Growing up in Georgia, Vermont, Jessika Marshall was a multi-talented athlete. Her middle school years were filled with athletics including soccer, basketball, and softball, but if you would have asked Jess, her heart was always with soccer. That all changed when she was introduced to rugby.
“I ended up going to a different high school than all of my friends from middle school and suddenly soccer felt stressful. The team had been playing with each other for such a long time, yet there were clearly two distinctive groups on the field and cliques from school transferred onto the field in a way that made it feel like there was more competition between players than between teams. I actually considered quitting school sports all together and joining a club soccer team but doubted whether I was good enough. That’s when my brother and a good friend of mine started playing rugby. They recruited me and I knew from the first practice that this was the community I was looking for.”
A successful high school rugby career was followed by a move to New Zealand. Rugby played a big role in helping Jess select New Zealand as a destination, and she was fortunate to be able to continue playing the game she loved with local pick-up teams. “I knew that in New Zealand, even though I would be far away from friends and family, I would still have a community within rugby. That is honestly the most amazing part of the sport for me. My high school coach would always say “wherever you find a rugger, you find a friend” and I have always found that to be true.”
After returning to the United States, Jess relocated to California, where you’ll find her today serving as the San Diego Program Manager for Girls Rugby. A year into the role and thriving, Jess has had a positive impact in the San Diego area, leading to an increase in registration rates, with almost 100 participants for 2021 alone. Jess’s academic qualifications, a BA degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Critical Gender Studies, along with her experience as a player and a coach have provided her with an inspired outlook on the role.
Prior to earning her degree, Jess was fortunate to be able to serve as coach to a women’s team at an alternative high school, while also playing for Mira Costa College. With a daycare on site, many of the players on Jess’s high school team were juggling multiple roles as student, player, and mom. The girls’ dedication and efforts left a lasting impact on Jess, “I saw how powerful the sport was for them. For a few hours a day they got to be kids, playing a sport, doing something for themselves. I remember one of the students telling me that they were proud to be a rugby player, because they want their daughter to know that their mom is strong.”
A tough job market post grad, coupled with a global pandemic had Jess feeling discouraged about employment possibilities. Upon seeing an opportunity to join the San Diego branch of Girls Rugby, Jess felt that she had found the perfect role. “When I saw the Girls Rugby post for this position, I felt like the job description had been written for me. The empowerment component of Girls Rugby is everything that I felt on the pitch and everything I had learned about in my education, but I had never seen put together.”
“While I was earning my degree, I really began to understand how huge of a role Gender plays in our society. How women are socialized differently than men and there is quantitative data that shows how this socialization impedes or caps women’s success in their profession, finances, STEM, athletics and so much more. It makes perfect sense to me that the rugby pitch is an empowering place for women. We are naturally strong and powerful, yet all too often taught that those are not desirable qualities. So, when we find a place where we can really embody these characteristics (and be praised for it), how would that not feel like home?”
“The thought that I could be a part of bringing the game to girls as young as 7 was mind blowing! I know what a life changing experience rugby has been for me, and I would have loved to find the game at a much younger age. That’s what I think about when I see our numbers grow; it’s one more girl that is going to have that experience.”
As she continues to grow in her role, Jess draws inspiration from Girls Rugby founders Erin Kennedy and Jenn Heinrich. Looking to the future, she hopes to continue to embody the Girls Rugby mission, to empower girls to reach their fullest potential through sport. Creating space for girls to build confidence, practice their leadership skills, and feel accepted for who they are and proud of it, are all pillars that Jess is passionate about including in the San Diego program. “Girls hear so often that they need to changethemselves or make themselves smaller to be valuable – I want to erase that narrative all together. Women are powerful and we deserve a spot on the field and a place at the CEO table.”