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Simi Pam: A journey of passion, perseverance and inclusivity

By Ciara Fearn
BARNET, ENGLAND - JUNE 09: Simi Pam of Bristol Bears runs with the ball whilst under pressure from Sarah McKenna of Saracens during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Saracens and Bristol Bears at StoneX Stadium on June 09, 2024 in Barnet, England. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

In the world of rugby, where grit, determination, and resilience are the cornerstone of success, Simi Pam stands as a testament to these values.

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A junior doctor by profession and a semi-professional rugby player for the Bristol Bears, Pam’s journey is as compelling as it is inspiring.

In an engaging interview, Pam opened up about her late transition to rugby, the challenges she has faced and her unwavering commitment to promoting inclusivity in the sport.

A new beginning

Pam’s foray into rugby began just before she turned 23, during her penultimate year at university.

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“I had taken a year out of athletics because I thought I was burnt out. That’s when I realised that I didn’t want to go back and had mentally checked out of athletics, but I wasn’t ready to be done with sport,” she tells RugbyPass.

“I wanted to transition to something I could be good at and improve at, something that would suit my style of athlete and particular skill set, because I was aware whatever sport I took up I’d be starting late.”

Her search for a new athletic pursuit led her to rugby, a sport she found appealing due to its team-oriented nature.

“The individual aspect of athletics was something I was tired of; I was looking for a team sport, and rugby fit that bill perfectly,” Pam explains.

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“There was a good university set up for women’s rugby at Bristol, a few people from different walks of my life mentioned I’d enjoy rugby. I took a stab in the dark and turned up one day in December of 2017.

“I played my first match two weeks later and the rest is history as they say.”

Starting rugby late, Pam had to balance her newfound passion with her demanding medical studies.

“That year was so difficult,” the prop adds. “I ended up failing quite a few of my final year exams and had to scale back on rugby for a while to pass university. It was incredibly full-on, but now I’ve graduated and have been working as a doctor since July 2019.

“It is still challenging and there are weeks that are harder than others. I know myself and what things work for me. This year for example I’ve had a few little issues and obviously my ankle injury.

“I try to focus on building robustness and doing things that will keep me injury free, like a gym session. To help me play at the highest level and prioritise as well as knowing what it is my body needs in allowing me to perform.”

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Balancing dual careers

Balancing a medical career with professional rugby is no small feat.

For Pam, the two demanding roles often intersect, providing unique perspectives that help her excel in both fields.

“Rugby and being a doctor both give me perspective,” Pam says. “During COVID-19, work was really heavy with lots of uncertainty and death.

“I was grateful to have rugby to take my mind off it. Likewise, if rugby isn’t going well, work reminds me to be grateful for my health and fitness.”

Despite the challenges, Pam finds joy and fulfilment in both careers. “Executing skills and thinking clearly under pressure, working in a team, and prioritising tasks are skills that complement each other and help me be better at both roles.”

Overcoming injury and hair challenges

Pam’s rugby career faced a significant setback when she suffered a serious ankle injury earlier this season, derailing her dreams of international recognition with the Red Roses in the Women’s Six Nations.

“I was gutted. No injury comes at a good time, but I believe everything happens for a reason,” Pam says.

“The injury allowed me to stay at Bristol and get back to fitness, ultimately helping the team reach a cup final, which is an incredible experience.

“I do hope to have international recognition at some point, but when that happens I’ll leave to fate.

“Right now I’ll try to focus on what I can control such as turning up for training and matches. I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be, a sponge ready to learn, keep learning and developing my game.”

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Another challenge Pam faced was the impact of her athletic lifestyle on her afro hair.

“The amount of damage and thinning, especially around the perimeter, was unavoidable,” she reveals. “I knew from my medical background that it could lead to permanent bald patches if not addressed.

“The only way I could think to sort this was to cut my hair off completely and that allowed me to regrow all of my hair back as healthily as possible.

“Ultimately, cutting my hair off took me on a bigger journey of self acceptance and allowed me to understand on a deeper level how black women see themselves in a bigger community when they present themselves with their natural hair.

“More than anything it allowed me to take another step towards being my most authentic self, and be comfortable with who I am.”

Promoting inclusivity in rugby

Inclusivity in rugby is a cause close to Pam’s heart. Growing up and attending medical school in the south-west, she was often the only black person in many environments.

“I didn’t notice racial disparity initially, but as I progressed to more senior environments, it became apparent,” Pam explains.

“There are only a few of us, even in the men’s game. It made me question why more black people aren’t playing rugby. Is it a knowledge thing, an accessibility issue?”

Pam believes visibility and representation are crucial. “I’ve been trying to impact inclusivity by being a visible role model and loudly black in all the spaces I occupy.

“Seeing someone like Shaunagh Brown, who transitioned successfully to rugby from athletics, inspired me. Visible role models are so important.”

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The gender pay gap

Pam also highlights the significant gender pay gap in rugby, a topic that needs more attention.

“The men’s game is more established and has more money, which makes sense given its history. Many women players are still volunteers and not getting paid for playing,” she says.

“My hope for the future is that women’s rugby players earn enough to be professional athletes. A larger pool of professional players will translate into better quality rugby at all levels.

“It’s a tricky one, but women’s rugby is moving in the right direction. A benefit for us female rugby players is that a lot of us have careers or an education and qualifications outside of the sport.

“This means that when our playing days are done we don’t have the same issues that a lot of club men’s players have, where they have put all their eggs in one basket and if their career ends prematurely or gets to its natural conclusion, they are sort of a bit stuck of what to do next.

“This is a positive perspective that I appreciate and try to lean into.”

Looking ahead

Despite the setbacks and challenges, Pam remains optimistic about her future in rugby and her impact on the sport.

“My immediate goals are to help push Bristol Bears Women to the best of my ability and to win the Premiership. That’s my sole purpose now and it feels very tangible so I’m excited for the final this weekend,” Pam states.

“Personally, It’s not a secret to anyone that I would love to represent England internationally one day. That is ultimately the outcome I’m focused on achieving and I will just be the best version of myself that I can be and make my weaknesses less obvious.

“I think it’s just a case of timing and especially with the position I play, injuries can happen at any time. I do think I will get my opportunity at some point.”

Simi Pam’s journey is a powerful narrative of resilience, passion and a commitment to making rugby a more inclusive sport.

Her story inspires many and highlights the importance of visibility, representation and equal opportunities in sports.

“I’ve managed to do an awful lot more than I ever thought I could and have taken opportunities off the back of that,” Pam adds.

“Hopefully I can look back and say, ‘She made as much lemonade out of the lemons she was given’, whether I make it internationally or not I can look back and say I gave it my best and I will be completely content.

“Looking forward to the final, yes we are one hundred per cent ready and really excited for the squad to be announced and I’m confident both individually and for the team that I think our squad is exceptional.

“In essence this final is going to be an international Test final match, it will be ridiculous as both teams are stacked with internationals. We have things in place that we think we can exploit successfully, I cannot wait for Saturday to play out!”

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