Running To A Rio Rugby Dream: Part VII

As we get ready to wrap-up our installments of our Running For A Rio Rugby Dream series we have featured as part of our series  the ladies vying for Rio with California club ties. In Part VII we feature Irene Gardener a California Native. Gardner is a native of San Francisco who actually followed her older sister (Elaine) into the sport. When you see Gardner (as with some of the other players we have featured) you don’t get the first  impression that this is a world class athlete and rugby player at that, but if you see photos of Gardner with the dark bruises on her legs you know that she’s rugger through and through.

We were able to get a hold of a busy Gardner who in addition to training for the Olympics, playing rugby, was also working full time then. So we were grateful to steal a bit of her time.

Gardner has played at the top levels pretty much her entire career (so the Olympics are not a stretch for her). However, Gardner doesn’t attribute her success to just playing with great clubs, but to the great coaches she’s had in her career including Laura Cabrera and the legendary Kathy Flores, both who were one-time All Blues players as well (Gardner’s home club). Gardner said she developed the cornerstones to her rugby foundation, her skills and knowledge of the game from these coaches.  “Having played with the All Blue and some thus some of the top rugby players in the nation if not the world, that has excelled my growth as a player” explains Gardner. Gardner says the level of athletes that are housed in her club (the All Blues) have both supported and challenged her rugby career.

  Irene Gardner

  Irene Gardner

Gardner came to the attention of the USA Eagles in August 2011 when she attended the USA Rugby 7s Open Camp in Santa Barbara after the All Blues had earned their first 7s National Title!  Gardner was excited about the addition of rugby to the Olympics and felt then and does still that it will be great for the sport and for all rugby players in the USA.  “It’s a milestone for the sport and it is incredible to see how much the sport has grown, at all levels, in the recent years” says Gardner.

Now Gardner not only brings a great deal of athleticism and enthusiasm to her game she also brings a good deal of her own professional experience which helps with her performance. Gardner is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics! She has her Master’s from the University of Alabama. Gardner says “I apply my knowledge to my own training on a daily bases and set nutrition expectations and goals for myself just as I would on the field or the gym”. For Gardner her performance and recovery plans are centered around nutrition and are key aspects to her training.  People this is world class athlete and a professional dietitian telling you that the nutrition is a key part of your training!  Take heed!

We asked Gardner other than wanting to follow or be like her sister why did she take up the game? Gardner tells a great story. For her other than she always looked up to her older sister and wanted to be like her who played rugby at UC Davis, while a sophomore at Cal (Berkeley) she (Irene) saw an ad in the campus paper (Daily Cal) for rugby and she asked her sister if she should check it out. “An hour later I was signing up for rugby at Cal” recalls Gardner. 

“After the All Blues’ first 7s National Championship in 2011, which was shared with my sister and fellow Eagles Kelly Griffin, Victoria “Vix” Folayan, and former Eagle Nathalie Marchino, Elaine (her sister) made the trip to Santa Barbara for the Open Camp to support my pursuit to play at the next level” says Gardner. All those ladies with the exception of Gardner’s sister have been featured on this site. Gardner explains “Five years later, she (and her husband, Steve, and my amazing boyfriend Nick-listed as my husband on the Team USA website; a typo I’m not mad about), take part in my training while at home to push me to my best. I mean, they’ll do my workouts, all of them, to support my goal. That’s love.”

It doesn’t end there for Gardner. She told us that last year she began the transition from her full-time job in the Bay, to Chula Vista, California so she could train full-time and be closer to the team. Gardner shared that before the move she was trying to train and work on a daily basis and trying to also coach part of that year! Gardner points out “While it was challenging, it was made easy by the fact that I absolutely love this sport! Actually enjoying my career in nutrition combine with my passion for rugby made for long, but completely rewarding days”. For Gardner the keys to the rigors of career and training were balanced by the support of her family, boyfriend and teammates. “Its them who inspire me to be better each day” says Gardner.

OTC Chula Vista, CA Oct 2013.   

OTC Chula Vista, CA Oct 2013.   

Gardner reported that the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista really gives the residents athletes access to world-class facilities for training. They are world class (as we’ve seen/toured it).  It also affords the athletes the critical nutrition and recovery options as well, which are key when you are training full-time.  An appreciative Gardner pointed out “I’m grateful for all those who work tirelessly at the center to take care of us athletes and the facilities.

We asked Gardner if she felt the Olympics and resident program can boost future participation in rugby by girls?  Gardner feels that the addition of 7s to the Olympics will inspire more to play, and provide hope to competitive players at the collegiate and club levels! “With the growth of scholarship opportunities at the collegiate level, I am frequently encouraging young student athletes to give rugby a try.”

In addition to encouraging (sounds more like recruiting) kids to play, Gardner also coaches. In 2014-15 Gardner alongside her fellow Cal Alum and All Blues club-mate Lucy Croy coached the Cal Women’s 7’s program. “As an alum and former Cal player it was an honor to be invited to coach the team and share my passion for rugby 7s with those young athletes.” In addition to coaching Gardner has given back by doing nutrition education for the Cal Rugby program, the clinics the All Blues have hosted, as well as the Serevi High School and Collegiate Camps.

Gardner also got an opportunity to represent women’s rugby and international rugby players at the BABC Rise of Rugby event in her hometown of San Francisco this past August (2015). The humble Gardner said that the experience was truly an honor as she was able to be mixed in with the influential members of the international rugby community or as she says “absolute legends of the game” and be the representative for women’s rugby in America.  For Gardner this was an opportunity for her to try to inspire an increase in the sport of girl’s and women’s rugby domestically as the interest and membership of girls’ and women’s rugby grows. The event also raised money to support the great kids program Play Rugby USA in the Bay Area.

The same question has been asked by us of each of the ladies in this series as we think it is such a selling point to possible ruggers, parents and many of those just starting out. That question as been “How has playing rugby changed your life?” We ask this as we truly believe that rugby is life changing.  A reflective Gardner gave us the following response; “We often reflect on things we wish we would have done or things we would like to do, but upon reflection of things I have done, I would say that rugby has played an instrumental role in my journey over the past 12 years, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Gardner goes on to explain “With rugby in Gardner genes, I have shared countless experiences with my family thanks to rugby, from playing with my sister to have my parents travel around the county to sit at the 50m line and cheer us on”. Similarly to the famous Dr. Seuss book Gardner answers “Oh the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, and the uncapped possibilities rugby invites. Rugby has acted as a vessel for traveling the world, experiencing other cultures, and developing invaluable relationships and life-long friendships, from which I am truly grateful”.  

Gardner is able to reflect on all the lessons and knowledge she’s gain because of rugby. She believes the lessons/experiences from rugby have contributed to her character and her work ethic. “It (rugby) reinforced my upbringing to be disciplined, relentless and most importantly respectful. I am as much as student of the game as I am of life…and I am thankful for all the sport has and continues to provide me”.

L-R V. Folayan  K.Griffin. I.Gardener E. Azevedo

L-R V. Folayan  K.Griffin. I.Gardener E. Azevedo

Hopefully for Gardner,  rugby will give her one more gift in life…an Olympic medal. Gardner’s rugby journey is on going and has been like the Dr. Seuss story “Oh baby the places you’ll go”… we hope she can some day say that she went all the way to the first place podium in Rio.

We can’t thank all the ladies who were able to make time to assist us with the interviews and their clubs who connected us to them (All Blues, San Diego Surfers, and Life West).  We hope this series has shed some additional light on the women’s game, these great athletes, the sacrificed they make, and to understand they are all ruggers in the end. We also hope that their stories will inspire the next generation of girls to take up the game and to seek to get to the top levels. Last we hope that you’ll see that we have outstanding women’s clubs here in this State who have developed many of these players and that you need support them in the future. 

To all the Team USA ladies we say #FlyEaglesFly!