Catherine Spencer – Blind Summits
Written By Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by Catherine Spencer
Lead photo by Lucy Mohr
I recently had the pleasure of chatting to a legend. Catherine Spencer, founder of the business Inspiring Women, former Women’s England Rugby Captain and author is currently writing her book, ‘Mud, Maul, Mascara’ and is a woman with heart.
She describes her rugby career as a ‘series of blind summits reached while climbing up a mountain’ as there wasn’t a lot of publicity around women’s rugby at the time, so she wasn’t sure how far she could progress. With every level that she ‘climbed to’, she became aware that there was another ‘peak’ to reach towards. It struck me, as we chatted, that this is so often how life goes. We never know what’s around the corner and as we forge our way forward, anything could be waiting. I guess the secret lies in taking a leaf out of Catherine’s book and climbing ‘blind’, as long as you keep going (best not to focus too much on looking back or down either – easier said than done!). Catherine’s sporting achievements alone, are phenomenal – playing rugby for England, whilst still working her day job to make ends meet. I was slightly nervous before our conversation, not knowing what to expect from someone who has achieved so much, but I found a kind, easy to talk to, quietly confident woman, who is a role model for both men and women.
Rugby and sport run in her genes, as Catherine comes from a family where her dad played rugby and her mum, a PE teacher, played hockey. Catherine and her twin brother joined the same team and started playing mini rugby together back in the mid-80’s. Receiving her first England cap against Wales in the 2004 Six Nations must have been a proud moment in the Spencer household. She went on to achieve 63 caps for England, playing in two World Cup Finals, one of which she captained but, frustratingly, England lost both finals to New Zealand.
One of the greatest challenges that Catherine faced, at this point, was her decision to retire from the game in 2011. As with many sportsmen and women, knowing when to ‘hang up your boots’ can be an agonising decision, which was further compounded for Catherine by the fact that in 2014, she watched the England Women’s Rugby team win the World Cup without her. She says that the range of emotions that she experienced at this point were almost inexplicable and would have taken a good psychologist many hours to unravel.
Taking on a role as Women’s Rugby Development Officer for the South West in 2010, meant that Catherine was responsible for developing the game across Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire. She says that in some ways it was the perfect job for her, but in other ways, it was difficult. She could never get away from the game and had to go out every day and face the fact that she hadn’t quite achieved her dream of winning the Rugby World Cup.
Realising that she had spent most of her life promoting women’s rugby, it dawned on her that she needed to explore a new venture. She says her role was quite demanding in that she attended a lot of sporting events and listened to many keynote speakers, noticing that 99% of them were male. In a ‘lightbulb moment,’ she said, ‘Hang on, I know there are females who have a story to tell, who can add value’ and so her business ‘Inspiring Women’ was born.
She is passionate that sportswomen and women, in general, feel self-value and wanted to provide a platform for them to stand up and tell their stories. She now works with a number of different women, from all walks of life, who are invited to be keynote speakers at various events. In fact, Catherine was the first woman to MC a men’s post-match function at Twickenham, impressive to say the least, especially since the first test at Twickenham was in the early 1900’s. They asked her back for a second time which just shows how well she was received. Of the experience, she says, ‘You feel a big responsibility to do a good job as you are doing it for ‘femalekind’ not just yourself.’
Another of Catherine’s passions is opportunity and equality for all, regardless of gender, where you are from or your skin colour. She believes that if you want to do something that you should be given an equal choice. This passion led to her becoming an ambassador for the Tag Rugby Trust in 2007, travelling to various countries to promote the programme. The trust developed FITR (Female Inspiration Through Rugby) which is currently running in Zimbabwe, and through rugby, is developing young female leaders, training them up as mentors. These mentors are, in turn, working with younger girls in their communities. They are also funding Butterfly Cups to be provided for girls who don’t have access to feminine hygiene products, this means that they can keep going to school during menstruation.
She wants to encourage women of all ages to be leaders, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to manage a team of ten or twenty, but that they have the confidence to step out and be the best version of themselves.
I asked Catherine what some of the high points have been in her career so far and she said that it had to be beating New Zealand at Twickenham in 2009. It was in front of a record-breaking crowd, was her fiftieth cap, she scored the only try, was captain and she got player of the match. As a rugby fan, I know how impressive that is, and it’s definitely one of the highest ‘high’ points that I’ve written about!
As mentioned earlier, Catherine is in the process of writing her book ‘Mud, Maul, Mascara’ which should be on the shelves by Spring 2020. If her blog on the ‘Inspiring Women’ Website is anything to go by, it should be an interesting and inspiring read. In one of her blogs called If I like being a wife, can I still support the notion of strong women? Catherine writes:
‘… I am happy for my husband to take the bins out, I loved being walked down the aisle by my Dad and handed over to my new husband. Am I a fraud?’ she continues, ‘Over the last 4 years I have learnt a lot about being a woman; I have come to accept that we are different to men and that is completely ok. We should celebrate our differences and utilise our natural strengths….’
With thought-provoking words like these, I am looking forward to her new book and will definitely be ordering a copy.
Asking Catherine for the best life advice that she has received she said, ‘Don’t think too much, just do it and don’t overthink things. If something doesn’t work out, don’t worry, do something else. Put your hand up and go for it. Think about what you can do, not what you can’t do’.
Wise words that resonate with me. Catherine Spencer, an inspiring woman indeed!
If you would like to get in touch with Catherine, pop onto her website.