has been very important,” said Morgan, reflecting on a morning’s mingling with administrators such as Beaumont and fellow players who have been making waves in the game just like her. Stints at clubs in Japan and Australia in the last year were what helped yank her into the full-time USA set-up.

“As I was growing up there wasn’t many female role models for me to look up to, especially in the rugby community because it was just starting out, just gaining momentum.

“I didn’t know about the sport until I arrived at college, so sharing my story is not about me, it’s about giving voice to those who normally don’t get the chance to… I’m unbelievably honoured, just meeting everyone and hearing their stories. It has inspired me.

“I’m embracing the uncertainty of the future. I have no idea where rugby is going to take me. All I’m worried about is becoming the best player I can and learning as much rugby as I can.

“We’re really exited USA is embracing rugby and we just want to continue to build on that excitement to create more opportunities in rugby and to really go even further from here.”

WATCH: World Rugby launches its new Women in Rugby initiative in Dublin

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'Rugby's unbelievable... I have done things I only thought were possible in movies'