Coast Guardsman leads service’s first women’s rugby team at Las Vegas tournament

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki

The Coast Guard women’s rugby team poses together after finishing the Las Vegas Invitational, the largest rugby tournament in North America, March 2, 2018. This was the inaugural appearance of the women’s team, who competed against multiple women’s open divisions over the annual multi-day event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson.

The Coast Guard women’s rugby team poses together after finishing the Las Vegas Invitational, the largest rugby tournament in North America, March 2, 2018. This was the inaugural appearance of the women’s team, who competed against multiple women’s open divisions over the annual multi-day event. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson.

Scrum. Ruck. Mulligrubber. Knock-on. Maul. Grubberkick.

For anyone unfamiliar with the sport of rugby, these terms might sound like components of a foreign language. For Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, an avid rugby player for over 10 years, these words make up her daily lexicon.

Other areas of her life involve specialized jargon, as well; Gamache is a machinery technician who works on Coast Guard cutter engines by day and studies calculus and engineering by night. The title of her unit – the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth’s Naval Engineering Department – is as complex as the job itself, but she said she is always happy to enlighten others on her team’s mission.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., poses for a portrait in the Naval Engineering Department on base, Feb. 27, 2018. Gamache, a rugby player for 10 years, recently served as co-captain on the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team during the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., poses for a portrait in the Naval Engineering Department on base, Feb. 27, 2018. Gamache, a rugby player for 10 years, recently served as co-captain on the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team during the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

“We support the base’s cutters, mainly the 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters and 87-foot patrol boats,” Gamache said. “We are the specialists who come in and do the bigger jobs like engine overhauls and engine swaps.”

Just as she is used to describing procedures like top-end overhauls to the mechanically-disinclined, Gamache frequently explains rugby to those who are clueless yet curious about the sport.

“People are surprised when I tell them I play rugby,” Gamache said. “They say, ‘Oh, is that the sport with the stick and the ball?’ Then I have to explain what it really is, but I enjoy educating people.

“When I first started playing in college, I thought the rules were really funny,” the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, native recalled. “In rugby, you pass backwards, which many people find counterintuitive. There’s no stoppage in play. It’s a full-contact sport without much padding. But even so, for me it was love at first match. Rugby is my outlet and source of empowerment.”

Gamache has played for local rugby club Norfolk Storm since 2013 and serves as the team’s scrum-half – a position similar to a quarterback.

“Playing for Norfolk Storm is where I developed as a player,” Gamache said. “It’s where the game started making sense to me, and things really clicked.”

With workouts and conditioning sessions in the off-season, practices twice a week and games on Saturdays, Gamache devotes a great deal of time to the sport she loves, balancing rugby and her Coast Guard responsibilities.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., chuckles with Norfolk Storm teammates during their coach’s briefing at the Northside Middle School gym, March 6, 2018. Gamache has been playing with the Norfolk Storm women’s rugby team since 2013 and recently joined the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team at the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., chuckles with Norfolk Storm teammates during their coach’s briefing at the Northside Middle School gym, March 6, 2018. Gamache has been playing with the Norfolk Storm women’s rugby team since 2013 and recently joined the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team at the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

While she considers her main hobby and her profession as separate parts of her life, the two worlds recently collided during the Las Vegas Invitational rugby tournament from March 1 to 3.

The LVI tournament, a subset of the USA Sevens Rugby international tournament, is the largest amateur rugby tournament in North America and typically hosts more than 275 teams from around the world.

Since 1983, the Coast Guard Men’s Rugby Team has habitually participated in such tournaments, but this year, they weren’t alone in representing their branch.

For the first time ever, the Coast Guard’s Women’s Rugby Team descended upon the rugby field, each of the 13 women sporting orange-checked jerseys and the crossed anchors of the service’s emblem. Ranging from petty officers to lieutenants, active duty members to reservists, the women represented multiple Coast Guard occupations and units from Hawaii to New York.

Lt. j.g. Kelly Bishop, the team’s Seattle-based assistant coach, commended the group of ruggers on their adaptability.

“It was challenging,” Bishop said. “We only had two one-hour practices, and a few had never played 7’s-style rugby before. However, they all played their hearts out and did surprisingly well.”

The team kicked off the tournament on Thursday morning by handily defeating the South Sound Assassins of Olympia, Washington, 44-0.

“Even though we won, that definitely wasn’t our best match,” said Gamache. “We steadily improved throughout the tournament, and our greatest match ended up being our last one on Friday afternoon. That’s when we gelled and started to play off each other rather than as individuals.”

Lt. Cmdr. Keith Wilkins, officer in charge of the Coast Guard Rugby program, agreed that the team’s success is better measured in effort and attitude than number of victories.

“The level of effort given by each athlete from the time the first training started to the very last whistle was extremely high,” said Wilkins, who along with program manager Lt. j.g. Vincent Nitopi and head coach Sean Lindersmith helped make the women’s team a reality. “The motivation by each individual woman towards the team goal was a resounding success and a foundational building block for the women’s program.”

Alongside Oregon-based Lt. Danielle Brown, Gamache served as the team’s co-captain and led the 13 athletes through all six of their matches, channeling a decade of rugby experience as she rallied her teammates.

“[Petty Officer] Gamache’s versatility and athleticism allowed her to play multiple positions on the field, which made her a consistent scoring threat,” said Wilkins. “She was solid on defense, sticking tackles and making great open field decisions. Her leadership as co-captain was superb.”

Despite the team’s hard work and triumphs during the tournament, Gamache said the time spent bonding and getting to know each other off the rugby field was equally important.

During one gathering, each member of the women’s team brought an item of great personal value and shared its significance with the group. Gamache brought her Norfolk Storm sweatshirt, a testament to her love for her club and her passion for the game.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., runs passing drills with a Norfolk Storm teammate at the Northside Middle School gym, March 6, 2018. Gamache has been playing rugby with the Norfolk Storm women’s team since 2013 and recently joined the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team at the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Gamache, a machinery technician with the Maintenance Augmentation Team at Base Portsmouth, Va., runs passing drills with a Norfolk Storm teammate at the Northside Middle School gym, March 6, 2018. Gamache has been playing rugby with the Norfolk Storm women’s team since 2013 and recently joined the first Coast Guard women’s rugby team at the Las Vegas Invitational tournament from March 1 to March 3, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

She said that one of her favorite aspects of the tournament was being surrounded by people who shared her enthusiasm for rugby, including her teammates, counterparts on the Coast Guard Men’s Rugby Team, coaches, and thousands of other athletes and spectators.

“Rugby is unique in the sense that it takes the fitness of soccer, the physical toughness of football, hockey, lacrosse and wrestling, and rolls them together to create a game that has a position for everyone,” said Wilkins, echoing Gamache’s fervor. “It brings all kinds of people, communities, experience levels and job backgrounds together.”

Such was the case at the LVI tournament, during which women of so many different backgrounds and skillsets melded together to represent the Coast Guard.

“It was great being part of that experience,” Gamache said. “I am incredibly proud to have shared the Coast Guard jersey with the devoted group of women on this inaugural team.”

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