Grace Adhiambo cannot get enough of the game of rugby.
The 22-year-old Form Four student at Spotlight Academy, in Nakuru, is one talented athlete.
While most women avoid rugby because of its perceived aggressiveness and the sight of players tackling one another, the sport is Adhiambo’s way of life.
Few get the chance to represent the national team in their lifetime, but Adhiambo has enjoyed that rare feat in three years, both as a Kenya Lionesses and Nakuru RFC player.
She made her international debut against Japan during the HSBC Women Sevens Series in France in 2016, a feat she achieved while still a class 8 pupil at Freehold Primary School.
Her first try came against Fiji during the 2018 Commonwealth Games and she has graced more than seven finals, four at the international level (Africa Women’s Cup thrice and Rugby Africa Women Sevens Olympic qualifiers 2019).
Raised in a family of eight siblings (four boys and four girls), Adhiambo fell in love with rugby at the age of 12.
“At first, I played rugby for fun. However, after some time, I started taking it seriously. I would even lie to my mother that I was going for football practice since if she knew it was playing rugby (which to her amounted to fighting), she wouldn’t allow it,” Adhiambo said.
In 2013, she joined Nakuru RFC Academy while in class 5, a move that changed her life and opened bigger doors.
“Joining Nakuru came with benefits. The club offered to pay for our school fees and provided us with lunch while we trained at the club. This really helped me both academically and on the pitch," said Adhiambo.
Two years later, she got her first call up to the national team after her heroics in the Top Fry Prinsloo Women Sevens.
In 2014, while still a class 6 pupil, she was voted Prinsloo Most Valuable Player (MVP) before being the Top Try Scorer in 2015 at the same stage.
Her performances convinced the then Lioness head coach Michael Shamia to name Adhiambo for her first international tour to France in May 2016.
She would proceed to represent the national team in Italy the same year before going for the Hong Kong Sevens and Commonwealth Games qualifiers in 2017.
“The exposure was great and encouraging. Playing at the biggest stage of rugby in the world made me realise that I have to do more for me to get better and help my team,” said Adhiambo.
'Baby Shark', as she is referred to by her teammates, continued to make strides locally as she was named Impala Floodlight Women’s 15s Most Promising Player in 2017.
Adhiambo, now a regular with the Lionesses, represented Kenya again in the 2018 Hong Kong Sevens, Commonwealth games and Africa Women’s Cup.
Last year, she also made the national team to the Hong Kong Sevens and Women 15s World Cup qualifiers.
She was also pivotal in helping the national team qualify for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
She scored four tries (including one in the semifinals) and converted over 15 tries in the qualifiers held in Tunisia, a feat she is proud of and seeks to improve on this year and in next year's Olympics.
Kenya Lionesses head coach Felix Oloo believes Adhiambo will hit her best in the next few years but called for patience, describing her as the future engine of the Sevens team.
“Adhiambo’s development has been progressive and fruitful. She is becoming stronger and fitter than before. Her impact in the team is always positive and I believe we will see the best of her soon,” he said.
Nakuru RFC coach Jotham Lango said he is impressed with the progress of the Nakuru bred player terming her as a courageous player.
“Grace grew up with rugby since her childhood and through her teenage years. So, to see her grow and blossom over the years is remarkable. Her approach and style of play is commendable and I believe she is the future,” said Lango.
Adhiambo will sit for her KCSE exams at the end of this year.