EXCLUSIVE: Jodie Ounsley - The Deaf Trailblazer of England Women's Rugby - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: Jodie Ounsley – The Deaf Trailblazer of England Women’s Rugby

Despite being deaf from an early age, England Sevens and Exeter Chiefs star Jodie Ounsley has never let it hold her back in life.

An inspiring individual and naturally gifted athlete, Ounsley has excelled in a wide array of sports, before breaking down barriers as a deaf person in rugby. The winger’s explosive speed was recognised as she won five sprint titles at the Deaf Athletics Championships, and her toughness in contact demonstrated by winning gold medals, in the British Open for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Ounsley is a sporting trailblazer for the deaf community, and is recognised as the first deaf person to represent a senior England Women’s rugby side. In 2019, Ounsley was called into the England Sevens squad after explosive performances for Loughborough Lightning in the Premier 15s, and on the World Deaf Rugby Sevens circuit with Team GB.

“Well, it was pretty surreal.” Ousley said. “I think for me, I’ve always just had a dream of wanting to be the best I can be, whether it’s making my England debut or getting to the Olympics. Whatever it may be, whatever sport I’ve done. And then to get an England cap and stuff like that, and to make that history of being the first deaf female player, it was just a bit of a ‘pinch me moment’.

“But I’ve never thought of that. I’ve just always seen it in my head, I want to try and make it into the England squad. It was pretty surreal, when I learned that I made that history, and broke the barrier I suppose.

“But I just hope to try and show other young deaf kids that they can do it as well. I don’t want to be like the only person to do it. So I want to try and create a pathway for (other) people to do it as well. So it’s pretty cool.”

Ounsley marked her England Women’s Sevens debut in style, flying in for a try which she remembers the most fondly out of all of her scores.

“I think I probably have to say, my first try against Ireland in Cape Town (was my favourite). That was one I remember. Just because I remember in that moment, I caught the ball, and the stadium… it just seemed like everything blurred out and I just thought ‘right, I’m not going to stop until I get to that line.’

“And then I did, and I don’t even remember the try, it’s just such a blur. I just went into a trance. And then as soon as I scored it, all of like my teammates (celebrated), and it was just… that’s one moment that sort of sticks with me. Also, Cape Town is an unreal place.”

The World Sevens circuit has taken Ounsley on a globe-trotting journey across the world, however it is a memory from Twickenham Stadium that she holds dearest to her heart. Ounsley met a young fan who like her, lives with a cochlear implant to assist with her hearing. Ousley asked the girl if she played rugby, which the fan said she did not due to her implant and deafness. The inspiring winger then explained to the girl how she could play, if she wore a scrum cap like her to cover the implant.

Not long after the interaction at Twickenham, the young fan’s father got in contact with Ounsley, and sent her a photo of his daughter playing rugby. The young fan was idolising Ounsley, in her own multi-coloured scrum cap.

“I get so many messages like that. It really blows my mind because it just baffles me, because to me, I’m just playing rugby, I’m just doing what I’m passionate about. I just try and post a couple of Deaf Awareness videos on social media and stuff like that.

“So when I get responses like that, I just can’t get my head around it, and it’s so heart-warming. But yeah, with the girl at Twickenham, I’ve spoken to her Dad here and there, just about how she’s doing and stuff. But yeah, it would be cool if I did see her again.

“So parents might reach out to me and say, ‘(I’ve) seen your videos and how your life sort of turned out, it’s great that. It might have given me the confidence to go down the route of giving my kid a cochlear implant.’ Or, whether it’s someone that’s ‘shown my daughter that she can embrace the deafness. And she doesn’t need to be embarrassed in school.’

“Or ‘my son’s now playing rugby and getting into sport and you’re showing that it’s possible, and you can get around it, whether it’s wearing a scrum cap, etc’. So all these different things, it’s just like it warms your heart, and I still don’t get my head around it to be honest!”

Ounsley’s ground-breaking progress in increasing the awareness of deafness in sport, has seen the 22-year-old receive numerous high-profile accolades for her contributions to the community. Ounsley won the 2020 Deaf Sports Personality of the Year Award, and was bestowed the prestigious role of Honorary President of UK Deaf Sport. She has since been included amongst the likes of Britain’s fastest Woman Dina Asher-Smith, and England Lionesses football captain Leah Williamson on the 2023 Women’s Hour Power List, which celebrates the most impactful women in UK Sport.

“Yeah, so in terms of being the honorary president of UK deaf sport, it was a privilege for them to come to me and ask me to take up that role. I think now, I do feel like I have a responsibility, to continue to try and be a good person, try and be a good role model to the deaf community and stuff like that.

“So yeah, to have that role, it’s great. And, you know, being in all the board meetings about how we can move forward, what situations we can make better in sport in general, and in deaf sport, it’s pretty cool. I’m just sort of grateful to be part of that and see what can we do in the next couple years.”

“Again, that (Women’s Hour Power List) was like a complete shock. I remember I got an email from them saying I got on the shortlist and stuff like that, and I was just like, ‘What, are you sure? Are you on about me, have you got the right person?’ But no, it was just amazing.

“I just felt so grateful to be considered in that because some of the athletes, I’ve sort of looked up to or I’ve watched in the Olympics, or on TV and social media. So to be in that mix, it was a pretty humbling experience. And then, when we went down in London, obviously we’re all there just to sort of meet the other athletes and speak to them. And it was just amazing, really, as my family came as well. So it was just like a little heartwarming moment. But it was pretty special to be on the list.”

The England Sevens star is also brand ambassador for rugby manufactures Canterbury. The rugby kit giants are set to push the boundaries of lightweight rugby footwear with their revolutionary new boot, the Speed Infinite Elite. At just 217g, the boots are Canterbury’s lightest ever, with a focus on attacking tempo for the game’s flying backs. The rugby boots have also become the first to be sent into space, and Ounsley got her hands on a pair in advance.

“Well, in terms of the speed boot, obviously, with my position, I’m a winger, and you always want a light boot, basically, you don’t want a heavy boot that’s going to slow you down. So when they (Canterbury) came to me about this speed boot, it got me really excited. I was completely like blown away, because in the past, Canterbury have been known for heavy boots, obviously, which are great for forwards, but as a winger, probably not the best sort of option of boot. But with the speed boot it’s the lightest boot they’ve ever launched, and it’s not even a kilogram. That’s how light it is!

The Speed Infinite Elites: Image Credit – Canterbury

“So when I tried them out, I tried them out in training. I’ve tried them out in games, and I’ve always worn football boots, so I was going to be very picky if they didn’t feel right. But I think their great, they feel so light on your feet, so easy to change direction, like deceleration as well that’s a big thing.

“So far they’re brilliant. I was such a kid, obviously, I always wear white boots, just because I’ve always worn white boots, but they’re also glow in the dark! So I was like a kid with that. But that’s just an extra bonus, they’ve been pretty good. And I think a lot of people especially like wingers, I think they’ll be surprised to see how good they are.”

For more information about the Speed Infinite Elites and purchase links visit the Canterbury website.

Currently, Ounsley is pursuing ventures away from the rugby pitch, as apart of the new BBC Gladiators TV re-boot. Set to hit our screens in mid to late 2023, Ounsley is taking up the stage-name of ‘Fury’, and has previously discussed how she will be incorporating British Sign Language into her entrances and signature moves.  

Ounsley is set to be joined by another former star of the rugby pitch in the Gladiators re-boot, in ex-Bath Rugby player Alex Gray. However, after this exciting excursion with Gladiators, Ounsley has her eyes set on a return to rugby. The winger signed for Exeter Chiefs from Sale Sharks, ahead of the 2022/23 Allianz Premier 15s season, yet these off-field commitments saw her miss her side’s recent Premier 15s Final defeat to Gloucester-Hartpury.

Abbie Fleming of Exeter Chiefs Women looks dejected after losing as Gloucester-Hartpury celebrates after winning during the Allianz Premier 15s Final Match between Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter Chiefs Women at Queensholm on 24 June. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Ounsley discussed her personal goals for her return to rugby, as she will look to focus on the 15s game ahead of the 2025 Rugby World Cup, which is set to be hosted in England. She also wants to spur the Chiefs on to go one better, and to come away with silverware at the end of the re-branded 2023/24 Premiership Women’s Rugby season.

“Yeah, so I think for me, obviously, I’ve been I’ve been in the (England) Sevens, in-and-out, since I was about 18. So since I came to Chiefs, I wanted to fully focus on one or the other, and sort of give 15s a go and see where I can get with it. And obviously, I have the goal in my head to try and break into the (England) 15s squad. But obviously, I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’ve still got a lot to develop.

“But I’m never saying no, whatever happens will happen. And I’m just going to work hard and see what happens. And obviously, I’m loving it at Chiefs, I’m continuing to try and get better as a player, learn and grow with them. And we have, hopefully, we have the dream of winning next season. But I really believe we can do it.

“Obviously it just didn’t quite work out this season. But we’ve got so much to give. So yeah, so get better, work with the Chiefs, and then who knows with the England 15s if I can break into it.”

Featured Images Credit – Not Just Anyone: Jodie’s Story