Rugby, Up Close and Nuclear
They’re the Atomic Sisters, and they want YOU
On this side of the pond, rugby conjures mental images of battle waged on a muddy terrain in Europe, where brawny, rain-drenched Clive Owen types hoist teammates, pummel opponents and underhand pass—or drop-kick—an oblong ball.
It’s a sport often viewed with suspicion as bafflingly eccentric (see also: cricket) or else downright barbaric (bullfighting, anyone?).
Since 1993, however, Albuquerque’s Atomic Sisters have sought to dispel such misperceptions and swell the sacred scrum—one woman at a time.
Think you’re not cut out for it? Think you’re too frail or too stout? Not tough or coordinated enough? Think again, says the club’s recruitment chair, Allegra Howell.
“There is a place for every body shape on the rugby pitch,” says Howell, a 32-year-old carpenter who plays the lock position. “We need those little fast girls. We need those big strong girls. And anyone in between.”
Come one, come all, was the message espoused by the Atomic Sisters in their preseason organizational meeting, held at UNM’s Johnson Field on a drizzly Thursday night in late July. They also elected officeholders (president, treasurer, laundry fairy), discussed fundraisers (pub events, T-shirts, the annual team calendar) and set their practice schedule (Monday and Wednesday nights at Johnson, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., throughout August).
Not even the rain could dampen their gleeful mood, as players traded summer stories and laughed over memories—like a “theme” match in Arizona in which both clubs took to the field in prom dresses. “It was outrageous,” says dental hygienist Gina Calabro, also 32, who lines up at the hooker position.
“We need those little fast girls. We need those big strong girls. And anyone in between.”
Allegra Howell, recruitment chair
Calabro belonged to rugby teams in another state and says the sense of camaraderie exists no matter where you are. “You have an instant group of friends, an instant family,” she says. “You do. They’ll back you up. And if you go somewhere new and join rugby, you’ll have an instant sisterhood there, too.”
According to Howell, that rugby bond extends across enemy lines. She says it will be evident right from the get-go at next month’s Labor Day weekend tournament in Santa Fe, which kicks off the fall season.
“One of my favorite things is that you socialize with the other team after the game,” Howell says. “You’ve just bruised and battered them, they’ve bruised and battered you, and you go pop a beer, pop a soda, eat some pizza or whatever’s going on.”
Traditionally, the Atomic Sisters have played most often against local rivals—the collegiate teams of UNM and NMSU, and a Flagstaff club called the Timberdoodles. They've also road-tripped to Colorado, Texas and even Missouri for away games and tournaments. The Sisters tend to dominate their competition—posting a 16-1 record in the spring and going undefeated the previous fall. Their proudest recent successes include winning their home tourney, Albuquerque’s High Desert Rugby Classic, in 2008, and shutting out every opposing team at an eight-team Flagstaff tourney in 2009.
What makes this year different is that the Sisters have upped the ante, leaving behind their more casual non-league roots to join the competitive Division II bracket of national women’s club rugby, and they hope to make a strong initial showing.
“If I don’t get hurt when I’m playing, if I don’t have bruises, scratches and stingers, then I know I’m not playing hard enough.”
Marica Martinic, on-field lock
“I want a tight, cohesive team for our first year in DII,” says Matt Odle, the Atomic Sisters’ coach for the past two and a half years (as well as a former rugger himself with UNM and the Albuquerque Brujos men’s club). “I’m not worried about how far we go. But I do want to see us play great rugby—really hard rugby.”
For now, the team’s attendance rolls peak at about 20 women—a precarious number since most matches require 15 players to a side and there are inevitably absences come game day. Howell would like to see the ranks rise to 25, 30 or more. To that end, the Atomic Sisters foster enrollment by offering scholarships to offset their $80 seasonal dues. Though it’s an 18-and-up team, members also train the next generation by running a high school program and spring day camp.
With the Atomic Sisters, it may be a kinder, gentler rugby off the pitch. But on the pitch ... “If I don’t get hurt when I’m playing, if I don’t have bruises, scratches and stingers, then I know I’m not playing hard enough,” says Marica Martinic, a 25-year-old wellness program coordinator and on-field lock.
Firefighter Michelle Draszkiewicz—a prop who, at 38, is the eldest and longest-tenured Atomic Sister—agrees. For her, it wasn’t the thrill of meting out a hit that got her hooked, but getting hit: “The first time I got tackled in a game, I just fell in love with rugby,” she says. “I had the ball, I was running, someone tackled me, we both went head over heels, both of us landed on our feet and kept on running, and I’ve been addicted ever since. It gets in your blood.”