Kate Zackary’s speech quickens when she talks about coaching rugby.
She gets excited when she starts talking about the girls’ team she coaches at La Costa Canyon High School.
“So, what’s the plan this year? How are we getting them to college? What’s the next step? How do we help them get there?”
It doesn’t take much to get the 5-foot-7 back rower from Wichita, Kansas, who most recently captained USA’s women’s 15s side in a two-match series with Canada in Chula Vista, California this past November, excitedly discussing the future of women’s rugby.
“I’m honoured to be part of USA Rugby,” says Zackary, 30, who coached the USA Girls High School All-Americans last year at a NextGen Sevens tournament in Langford, B.C. “It’s mind-blowing that this can be a lifestyle and what we’re doing now is going to make this even more of a sustainable lifestyle for players in the future.
“The sport is growing and I’m excited to be part of it all.”
In a relatively short window, Zackary has gone from picking up the sport in her early 20s to playing rather casually in Atchison, Kansas at Benedictine College with the Saints Women’s Rugby Club, to spending the better part of four years with the USA sevens program (2014-2018), to leading the women’s 15s side as they target Rugby World Cup 2021.
“She loves the sport, the values, the people, and the experiences,” says USA women’s national team head coach Rob Cain. “I think she’s really showed that with a lot of hard work, even in a short amount of time, you can achieve some really memorable things and that’s what she’s been doing.”
When Zackary was asked about any hobbies or things she enjoys beyond the scope of rugby and her rugby community, she paused and then kind of laughed.
“It’s definitely become a way of life for me.”
When she’s not playing with the San Diego Surfers of the Women’s Premier League or with the national program, she’s dreaming. As a young soccer player, who actually first represented Benedictine on the soccer pitch, Zackary vividly remembers watching the USA win the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She will never forget that Brandi Chastain game-winning moment.
She dreams of bringing those moments to the rugby field.
Zackary has a beaming smile as she walks out for the second half in a game against Canada at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. The sun was out for a few fleeting moments where the temperature was perfectly moderate and 40 more minutes of rugby was awaiting. This is Zackary’s happy place.
Less than five years earlier, she working as a web administrator at Benedictine College. She thought she was starting the whole “get a job and buy a house” thing.
But then Bryn Chivers, who is the Director of Women’s Rugby at the National Small College Rugby Organization, saw Zackary play for Benedictine, and the former coach of the USA’s U20 women’s team went to bat for her, singing her praises to the Eagles Sevens brass.
A successful camp in April 2014 begat a call from the late Ric Suggitt, who was the head coach of the USA Sevens program at the time, in May 2014. It was a Sunday. Suggitt was coming home from Amsterdam after the Netherlands Sevens tournament. He was in an airport. He offered Zackary a contract.
“Are you calling the right person?” Zackary asks.
What followed was Zackary listening and offering the occasional “uh-huh” or “oh…umm..okay.”
“I remember being extremely awkward and not knowing what to say,” Zackary recalls with a laugh.
A month later, in June 2014, she was in Chula Vista.
Within the next four years, she played in 39 matches and scored 11 tries on the World Sevens Series, won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games, and helped USA to a fourth place finish at both the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 and the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018.
After leaving the Sevens program following the World Cup in San Francisco, she returned to the 15s team and took over the captaincy for the November tour in 2018.
Now, let’s just say Zackary is the walking essence of an ambassador for the sport – continuing to play at the highest level, while developing the next generation.
“She epitomizes what a leader is all about, in terms of how she acts on and off the pitch,” Cain says. “She has a calm and collected voice and she has a wonderful ability to say the right things at the right time. In terms of the group we’ve started with the national side, she’s the best person to be leading this team. Her experience with the Sevens and her experience in the World Cup has been invaluable in helping look after the younger players, alongside our very few senior players.”
On her left forearm, Zackary has a tattoo. It’s handwritten by her dad. He doesn’t much like tattoos, but she kind of tricked him.
The tattoo reads “be strong and courageous,” which are the first four words of a particular verse in the Bible (Deuteronomy 31:6). Both she and her parents go to Catholic mass from time to time, but not regularly. However, before she went to her first-ever Sevens camp, she read this verse. Then, on her way to the camp, her dad happened upon the same verse in a bulletin from his local church that came in the mail. He texted her the message as encouragement.
“It was one of those weird and wild moments,” Zackary says.
After surviving her first six months in the program, she decided to get the tattoo – emblazoning what had become a personal mantra – on her arm. She texted her dad, asking him to write those four words in a handwritten note and send her the picture. He just did it. He didn’t know why, but he’d soon find out.
“…and, I went to the tattoo shop and got it forever,” Zackary says.
Be Strong and Courageous.
Yea, you want leader capable of inspiring – one capable of setting an entire sport on a trajectory, hurtling toward something special.