Deborah Fleming is home.
It’s kind of weird. She takes a phone call in the house where she grew up in the smallish English town of Penzance, which is situated within the Penwith district of Cornwall. It’s also home to the Cornish Pirates of the RFU Championship, but, as it turns out, that has nothing to do with Fleming’s rugby story.
If Great Britain is a dragon, as Fleming describes, then Penzance resides at the southernmost end of the tail. The English Sevens star proudly calls this home.
It’s near the beach. This is very important to Fleming. It’s near sand dunes. Also important. And it’s near jump-off-able piers, which for an adolescent Fleming, was ultra-important.
“I’m a proper country girl,” Fleming, 28, says. “I like the open spaces and how slow it is down here and the seaside.”
For eight weeks, with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering any semblance of normalcy, Fleming and her husband escaped the ensuing drear of a locked-down London (where they normally live) and moved in with her parents.
It’s here, amidst the runnable hills and climbable dunes, where one of the fastest and most powerful athletes on the World Rugby Sevens Series got her start.
Coming in from the East, as most travelers do, if you take the Long Rock Bypass and get off at Jelbert Way, you’ll see a KFC on your left. This is where Fleming’s route to World Series stardom began.
It wasn’t a KFC when Fleming was a youngster. However, the massive car park behind the fried chicken chain remains. It was on days when the fields were amuck and not suited for sprint training when Fleming and her father, Charles Fleming, would drive to the open car park, use the lampposts as markers, and run and run and run.
On other days, she and Charles would be at a local field or a nearby climb – sprinting back and forth along the grassy patches. Or, the vision of Deborah dragging tires behind her up neighbourhood hills for strength and endurance. When the weather was proper, Charles would join her on the occasion. When the weather acted up, he coached her from his car.
“He was really encouraging, but really strict.”
That worked just fine for Deborah.
“She had everything a sprinter needed and she was hungry to win,” says Charles, who has been the lead pastor at a local church – Shekinah Christian Church – for 30 years. “She was never to be persuaded. She was always there.”
Okay, so in reality, it actually all started with Dwain Chambers. (We’ll get to the rugby in a bit, but Fleming herself didn’t exactly rush into the sport either).
Deborah was nine years old when she was watching British sprinting star Dwain Chambers compete on television. She turned to her dad.
“I want to do that.”
Charles, who was a sprinter in his younger years, was succinct in his response.
“That’s going to be loads of hard work.”
Deborah was equally as brief.
“Yea, that’s fine.”
From then, Deborah trained to run fast.
But before we get too far down that road. Let’s reverse this little tale a bit more – to when she was just six years old.
It goes like this:
Her grade-school teacher asks her what she wants to do when she grows up.
“I am going to represent my country.”
She didn’t say how she was going to do it. Frankly, at the time she wasn’t even playing organized sports. But, she had conviction, and with Fleming’s Christian faith at the forefront of her life, she looks back and believes it was a God-inspired desire.
With sprinting as her gift, she set out to be the fastest. And rugby had nothing to do with it. Yet.
At least with the Pirates being in your backyard and the wide spaces of the local beaches being plentiful, didn’t you ever toss a rugby ball around on the beach?
”Not at all.”
Okay, but wait. Remember the sand dunes?
More than 15,000 kilometres away and years on, the Fijian Rugby Sevens side will make the Sigatoka Sand Dunes famous for their fruitful, yet unforgiving training sessions.
Years earlier, Fleming had the sand dunes in Hayle.
Charles was to Deborah what Nacanieli Cawanibuka was to Fiji.
“So, one day, she’s running up there and the wind was so strong when she got to the top, she couldn’t breathe,” recalls Charles, who ran the dunes alongside Deborah. “She literally has to lie down on the top of the sand dune just so she could catch her breath.”
Charles likes the movie Rocky. Deborah was whisked into his inspiration.
“It was old-school training,” she says. “But it gave me a really good platform.”
She got pretty quick through her teenage years. By the time she was 15 years old, Charles became more of a coach than a training partner. With a focus on the shortest of the sprints, largely the 100m, Fleming represented her region all across the country.
However, by the time she turned 20 – now remember, she still hadn’t ever really tossed a rugby ball in her life – her sprinting aspirations started to wane.
And on one particular day, in August 2011, she decided to quit.
“I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted to be elite, so for me there was no point.
“I was so broken. It was an emotional day.”
The next day she called her sprint coach.
“So what are you going to do?” he asks.
“Join a netball club and go for runs.”
“You are not a recreational athlete,” he argued.
“Well, I’m going to be.”
No, she wasn’t.
The next day, her coach sent her a link to fill out a form to apply for Power2Podium – a talent identification program for Olympic sports in Great Britain.
“So, I’m praying as I filled it out. ‘Okay God, fine, if you want me to be professional in something, do something with this’.”
Okay, so it really, actually all started here.
She was invited to a testing day, where she instantly caught the eye of the Rugby Sevens development coach. In that moment, she was told she was built for rugby. Nine years on, she’s shown that notion to be straight fact.
She moved through the Power2Podium program, with Rugby Sevens as her target (canoeing, skeleton, and cycling were much less appealing) and less than two years after quitting track, she did what her six-year-old self had stated 16 years earlier. She represented Great Britain at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia.
A few weeks later, she earned a place within the England squad in the fall of 2013.
However – after joining the team on a Tuesday, it was only four days later that she dislocated her knee and ruptured her ACL.
After a year of recovery, she returned to the pitch with a desire to learn the craft of rugby – joining the women’s side at Bristol for the 2014-15 season before moving to Saracens for the 2015-16 year with her focus remaining on a Sevens career. In the summers, she played in invitational sevens tournaments, regularly teaming up with Australia’s Tribe7s.
Then, in 2016 she returned to England’s development squad and, soon enough, with Fleming realizing this was likely her last shot to impress upon the senior side, she earned a contract for September.
She had found her home.
“I do like to run and I like feeling free.”
Fleming has watched Chariots of Fire more than a few times. She resonates with Eric Liddell’s famous line.
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
“Right. Don’t go off the sidelines, score over the try line and I’m good. I felt free and I loved that.”
Then, on December 1, 2016, she made her World Series debut in Dubai.
Since then, she’s played in 102 matches and scored 51 tries, putting her second all-time in career tries for England, trailing only Joanne Watmore (59).
Now, four years removed from her debut and playing on a young English roster, she has become a veteran presence – one that was instrumental in helping her country earn Olympic qualification last summer.
Back in Kazan for the 2019 Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Fleming and her teammates sought a ticket to Tokyo. With Olympic qualification on the line, England played Russia in the final – taking on a team they had lost to 26-5 in pool play.
“We proper lost it,” Fleming admits. “But I knew we were going to have the final laugh the next day.”
Walking out to play the final, Fleming held a bouquet of emotions.
“I had not been that stressed ever in my life,” she says. “(But) I remember saying to God: ‘You’ve created me for such a time as now. You gave me the desires of my heart. I’m going to give my all.’”
England won 19-0 in the final.
While the Olympics were postponed and many sporting futures remain uncertain, Fleming has had a chance to take a breath in Penzance. She’s excited for the future because she still has much to do.
Of course, the Olympics (whenever they happen) remain at the forefront, but more than that, she has bigger dreams to contribute to growing women’s sports.
Sitting in her hotel room in Australia, Fleming – who was with England for the 2018 Sydney Sevens Series stop – had a quiet moment to flip on the television.
On the screen was women’s soccer.
“My mind was blown,” she says. “It was a free channel. It was just normal TV, playing women’s sports. Then, I hit another channel and it went to netball.”
It was a lens into a preferred future for Fleming and for England.
As a girl, she didn’t get to play rugby when she was young. She didn’t get to see women playing sport on television. She didn’t witness professionalized women’s rugby setups.
“It’s getting better, but it needs to grow every year and it needs to be pushed on. Our ceiling needs to become the floor of the next squad that comes through. Somebody else fought for our seat in this room. We have to keep fighting and be aware of what we’re trying to do.”
So, it would seem she’s pursuing a career beyond Tokyo?
Indeed, she is.
And here’s the scary part for the opposition. Fleming is still getting stronger and faster. Every year that she’s been in the English program, she’s gotten a little bit quicker and a little bit more powerful.
“If my speed times keep improving with my strength and power and my endurance – if all of that is still showing peaks in the year and increasing, I want to keep playing.”
And through it all, in her faith, she has perhaps found the perfect blend of sustaining peace – something that keeps her grounded and keeps her going.
“It’s not that you don’t care about the outcome, because I definitely do, but it’s more that I’m aware that there is so much more going on and God is ultimately in control. It gives me peace having my identity in God rather than in my performance. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be successful and it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be successful. But I can rest easy as long as I do my best.”