CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s fair to say that in sport, especially at an international level, winning is everything. Sure, the taking part is important but, by and large, if you don’t come back with a shield, you’re expected to come back on it.
It’s a sentiment that former England captain Catherine Spencer is familiar with.
Her family’s deep-rooted love of sport meant that it was entirely normal for her as a child to stroll down to the rugby club every Sunday with her brother, even though, as she points out with a laugh: “it was far from normal! That long ago there weren’t many girls who played rugby”.
Her love of rugby grew to playing for Folkestone Women in her teens, before heading off to university in Cardiff. “Unbeknown to me, my university team was actually really good!” Spencer says, adding: “My first experience of playing at Twickenham was with my university.”
Club rugby followed, and her England debut came against Wales in the 2004 Six Nations. It’s a moment she remembers with astonishing clarity. “The game was at the Twickenham Stoop, my parents had come up to watch, I was quite relaxed, just watching the rugby. Then, without about 20 minutes to go, I heard my name and thought, ‘Blimey!’.
“I really vividly remember running on to the pitch. I remember thinking to myself: ‘I am representing my country! I’m playing rugby for England!’.”
Three years later, she was handed the captaincy. Although she modestly insists there were others who could equally have been handed the honour, Spencer proved to be a wise selection. “For me, I wasn’t the most natural choice, though the coaches had done a lot of work on who they wanted for the job – they had a long list of criteria.”
She says of her time as captain: “It was amazing, but it does make you think differently: you’re so aware of everyone else and what’s going on around you. A lot of the stuff you do goes unnoticed by the rest of the team, and that’s exactly how it should be.
“The captaincy definitely coloured my view of the game, from the bigger picture and being an ambassador for sport, but also within a squad environment. It was something I really enjoyed.”
For Spencer, along with the rest of the England set-up, winning the 2010 World Cup was going to be the reward for years and years of bloody hard work. Sadly, it was not to be. New Zealand robbed them of that dream by just three points.
Athletes at this elite level of competition don’t like coming second. Admitting that they have even done so is even harder, but that’s exactly what Spencer does in the opening moments of the breathtaking short film VALEUR, as she explores her decision to retire from rugby, and what to do next.
This epic-on-a-small-scale documentary follows Spencer as she goes from what some could consider a low to an undoubted personal high: undertaking the gruelling Endure 6 Challenge – a ground-breaking set of events created by The Endure Foundation to support six major causes every three years – in which she attempts to climb her first two 4,000m+ mountains; the Breithorn (4,164m) and Allalinhorn (4,027m), in Switzerland, in just 48 hours.
As if that wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, she does it in support of The Endure Foundation and its six charity partners – Oxfam, Walking with the Wounded, O2 Think Big, Renewable World, Blue Ventures and The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.
“Our goal was then to challenge an inspiring female to take on the first Endure 6 Challenge in Switzerland who had no real previous experience of climbing a mountain. Former England Rugby international and Leicester Tiger player Leon Lloyd introduced us to Catherine, we hit it off immediately and knew she had her own enduring story to tell about her move from professional rugby to inspiring and empowering women globally.”
Gareth Syms, Founder and Trustee The Endure Foundation
When asked if it was a conscious decision to be so brutally honest in the film’s opening segment, Spencer replies: “It was, in a way, because for me I didn’t win a World Cup and that was the one thing I really wanted to do. It was also the need and want and desire to ‘rechallenge’.
“Yes, it was heartbreaking, but I made that decision. I thought it was really important to have that at the beginning of the film. It was part of the process.”
She is – once again – the perfect person to tackle the challenge. There wasn’t much time to prepare, but getting into shape wasn’t a problem, as Spencer explains: “Because I’d been training at a very high level for years and years and years, you do build up a base fitness. I’ve also got quite strong legs, which helped me!
“I think it was more a mental toughness that you develop in sport, knowing that you can keep pushing yourself – a sort of quiet determination.
“I’d never been in an environment like that before, so the mental toughness of being able to keep putting one leg in front of the other, of thinking: ‘I’ll get to the top and help my team-mates get to the top’.
“I thought it was an individual thing. There was only a small team of four of us who went up the mountain. We were literally roped together and could actually save each others’ lives!”
As you’d expect from a natural a team player, her delight in taking part in Endure 6 wasn’t limited to her own success. “Seeing Tom, our cameraman who wasn’t an experienced mountaineering cameraman, get to the top of the mountain was a really nice part of the trip,” she recalls.
“Catherine truly stepped out of her comfort zone to take on this Endure 6 Challenge and proved she is fearless both on and off the rugby pitch. We hope that everyone who watches VALEUR is inspired to follow in her footsteps and take on their own Swiss Alps Challenge and raise vital funds for The Endure Foundation.”
Stuart Clarke, Chairman of The Endure Foundation
As satisfying as the physical test must have been, did it give her what she needed mentally? “Yes, in some ways it did,” she replies thoughtfully. “It reignited in me that I do really enjoy challenging myself.
“I did it in my rugby career, as a player and as a captain continuously, whether it was just getting out of bed in a morning to go to the gym at a ridiculous hour or in the middle of a World Cup final, I challenged myself all the time.
“I reminded myself I really enjoy that and I want to keep doing that, whether it’s physical activity or mentally pushing myself with work. I’d like to do more and hopefully I will.”
It’s difficult to see how a woman with Spencer’s qualities can do anything other than inspire others. As well as proving that there is life after a successful rugby career, she is also the founder and CEO of Inspiring Women, a business dedicated to showing ordinary women around the world exactly what is possible – with a little inspiration.
Spencer enthuses: “I think it’s an important message to get across – that we all have the ability to do something extraordinary. Being able to challenge yourself and have a sense of achievement, if more people can do that and if I can help encourage that then that’s great.”
Position No 8
Clubs Folkestone, Worcester, Bath and Bristol
2004 Wins first England cap
2007 Becomes captain
Honours Two-time Six Nations and Nations Cup
2011 Announces retirement