As Wakefield rugby star Jodie Ounsley signs to Exeter Chiefs, Bethan Andrews chats through her dream of raising awareness of deafness and disability, and her inspirational journey to where she is today
A determined Yorkshire lass through and through, it’s clear that England rugby star Jodie Ounsley has been destined for an illustrious career in sport from a young age. The Wakefield-born rugby player has played for England Sevens Rugby and recently signed with premiership club Exeter Chiefs.
But Jodie isn’t any old sportsperson either, as she explains where it all started for her. “I suppose it started when I was born profoundly deaf, which means essentially no hearing at all in both ears. My mum and dad were made aware of cochlear implants, so I had one at 14 months old and then went on a long journey of rehab and speech therapy sessions,” says Jodie. “I went to mainstream school where I struggled quite a bit as the only deaf person. I think that’s why I turned to sport and got stuck in all the time. I was that girl who took PE so seriously and if we were having a bit of fun, I’d treat it as if it were the Olympics!”
Really, though, Jodie and her family would credit the marvelously titled World Coal Carrying Championships as the thing that gave her the sporting bug. The unique Yorkshire event is something that her family get involved in every year, including Jodie, who won at the ripe age of three (despite needing to be five officially). The aim of the race is to run a mile with a sack of coal on your shoulders, from the pub to the maypole.
Defying the odds and doing so with vigor is something that clearly comes naturally to Jodie. “It was a challenge from the start, but I suppose the real challenges started when I got serious about sport,” she explains. “Rugby came into my life when I was around 15, but if you have a cochlear implant, medical and doctors always say you can’t play contact sports. I didn’t want to accept it, though, so my family looked at ways I could play without going against medical advice. We looked into all different safety measures and came across the scrum cap, and decided to give it a go. I look like an egg, I look awful in it, but if I can play, I can play.”
From the very start of getting onto the pitch, it was evident that Jodie had serious talent and scouts had her playing big games before she even understood the rules. Fast forward to today and Jodie has been through England Under 18s, Yorkshire County and getting her first professional contract when she was 18 before landing at Exeter Chiefs this year. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete,” she beams. “It’s amazing that the woman’s game has changed so much and that I can now have this as my full-time job.”
And for Jodie, having a platform as a professional sportsperson means the world to her both on a personal level and due to being able to use the platform for raising awareness, too. “At the start, I didn’t realise how much of an opportunity it was for this. I’m a shy person and all the way through school, I didn’t speak about my deafness as I didn’t want to be a burden to people. But when I got into the professional environment, it forced me to speak to people. Obviously, it’s a team sport and communication is the biggest part of the game. I realised how privileged I was to be a professional sportsperson and be able to spread awareness – I really take pride in it now and want to make a difference.”
If you haven’t already sensed it, Jodie is incredibly humble and modest. “I don’t count myself as a role model, but I do want to help,” she says. “I want to be able to allow people to be more open-minded and realise that people with disabilities and people who are deaf can achieve in professional sport. We have to adapt and it can be a challenge, but it’s possible. I want the young deaf kids to look up and realise that they can do it too, because they really can!”
On top of her rugby career, Jodie has also founded the platform, Not Just Anyone, which aims to help people realise they can overcome adversity. “Since I opened up about my story, I realised how much of an impact it’s had on myself and the confidence it’s given me to embrace my deafness,” she says. “I wanted to create a platform where people could do the same, share their story in life and inspire each other. It’s really powerful to share experiences and find somewhere you can relate to something. Once I’m not as busy with rugby, I want to take it to a bigger scale.”
As we chat through her big move from Wakefield to Devon, what would Jodie say she loves the most about her home county? “Well, it would have to be the Coal Race, wouldn’t it?!” she laughs. “It’s just such a friendly, family-filled, funny Yorkshire event!”