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03 August 2018 | in FISU World University Championships, Rugby

Belgian gymnast turned rugby player

Claes leading out her team at against Australia

SWAKOPMUND, NAMIBIA – Quite the polar opposite of the graceful and rhythmic movements of gymnastics are the often bone-crunching and physical tackles that make up the oval-balled game of rugby ... a sport which former gymnast Shari Claes has now fallen in love with, having given up her leotard for cleats almost half a decade ago.


Claes, who captained the Belgian women’s rugby sevens side to a bronze medal finish at the recently-concluded FISU World University Championships Rugby Sevens tournament held in Namibia, explains how it all came about.


“I’ve been playing rugby for four years now,” she says. “I started when a friend of mine, who played for a team that had just started up near where I live, asked me if I was free to join her at rugby training. So I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ And it turned out to be really cool. I used to do gymnastics, but now I stopped that to play rugby! I really love rugby!”


Claes, a third-year Physiotherapy student at Leuven University, now plays for her local club in the 15-a-side format of the game, while has also been called up to the Belgian senior national sevens team.


She was therefore a natural pick to captain her side at the World University Championships, leading her side out with a cheerful smile before each game as the Belgians eventually finished the tournament in third, beating South Africa 17-0 in the bronze medal match.


“It was really cool,” Claes says of her time in Namibia. “I love playing rugby abroad, but there it was really special, with the weather that was really nice, the atmosphere that was really cool ... it was empowering.


“The whole experience was a little overwhelming for the team though. I didn’t know some of the girls on the team before we got there, so we were not only discovering the country, but also each other and the game as well, but it was very nice.


“The main goal was just to compete as a team, and I think each player grew a lot.”


Although still a minority sport in Belgium, women’s rugby is garnering interest in the small European country, with the women’s game slowly increasing in popularity.


“It’s really growing in Belgium since it became an Olympic sport,” she says. “We now have 38 female teams in Belgium, so it’s really growing. And it’s really cool to be a part of it while it’s growing.”


After helping her university team to bronze in Swakopmund, Claes has now set her sights on her next personal target.


“At the moment I’m just a replacement in the elite national team, so I’m hoping to remain there and one day claim my spot as a starting player in our national team,” she says, before jokingly adding, “If it doesn’t work out as a player, I can then be the team’s physio!”