Maria Thomas, BA’05, grew up competing in a dozen or so sports, from ballet to wrestling. Rugby wasn’t one of them.
When she arrived at Western for her studies, she spent hours working out in the gym and dabbling in other sports. Rugby still wasn’t one of them.
But here she is today: president of the Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Union (TTRU), the first woman to hold an executive post in the national organization, and signing all her emails, Life is Rugby.
“I hadn’t planned all of this. If I’d planned it, I think I would have thought, there are way too many obstacles, and that would have discouraged me,” she said.
“I believe people focus on specific pathways sometimes and if you’re hyper-focused on what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, you may miss out on the path that leads to what you’re actually meant to do.”
Thomas’s university career began at Brescia University College, where the emphasis on female leadership reinforced the strengths her parents had instilled in her.
She continued in anthropology studies at Western’s main campus and that helped open for her a world of different cultural perspectives and contexts. “I think it provided the best preparation for what I do now. It provided an academic basis for critical processing of my environment.”
Beyond her studies, though, she spent a lot of time working out at Western’s recreation centre.
“Tamara Dixon (a friend, Western rugby player and Jamaica Rugby star) watched how hard I worked out, from one aerobics class to dance class to another workout in the weight room, and she said, ‘You have to give rugby another shot.’”
Power and strength
Thomas had tried out for the rugby 7s varsity team at Western in her first year and didn’t make the team (“I was enthusiastic, but I wasn’t very good”) but found a niche at London St. George’s Rugby Club, where she thrived.
“Power and strength are my forte, not speed.”
When she suffered a concussion, the experts at the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic “provided the most amazing, amazing support,” she said.
“They not only helped me with my recovery, the experience emphasized how important it is to listen to what the athlete and the athlete’s body is saying. Rugby players won’t often tell you they’re hurting, and Fowler Kennedy was a good lesson in how to do what’s best for an athlete’s welfare and well-being.”
She remembered that lesson after she graduated and moved to Trinidad and Tobago in 2010 to work and play competitive rugby at an international level (she has dual citizenship). She was elected secretary of the national rugby organization.
Selected for a World Rugby Leadership Scholarship, Thomas was in Sochi, Russia, completing an intensive 10-month master’s degree in sport administration at the Russian International Olympic University when the pandemic began.
She spent three months in a quarantining hopscotch through several countries as she made her way back home.
And, soon after having been persuaded to run for the TTRU’s top management and administrative post, she was elected its first woman president.
“While I acknowledge and appreciate the significance of that, I don’t lead with it because I don’t see it as a weakness to overcome, but rather a strength that empowers me to better do the work; understanding the importance of equal representation,” she said.
Her work at TTRU entails advocating on behalf of seven national rugby teams, including advocacy to Rugby Americas North, which governs the sport in 21 countries, including Canada and the U.S.
During her short tenure so far (she is aiming for a second run at the position this year), she has led a management team celebrating 100 years of rugby in Trinidad and Tobago; rebranded the TTRU; worked towards new sponsorships; solidified athlete financial support; and provided a stronger voice on the international rugby stage.
At the same time, she is guiding rugby teams back into local and international play as pandemic restrictions lift.
“The advancements we are making do fill me with pride but I cannot single-handedly take credit. I am doing the work that I signed up for, in what I’ll go so far as to say is a Canadian way – I’m holding doors open so people can walk through. We have the capacity in Trinidad and Tobago, and the opportunities are there. The challenge has been accessand that is what I strive to facilitate.”
Thomas believes her advocacy work and credibility are strengthened by having been a rugby player first, and still.
She continues to compete at a high international level.
“When it comes to ‘retirement’, my philosophy is that someone should retire me if they train harder than I do, work harder than I do, play better than I do. I’d be disappointed to have to leave the competitive side of it, but I’d know I had done my part to improve someone else’s game and to elevate the sport itself.
“Succession planning applies to teams as well as administration and management.”