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Mexico's Serpientes Set to make sevens world cup history: With pride and heart

Story and Photos: Mark Janzen In Spanish, the phrase is “No nos preocupamos. Nos ocupamos.” Directly translated, it’s “We do not preoccupy. We occupy ourselves.” Simplified further – and perhaps most aptly adjusted to best reflect Mexico’s women’s sevens side – it’s “We don’t worry about problems. We solve problems.” It might not exactly be the team slogan, but it’s a working mantra that the team – coaches, managers, players and trainers included – embraces. It’s the reason a country that has little rugby-playing history and less than a decade of formal international experiences within the women’s sphere is about to see the Serpientes make their debut in the Rugby World Cup Sevens. No matter the hurdle – be it financial or travel or injuries or opponents or any other number of extenuating circumstances – this family, which is led by Canadian coach Robin MacDowell, has found a way to get up and over and carry on. And, as their team t-shirts read and their dedication presents, they’re doing it all “Por Mexico.” It doesn’t take long for the singing to begin. With the bus barely beyond the gates of Shawnigan Lake School – a prestigious Canadian boarding school on Vancouver Island where Mexico is spending the final week before the start of the World Cup – the team is already belting out a favoured Spanish selection. In the fourth row of the bus, the smiley Zoe Tuyu – an up-and-coming star – is wearing a sombrero. It’s her 19th birthday, so she sports the Mexican hat for the rest of the day. The moment seems all too stereotypical, but, at the same time, all too fun and precisely what this team is all about. The day before, Mexico had taken on Canada in an exhibition contest. Playing one of the top teams in the world was a learning experience. Today, the team is on its way to the Cowichan Rugby Club set to work through the elements that were revealed against a Canadian side that finished fourth overall in this year’s World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. For MacDowell, 38, the trip to the Duncan, B.C. based rugby club marks a return to the same field, at 1860 Herd Road, where he participated in his first-ever rugby practice. The Serpientes, not dissimilar to their coach in his playing days, are determined to find a way forward. As a player, MacDowell was cut from Canada’s national sevens team seven years in a row before finally making as a 26-year-old. He went on to play in 13 tournaments from 2005 to 2007. His determination is not lost on his players. Arriving at MacDowell’s home club, it seems fitting that his never-quit, problem-solving Mexican side would roll into the parking lot with laughter and songs. After all, today is a new day, and the team’s World Cup debut is just over a week away. The field where MacDowell earned his start and where the team will practice today is literally plopped in the middle of farmland. As practice carries on, curious cattle mosey on by. Cordoned off by a surrounding fence, the local cows always have a front row seat. Before practice, MacDowell aims to solidify his team’s confidence and extinguish nerves. “You’re good,” he says. “You’re ready.” Practice happens. In MacDowell’s year and a half as the team’s head coach, they’ve had better practices, but with a controlled scrimmage against Canada the following day, it’s a step in the right direction. Following practice, MacDowell and the team host a training session for kids. His coaching philosophy is simple. “If my players are sweating and they’re smiling, I’m doing my job.” His approach is no different with the kids. There are a lot of laughs, a lot of games, and a lot of running and the children love it. No matter the moment, MacDowell, who has an exhaustive coaching resume, including recently helping Canada’s U18 team qualify for this year’s Youth Olympic Games, wants to grow the game. He’d be happy if even just one player from the 20 or so children who showed up today eventually chose to continue on with rugby. “Sports changes people and it gives people opportunity and hope,” MacDowell says, alluding to both his team and the youngsters. Sitting down for a post-practice salmon barbecue, former captain Michelle Farah, 28, recalls her first competition with Mexico. She started playing rugby in 2011, and within a couple months found her way onto the national side playing at the NACRA Sevens Championship in Barbados. She admits they were all still pretty new to the sport at the time, yet the experience was one that will stick with her forever. “It’s the biggest pride,” Farah says. “It’s a feeling that you’re Mexico. You play your heart out and you want to make all of the people who support you proud. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt. I think it’s an addiction. That’s why I’m still here.” Farah then moves on to arguably the biggest moment in Mexican women’s rugby history. She describes the moment when Mexico qualified for the World Cup at the 2017 Rugby Americas North (RAN) Championship. Having surgery to repair a torn ACL just two weeks before that all-important tournament, Farah was forced to watch from the sidelines. With a few other star players already injured, including Tuyu, who was also out with a torn ACL, Mexico beat Trinidad and Tobago 5-0 in the tournament final to secure a spot in this year’s World Cup. “I just started crying,” Farah says. “I was crying and laughing. It was a very special moment.” It was a history-making moment that elevated Mexico into a sporting stratosphere that could have far-flung reverberations within her country. “I think (being in the World Cup) can be an inspiration for every woman in Mexico,” she says. “For female rugby in Mexico, it is a great thing. Hopefully this sets a precedent and we can start playing more consistently at this level. “I heard a saying that’s like: ‘Work until your idols become your rivals.’ I think this is that moment.” The next day, inside Shawnigan Lake’s Hogwarts-esque dining hall, Ana Galeas, 18, walks in for breakfast carrying a stuffie-style snake. It’s the team’s mascot and the youngest player on the roster is required to bring it to every practice and every game. Conciencia (Consciousness), as it is named, has been around for several years, with sewn patches representing the various tournaments and training camps the Serpientes have attended. Galeas has only been with the national team since February, but her drive to succeed is as strong as any of the players who have journeyed with Conciencia. “When you want something, you find a way to do it,” she says, while already imagining a rugby-playing path towards the Olympics. “I’m living my dream,” she says. “I want to be here and I’m trying to be better every day.” In this particular moment, Galeas and her teammates have several phones propped up on the breakfast table. They’re all intent on watching Mexico’s opening contest in the RAN Women’s 10s tournament. The 10s program is also run under MacDowell’s direction and both the sevens and 10s teams are built through the same player pool. The team at Shawnigan is engrossed. To a great many cheers, Mexico holds an early lead against Jamaica. But in the end, Mexico’s 10s side loses 17-14. A palpable deflation sucks the air out of the viewers. It’s not fun to watch family lose. Now it’s time to travel to Westhills Stadium in Langford, B.C. to play Canada. If Mexico can earn its way onto the World Rugby Sevens Series – something MacDowell believes is possible within two years – this is where the Canadian stop will be contested. Sitting in the front row of the bus on the way to Langford is Payo Rodriguez. She’s one of two managers who make the off-field things happen. With a bright smile and a dimple to boot, she’s as much a part of the fun as anyone else. Yet, she’s also the spunky, straight-shooter who doesn’t take “no” for an answer from anyone. She’s the one who subscribes and drives the “No nos preocupamos. Nos ocupamos.” refrain. “Ric Suggitt taught me to surround myself with better people,” MacDowell says, recalling the influence of the former Canadian and American head coach who passed away in 2017. “I have a staff around me that’s way smarter and way better than I am and that’s better for the team.” Today, Rodriguez will accompany Tuyu to a local hospital to have her knee examined. Since Tuyu had ACL surgery last fall, she has spent the better part of nine months in full-on rehabilitation. Her return to the roster is a sign of her dedication. But in the first game against Canada, Tuyu had reinjured the same knee. Tuyu and Rodriguez take the bus to get a doctor’s opinion. The team practices while Tuyu learns her fate. Going up against Canada didn’t seem quite as daunting as it did two days before. Prior to their previous contest with their hosts, this specific group hadn’t played anything close to Canada in terms of quality. Today, they seem to be finding their groove. “Looking better today,” MacDowell says with a sense of contentment. Following practice, captain Daniela Rosales, 29, sits in the bleachers looking toward an empty field. Rosales is the long-standing veteran of the group. She’s been involved with Mexico’s national team since the beginning. She was on the Mexican roster that made its debut in the NACRA Women’s Sevens tournament in 2009, finishing with three wins, four losses and a draw. She’s seen it all. However, the veteran is now in a battle for her spot. With the depth in women’s rugby in Mexico growing, Rosales' once-presumed starting scrumhalf position is now being contested. While the rising talent has challenged Rosales, she’s thrilled to see the development of the sport in her country. “The program is growing a lot and (MacDowell) is giving spots to young ones,” Rosales says. “Women’s sports isn’t big in Mexico, but I hope (the World Cup) gives an encouragement to women to keep dreaming and keeping going for their dreams. If we can do it, anyone can. In Mexico, you can find a lot of barriers and I think this will help them and help other ones to keep trying.” About an hour after practice, the bus returns. Tuyu’s news isn’t good. It seems likely her World Cup dreams have been dashed. In an instant, the team surrounds her. The bus is quiet on the way home. The family is as crushed as Tuyu herself. The bus driver stops at a lookout point. The players take a few photos. Salt Spring Island is to the north, while the peninsula that hosts the Victoria International Airport sits directly in front of the viewpoint. The ever-snowy Mount Baker, which resides in the state of Washington, provides a distant background. However, the team is more concerned with Tuyu. They huddle around her and cry together. A few miles down the road, in Mill Bay, the bus stops again. This time, it’s for ice cream. MacDowell – the head problem-solver – pays for the team to have a treat. Sitting at a table on the roadside patio, flyhalf Karmin Macedo looks at a phone. The USA recently announced its World Cup roster and Macedo wants to know who made it. Born in San Diego, Macedo was on the verge of cracking the Eagles roster for both the sevens and 15s side. She was a star at Notre Dame College and quickly put herself into the mix with USA’s national program. However, she had yet to be capped by the Eagles. MacDowell reached out to her late last year and she came to Mexico for a camp this past January. She bought in. “For me, I loved seeing the drive to grow within the sport, and the pride they take, and the learning and wanting to become better rugby players to represent their country,” Macedo says. She made her debut in a Mexican jersey in Hong Kong at the World Series qualifying tournament in April. “It’s a huge pride that all of us take,” she says. “Because we’re coming out of the stereotypical viewpoint of most people, it’s really nice to be so empowered to not be in the box.” Looking at the phone, most of the names on the USA’s roster were friends. Now, Macedo has a chance to come “home” and play for her country. “It’s very emotional,” she says. “The amount of support that I’ve received from both Mexico and the (U.S.) has been overwhelming. I get to represent my roots in the place where I was born. I feel the honour of bringing the two different cultures together and being able say I’m a proud American and I’m a proud Mexican. Putting on the jersey is so much bigger than me. We want to put Mexico on the world map. Anything is possible. We want to make a statement that rugby is growing in Mexico.” After arriving back at Shawnigan, the lake awaits. With most of the team gathering on the dock, they line up on the edge, nervously anticipating a coordinated leap into Shawnigan Lake. Some stereotypes fit. They don’t like cold. They eventually end up jumping in three times to get the perfect photo. The spirits are improved. A laugh seems never far away. “We don’t stop,” Rosales says. “We just keep going on having a happy environment. On the field, we’re family just as we are off the field.” Coming out of the water, they lounge on the dock. They’re all wearing black wristbands with the words: Calidad, Acompanamento and Diversion. Translated, it’s simple: Quality. Togetherness. Fun. From a distance, it could be any group of women. It could be friends. It could be family. It could be a team. “We have song, we have dance,” MacDowell says. “We have family, we have love.” It’s who they are.