10 years ago, Fabiola De La Cruz discovered rugby after butting into a friend’s conversation. She heard one friend invite another to play rugby, and decided that she would also like to give it a try. Her friend encouraged her to try it out, as his sister played on the women’s team. Fabiola took down the team information and let her curiosity lead her to the pitch the following day. Fast forward to 2021, and you’ll still find Fabiola playing for Imix Rugby, the first female team in Mexico, often ranked within the top 3 women’s teams in Mexico.
Throughout her decade long rugby career, Fabiola has experienced many major moments, most notably winning a gold medal at the National Olympiad in 2013 with the Jalisco state team. “The National Olympiad is the largest and most important youth competition in Mexico, athletes under 21 years of age prepare all year for that competition. It is not played by clubs; it is played by the states / provinces. The year we won the gold medal, our families were able to watch us play because the competition was in Jalisco.” While the game was important, she also reflects back on the feeling of excitement at seeing the stadium filled with people supporting her and her teammates. “When the final whistle blew, the stadium exploded with emotion, it will stay in my mind and heart forever.” Sharing this achievement with her best friend only made the victory sweeter.
In addition to playing, Fabiola has also established herself as a referee, becoming the first woman to represent Mexico abroad as a referee in an international tournament, something that she never expected.
As a requirement of the Mexico Rugby Federation, each club must present a referee in order to play in the domestic season. Along with several of her Imix teammates, Fabiola registered for the Level 1 course, staying on as a referee after her friends opted to drop the course. “At first I thought, ‘well, someone has to do it.’ I never imagined that being a referee was going to be something that I enjoy so much. I always say that it’s like being a VIP spectator. You can be on the field watching every moment, hearing the blows and the shouts, seeing the emotion and the delivery of the teams. You live the same game as the players but from a different perspective.” Although her teammates didn’t complete the course, Fabiola credits them with pushing her to actively pursue refereeing. As a domestic referee, Fabiola takes her job seriously, often playing on the same day that she has to ref, sometimes with as little as 15 minutes between the games.
While she enjoys domestic refereeing, her experience as the first woman to represent Mexico abroad as a referee in an international tournament is untouchable. “When I was told that I would be the first female to travel to another country to participate as a referee, I had no idea how much it involved and the impact it would have on me. It’s one of those things that you think can happen to others, but when it happens to you, you can’t believe it. I was very nervous and very excited. I had no idea what to expect, I just knew that I had to do my best and learn everything I could. As a referee I care about the players. Whenever I go onto the field I think: make it fun and don’t let anyone get hurt. It has been one of the most incredible, enriching, and fun experiences of my life. Being a referee also demands a level of physical and mental effort and working with such experienced and humble referees from different countries, and different cultures was wonderful. They become your family, they get tired just like you, they get overwhelmed, they get frustrated and yet it’s a team too. A team of referees that work with you all the time.”
Fabiola has continued to break barriers in the world of refereeing. In 2020, she became the first woman ever to referee a National Final Women’s Club Championship. “It was a privilege to whistle this historical match. A woman had never been a Final referee on a regular season within the men’s or women’s league until 2020. I feel so honored to have been the first.”
Fabiola is hopeful to leave a lasting impact on Mexico Rugby. Creating interest and doing away with the notion that rugby is a man’s game are at the top of her list. “Two years ago I was a referee at a university tournament, where there were only men’s teams and all of the games were refereed by myself and Lola. Parents were surprised that there were no male referees for the entire tournament, and that all games were whistled by two women. They congratulated us, took photos with us. I would like to make a change, inspire more women to be referees. Let women feel confident to take a whistle and stand on a field with 30 players who are going to respect them and who know they can do their job as well as any man. Currently World Rugby is counting on women in all areas, as players, referees, doctors, and coaches. It is a historical moment where there are many opportunities for us, where there are fewer prejudices and many possibilities. I hope that many girls and women will see refereeing as a way to remain involved with rugby in the long term.”