Rugby Legend Phaidra Knight Interviews Team USA Star Kelly White

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A perennial Team USA Eagle, Phaidra Knight is one of the most recognized names in women’s rugby. Her home club is the New York Rugby Club. Today, she chats with Team USA center, Kelly White.

PK: White Shoes! How have you been!?
KELLY: Blessed. How have you been?
PK: Great, thanks… Things have changed a bit for you over the past 3 years, yes?
KELLY: Yes! As amazing as the World Cup journey was, the past 3 years have been its own unique experience.  I got married shortly after WC to Adam, currently a strength coach at UCLA.  We have a 16 month old little girl, Ainsley, who is my contribution to the future of women’s rugby (hopefully). She was born with a black eye and is fearless, so I guess that would make her a future flanker. We have her doing deadlifts, squatting, pull-ups, agility drills…you know, normal stuff for a child of that age.
PK:We’ve got to know—where did the nickname Kelly White Shoes come from?
KELLY: Haha, well, I had the pleasure of playing with the Midwest 7s territorial team for a few summers. One of everyone’s favorite players Chabot, known for her gregarious personality, coined the term. Essentially, as fellow 7s props, she and I managed to complete some strategic give-and-go passing down the field to score a try.  Anyway, out of her celebration came the nickname for me. It’s a play on “Billy white-shoes Johnson” who was a football player known for his excessive celebration after touch-downs, as well as his white cleats. And no, I’ve never excessively danced after a try or own white shoes despite the suggestion by others to do so on many accounts….that would be calling unnecessary attention to myself. I’m an “under the radar” kinda gal.
PK: Tell us a little bit about your experience as a USA 7s player.  When did you debut?
KELLY: Hmmm, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had the blessing of playing under a number of coaches who saw potential despite my age…I think I was 27 when I entered the 7s pool – which is not young. My USA 7s debut tournament was at UCLA. I live near L.A. so was called up out of the player pool after a handful of injuries occurred the night before the tournament. Logistics played the primary part in that call. I still have that team picture in my office at work. My shorts are pulled up to my armpits and I have the cheesiest grin on my face. It was all about the moment… From there, I had great mentors, as veteran players were approaching retirement and transferring knowledge. I kept getting opportunities to continue….I think luck played a bit of a part in that.
PK: Did you ever have aspirations to play for the USA 15s team?
KELLY: I did. I was invited to a couple 15s camps, played in a couple U.S. A vs B tournaments, but never capped in 15s. The talent pool was strong and the timing was never right, so 7s ultimately became my focus.
PK: I must interject that as competitive and tough as you are, you are one of the most positive and supportive teammates I have ever played with.
KELLY: That’s kind of you to say. It’s hard not to be supportive, Phaidra, when I’m on the other side of a scrum from you and I want to walk the next day. I like to think that all of the girls in that particular 7s pool had that quality. I loved that team – it was such a great family. It’s always such an awkward position to be in as an athlete….when we’re all vying for positions against each-other but expected to bond and be fluid on the field together. You don’t get to that level without a strong personality and then you throw in exhaustion, pressure, irritability, sleep deprivation on tours and you could potentially have enough drama for a little reality t.v. show. But I never saw that…I think we all kept it together. It was always about the U.S. Women’s 7s team as a whole vs. the individuals on it.
PK: The journey to the 2009 7s World Cup was a challenging one for all involved, to say the least.  What was that experience like for you?
KELLY: Yeah, it was certainly a challenging adventure…mentally, physically, emotionally. To give you some color, I was what is known as a “bubble player” – not quite in, but not quite out. The coaching staff was always very candid with me about that, which I was grateful for. However, sometimes it was hard to avoid feeling that no matter how much effort and sacrifice, there was still so much further to go. So there were times when I’d question my intentions and re-evaluate my goals. Why put myself through that? But it never lasted long…. I always felt a certain grit about the journey…that, no matter the result, I was committed and – in or out – that I would appreciate the lessons I learned, the relationships I made, the opportunities I was given and hopefully, be a stronger person as a result. It was the ultimate character test, if you will. That also translates to a mental component of the experience… In preparing for my daughter’s birth, one of my goals was to do it without drugs…just to see if I could. People would ask me “why the heck would you want to put yourself through that”….but if you have to ask…That question was very similar to the challenging World Cup experience. I think sometimes, we just all want to see what our limit is and whether we have it in us.  I think we surprised ourselves what we endured in that process and have all moved on to the next adventure, whether it be football, cross-fit, FBI, triathlons, marriage, etc. And now, we have a comparison point…sometimes when I’m having a rough go at it I think “this isn’t nearly as difficult as National Camp.”
PK: Any plans on returning to play in the future?
KELLY: Hard to say…certainly not to the national stage but maybe to the local or even territorial game. I do sit and stare out windows sometimes remembering the fun times….but then I quickly remember the time and sacrifice it takes to play….Not to mention the amount of ice baths.

PK: What were 3 of the most important things that helped propel you to the international playing field?
KELLY: 1) Identifying (and focusing on) what my contribution would be. Not every player has to be a super star….I knew my role would never be to sprint 100m for a crowd-rousing try. I was willing to find work, play my part and hope for the occasional flash of brilliance. So, just making sure I always contributed…sometimes it was purely playing defense, sometimes it was putting other players through gaps for glory and other times it was making sure my team had water .
2) Complete sacrifice would be number 2 – just doing whatever was required of me and whatever it took – No excuses. I remember at the beginning of “the journey”, our coach, Jules, gave a great speech. She basically said there are a number of athletes who have the talent to be on the National Team, but few who would be able to do what it took. Of course we’re all sitting there, excited about National Camp, nodding that we would do what it took. But, that remark resonated with me for the next 4 years. Girls dropped out because of important, but competing priorities. I often asked myself what my limit of sacrifice was. Was I willing to quit my job? Relocate?  I missed a lot of birthdays, weddings, dinners, vacations, promotions and sleep…as many girls did. I made a lot of apologies, but I had set a goal and wanted to walk away feeling like I did everything I could to achieve it.
3) Third, I would say grit and determination. I was initially a back, but got moved to prop as more speed entered the players’ pool. I was definitely smaller for my position as a 7s prop, but was determined that size didn’t matter and would figure out a way to make it work. I ended up loving the scrappiness of the position and finding a way to make it my own. If there is one athletic quality I hope my daughter possesses, I hope it’s grit and determination. The thought that she can do or be anything if she just rolls up her sleeves and works .
PK: Looking forward to Rio 2016, what will it take for Team USA to medal?  Do you plan on being there?
KELLY: Dedication to fitness/strength; flawless execution of fundamentals; increased game intelligence – U.S. women are probably the most athletic out of all the countries, we just need to build on the strategic component. Attending would be an incredible experience.
PK: Awesome!  Kelly, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today!  I wish you the best with your family and I hope to see you again soon.
KELLY: Thank you!