She is her sport’s pioneer, a prolific prop player who has represented the U.S. Rugby National Team for 15 seasons while earning USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010. But New Yorker Phaidra Knight isn’t just a rugby star – she’s a law school graduate who now has the 2014 Sochi Games on her mind. We sat down with Phaidra to talk about playing sports as a young girl in rural Georgia, why she’s now aiming for a spot on the U.S. Bobsled team and what the Women’s Sport Foundation means to her.
Women’s Sports Foundation: Our research shows that girls in rural communities have fewer sports opportunities than their female counterparts in other settings. Tell me a little about your sports experience growing up in a small town in Georgia.
Phaidra Knight: What a great question. I was very lucky to be a very active child. I have a sister who was not very involved in sports growing up but I had a next-door-neighbor who would play football with me. As a young girl, I always wanted to play on the midget league football team. In an effort to do so, I joined the midget league cheerleading squad – girls weren’t allowed to play football. So that was my opportunity to cheerlead, wait until the end of the season banquet and then join the boys when the party was over. I was five or six years old at the time and that was the only motivation to be a cheerleader.
I have also had a basketball in my hand constantly since I was four. I grew up on a farm in Georgia and my dad allowed me to use a portion of the fields as my basketball court. My uncle erected a basketball goal for me and every day I would go outside and play basketball all afternoon. I mostly just played alone and worked on my shots…things like that. In middle school, I started playing more organized basketball and went up the chain to varsity basketball in high school, also playing varsity tennis.
I would pretty much play any sport that I could growing up. I just loved sports – playing them, watching them on television, going to live sporting events. Needless to say, since I was very young, sports have had a major impact of my life.
WSF: Rugby isn’t considered a traditional sport for American girls. How did you find out about rugby and get involved in the sport?
PK: I found out about rugby in law school. I had not played any NCAA sports in college and when I got to law school, I had a real yearning to get back into competitive team sports. With one year of basketball eligibility left, I started training to walk onto the University of Wisconsin basketball team. That plan was intercepted at a law school party when I met a young lady who invited me to a rugby practice. I had no idea what rugby was…I had never even heard of it, never even seen it. She starts explaining how the sport works and how close it was to football. As soon as she said “tackle” – my interest was piqued. I went to a practice the next week and that was it — love at first sight. I really poured myself into the sport and just a few years later I was representing the USA in World Rugby Championships.
WSF: You studied law at the University of Wisconsin. Can you accredit your success in the classroom to the lessons learned from competing in sports?
PK: Yes, certainly. Law school was tough for me. By the time I was ready to go, I had already reached a point where I wasn’t sure if that was the path I really wanted to take. I really wasn’t as excited for law school as I had been for all my previous schooling. The tenacity, the work ethic, the mental fortified that was a result of being an athlete all my life really showed and was instrumental in helping me complete my J.D.
Additionally, competing in rugby during law school gave me a healthy balance between academics and a personal life. I had rugby to focus on and I wasn’t only immersed in my school work. It definitely helped me be a little better-rounded. There is no question that sports played a huge role in my success in school and in life.
WSF: You are currently pursuing a spot on the 2014 Sochi USA Bobsled team. Talk to me about your pursuit of Olympic glory. Will you also be aiming for the Rio Games and rugby’s Olympic sport debut?
PK: Ever since I made it to the U.S. level in rugby in 1999, U.S. Bobsled has been recruiting me. I knew a bobsled athlete who thought I would be great candidate for the bobsled team. At that time, I was just embarking on my rugby career and it just wasn’t the best fit for me at that time. So for the last 13 years, it’s been sort of a courtship between U.S. Bobsled and me. In 2010, after the last rugby World Championships, I decided to pursue this bobsled lead and try something different. I wanted a crack at competing as an Olympic athlete and the 2016 Games just seemed too far away. Bobsled was an opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympics and I was ready to go for it.
I started doing some initial training and went to a combine. I had some success at first and learned some things I needed to improve. Right now, I am working with specific coaches to address my issues and improve my game. This weekend I am going up to Lake Placid to train for a few weeks — I am definitely all in.
WSF: You’ve said that your ultimate goal is to translate your compassions for others into philanthropic efforts geared towards youth education, fitness and health and wellness. As a former Travel & Training Fund grantee (2010), what does the Women’s Sports Foundation mean to you?
PK: The Women’s Sports Foundation is all those things. WSF has been instrumental in supporting me since the start of my rugby career in the 90s, coincidentally when I was also a WSF intern. For me and so many other athletes, having an organization that is focused on advocacy and enhancement of female athletes is priceless. The Women’s Sports Foundation embodies all the things I would like to do with my philanthropic efforts. I am really proud to be involved with such a great organization.
Phaidra needs your support and donations to help fund her training. In order to spend the necessary time and costly expense to train with the best coaches and trainers in the world, she will need to forfeit her job and commit herself 100%. To support her quest for Olympic glory, visit the #ToRussiaWithLove campaign page here. In the event that Phaidra cannot participate on the Olympic Team, remaining funds will be donated to the Women’s Sports Foundation.