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Twilight Knight

Wednesday Jul 1, 2009 in Magazine

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By Stephen Hanks

The word “transition” is not a particularly hard one to look at or say. It rolls off the tongue and doesn’t contain any of those intimating hard consonants. But the meaning of the word is fraught with implications, because no matter what kind of transition one is going through—career, relationship, relocation, phase of life—the word is all about change. And change, for most people, can be somewhat scary.

A transition can be a less frightening passage into the unknown if one initiates the change. Some even view a transition as a challenge. Competitive athletes fall into that category—as much as a survival instinct as anything else—like the aging pitcher who has to get hitters out with guile because he’s lost the juice on the fastball. But what if you’re an athlete going through two transitions at once; one you initiate and one you have no control over.

Phaidra Knight is an athlete going through such a dual transition. Recently turned 35, the person many observers consider the best American woman 15s player of the past decade has been staring down her athletic mortality while attempting to become a world class talent in rugby 7s. As discussed in the May/June Rugby Magazine “Skill Sessions” department, the transition from 15s to 7s for young players with speed and quickness can be a formidable challenge. It’s even more daunting for a woman in the latter part of her playing career, whose 15s game as a flanker has been predicated on strength and power. But two years ago Phaidra Knight decided she didn’t just want to play both styles, she wanted to play a key role on a US National 7s Team that was preparing to play in the first Women’s World Cup in Dubai.

“I’m into the challenge,” Phaidra Knight says confidently. It’s the summer of 2008 and sitting in a corner table of a health food restaurant in lower Manhattan, Phaidra is talking about her quest to conquer 7s. She has just come from a training session at a local gym and at 5-foot-4, 170 pounds, Phaidra appears as light, fit and buff as she’s been in her entire rugby career. Any heavier or muscular—like the 180-plus pounds she carried in her 15s-playing prime—and she probably wouldn’t make the 7s cut.

“It’s not like a spot on the team is being handed to me because I’ve been a successful 15s player,” she says between sips of a health shake. “In fact, it raises the bar and makes me better. It’s not a comfortable position to be in but at this point in my life being in a discomfort zone is good. If I’m not uncomfortable, I’m probably not doing a lot of growing.”

When Phaidra started thinking about transitioning to 7s, she had accomplished about all one could as an American woman 15s player. Only two years after discovering rugby in 1997 while a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, she was playing for the US Women’s National Team. She was a star in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and was named to the All-World team both times. Phaidra has 21 international caps, was named MVP in a National All-Star Championship (2003), and helped lead the New York Rugby Club to a National Club Championship in 2006.

So what could be the main motivation to transform her training program, her body and her rugby focus to make the US National 7s Team? The first Women’s 7s World Cup was looming (in March).

“Last spring I was just getting back into the 7s program and I had to make a decision whether to stick with 15s or go forward with 7s,” Phaidra explains with a slight Southern accent that reveals her Georgia roots. “I knew I was at the bottom of the 7s pool and while that was a wake-up call for me, it was also a challenge. I knew what I was capable of and I had confidence in myself, so I wanted to take that chance to get to Dubai. I knew it might hurt me moving forward with 15s, but I decided to dedicate myself to 7s.”

Phaidra Knight grew up in Irwinton,
Georgia, almost smack in the middle of the state, which the 2000 census listed as having a population of 587. A self-admitted tomboy, Phaidra dreamed of being a professional athlete and fell in love with football, but the closest she got to the gridiron was cheerleading for the midget league team. “At the year-end party, I was allowed to play with the boys and I would just run through all of them,” she recalls, smiling. “When I was in the fifth grade, I broke my next door neighbor’s arm and he was four years older than me.”

By the time Phaidra got to Wilkinson County Senior High School she had gravitated to basketball and would play point guard on the varsity team all four years, eventually being recruited by some D2 colleges. But Phaidra was also a top five student and had her sights set on going to a DI school. When Alabama State University offered a full academic scholarship, she decided to attend even though there was no promise she would play on the basketball team.

“So I just walked on, made the team as a freshman and might have even been a starter,” Phaidra remembers. “But my parents didn’t really want me to play because it could jeopardize my academics and my scholarship. And, frankly, I lost interest in playing anyway and decided to focus on school.”

Phaidra majored in communications but was also thinking about law school and got a job working for an entertainment lawyer. Her sports outlet was regular gym workouts, but she ratcheted the training up a notch after being mesmerized by a buff Angela Bassett playing singer Tina Turner in the film, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

“I said to myself, ‘Wow, I want to look like her,’” she recalls. “So I started lifting weights and ended up doing a few body-building shows.”

In 1996, Phaidra entered the University of Wisconsin Law School and discovered that she still had a year of undergrad sports eligibility. She was training in preparation for the Badgers basketball team tryout when she attended a law school function and met a woman who was playing on the local rugby club. And so began one of Phaidra Knight’s first forays into transitioning.

“She invited me to check out a practice,” Phaidra remembers about a day that would change her life. “I realized I was looking at a sport that reminded me so much of football that my basketball ambitions were history.”

She joined the Wisconsin Women’s RFC in ‘97 and immediately fell in love with the game. While it took her some time to learn the intricacies of rugby, she could compensate with power and sheer athletic skill for what she lacked in knowledge. She started out as a wing, then moved to center, and by ‘99 was in a sort of position limbo. When she tried out for the US Women’s National Team, Coach Kathy Flores realized she might have a world class prop on her hands; one who could ruck and maul with the best of them, but who was agile enough as a flanker to join the back line and score tries.

“Initially Phaidra was more of a ‘big play’ type athlete and couldn’t give a full 80 minutes at the same intensity or awareness,” says Flores, who will decide if Knight gets one more shot at a 15s World Cup in 2010. “Although she was obviously one of our strongest players, and  knew how to use her size and power to make the big tackle, she had to work on her game and didn’t always have the endurance to contribute all around the field. But now, with all her years of experience at championship competitions, World Cups, and now 7s, she’s a much better all around player.”

Phaidra joined a 2002 National Team that had lost the World Cup final to New Zealand four years before. While the Eagles didn’t get as far in Barcelona in ‘02 as they had in Amsterdam in ‘98, Phaidra impressed the international coaches with her tackling dominance (and a try in a victory over Spain) to earn All-World Team honors. Following the World Cup, she moved to New York City from Chicago (another transition), where she worked for a law firm since graduating Wisconsin in ‘99. Phaidra joined the powerhouse New York Rugby Football Club and made an immediate impact, helping the team reach the National Club final against champion Berkeley Blues. It didn’t take long before her NYRC teammates dubbed Phaidra “PK McNasty.”

“Phaidra’s combination of speed and power brought physicality in the women’s game to a new level,” says the NYRC’s Jessa Giordano, who was a teammate until she retired in 2005 and became a club administrator. “Having faced Phaidra when she was with Wisconsin and then being a teammate, I can say that it’s far more enjoyable to play with Phaidra than to play against her. And she was always striving to add more facets to her game.”

Giordano recalls an especially important—and uncharacteristic—play by Phaidra in the 2006 National Women’s Club Final in Orlando. NYRC was nursing a 17-12 second half lead against Berkeley, which was pressuring for the tying try. Late in the game, Phaidra was running with the ball in support of a backline break. Her usual move would be to put her head down and blow through would-be tacklers, carrying everyone to the try line. Instead, she hit a little chip kick out wide to Vanesha McGee, who gathered it in for a score to ice the game. “That one little play by Phaidra made the difference in our winning the championship,” says Giordano.

Like almost all rugby players, Phaidra has dealt with her share of injuries, some which could have been career threatening. In 1998 she was playing club rugby with a Canadian team and dislocated her right ankle so badly doctors didn’t think she would ever play again. Six months later, she was playing in her first All Star Tournament and attending her first National Team camp. And during a 2005 tour to England, she collided head on with an opposing player and broke the orbital bone in her right eye, destroying a tear duct. Phaidra went to Ireland for surgery and instead of going home to recuperate, she stayed with the team.

“She could have gotten wrapped up in her injury,” remembers Kathy Flores, “But she helped the managers, encouraged the players and worked hard to stay an important part of the team.”
Four months before the 2006 World Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, Phaidra was playing in a New York club match when she made a cut and felt her left foot cramp up. Or she thought it was a cramp. She continued playing and after the game learned she had a severe stress fracture that required surgery and the insertion of a pin.

But with the same bullish determination she used to power through defenders, Phaidra insisted she would play in the 2006 World Cup. She couldn’t run so she trained in a swimming pool and got into the best shape of her career. Three weeks before the World Cup, she underwent aggressive acupuncture treatments to accelerate the healing process. During her last hospital visit before the trip to Canada, x-rays showed that the fracture hadn’t yet healed and doctors advised her not to play. For Phaidra Knight, sitting out the World Cup was not an option.

“I asked them what the odds were that it would get worse,” Phaidra recalls. “They told me, ‘Well, you can break the pin and you’ll have to have surgery again.’ I thought that they’d probably have to do more surgery either way, so I decided to play.” She not only played, but scored two tries in a 24-11 victory over Ireland and got selected to the All-World Team again.

By last fall, Phaidra Knight was in deep training mode; working out from three to four hours a day during the week, and also playing club rugby with the NYRC. But she couldn’t let up because she knew her body needed a transformation from that of a 15s gladiator to a sleek, swift 7s player—without losing too much power, of course. After all, in 7s you’re operating with fewer players on the same size field so all that open space demands more speed and quickness as opposed to power. In 7s almost every player on the field has to play like a back.

The San Diego Invitational at the 2009 USA 7s Tournament—during which the Women’s National Team was scheduled for test
matches against Canada, England, New
Zealand, China and Japan—was less than six months away and Phaidra was determined to be one of the last 12 players standing from a pool of 20 being considered by coach Julie McCoy.

“I can’t say Phaidra is a shoe-in for San Diego or the World Cup team,” McCoy said a few months before the SDI. “Playing in San Diego depends largely on her fitness and whether she will improve the fluidity of her play, as she is a 15s player in transition.”

That meant Phaidra had to increase her speed and quickness, run lines, handle and distribute the ball better, and support the defense. “I need to be a defensive and offensive force,” Phaidra admitted. “There is so much space in 7s so there are fewer situations where a forward like me can just break through the pack. My biggest challenge right now is to improve my decision making and be more of a creator for other players. Instead of
running over people, I have to bring defenders to me and open up space for my teammates.”

On Friday of the San Diego Invitational Tournament at the Polo Grounds (a day before the USA 7s at PETCO Park will begin) Phaidra Knight was clearly not a happy camper. While she had played in each of the round-robin matches and made some especially tough tackles in the game against Japan, she was not selected as a starter for a big match against England, which might be a prelude to a final contest played in PETCO the next day. Phaidra was obviously on Julie McCoy’s roster bubble and during the first half she paced the sidelines like a caged lion.

When McCoy finally called her number in the second half, the Eagles were down by a try and needed the kind of spark that one tough open field tackle from Phaidra might provide. Snapping on her gray scrumcap, Phaidra jogged onto the pitch and was obviously the strongest, most muscular player on the field. But within a few minutes, it was clear she was not the quickest or fastest. She was having a tough time sustaining her running in a game with constant movement. England moved the ball deep into Eagle territory and when a pass was made in Phaidra’s area, one quick deke and dash left her trying to tackle the air, and England had another try on the way to a convincing win.

In the Finals’ rematch against England at PETCO the next day, Phaidra once again got only second-half playing time. But other than one bone-crunching tackle that made15,000-plus fans gasp, she made little impact in a US loss. Ten days later, Phaidra learned she would not be one of the 12 players McCoy will be taking to Dubai for the World Cup.

“Phaidra barely missed the cut,” McCoy would explain a few months later. [In fact, Phaidra had been named one of the two non-traveling reserves.] “The transition from 15s to 7s is difficult for any player to master. Phaidra is a magnificent 15s flanker, whose body makeup just couldn’t quite meet the speed and endurance demands of the 7s game.”

A fiercely proud and competitive athlete, Phaidra was disappointed, but by this spring, time had helped her become a bit more
philosophical about her National 7s Team experience.

“I know I’m not a traditional 7s player,” she says, without a trace of bitterness. “I’m probably not even perceived as a traditional rugby player. I think my value over the years has been as an impact player. That doesn’t mean I can’t be a complimentary player who does a lot of things on the field. I think I’ve evolved into a much better team player.”

Phaidra wasn’t about to give up on 7s and she was already committed to playing summer matches with the NYRC. But now her focus is back on 15s, especially with another World Cup only a year away. Her only problem? After not playing with the 15s National Team the previous two years, Phaidra would be at the bottom of a deep player pool that coach Kathy Flores would be choosing from.

“I knew I would be taking a huge gamble by devoting so much time to 7s the last couple of years,” Phaidra admits. “But I believe
playing 7s has enhanced my 15s game and I may be more fit and agile now than I was in my 20s. And I’m still as strong as I was then. Now I think I can be unpredictable. An opposing player may think I’m going to run around them and they’ll be prepared to go for a tackle and that’s when I’ll just run over them.”

In late June, the NYRC is playing in the women’s final of the Rockaway 7s against New York’s Village Lions. The Lions men, finished with their matches, are offering support from the sidelines when they witness Phaidra Knight make one of her signature tackles.

“That’s her!” one of the guys says to his buddies. “That’s the girl we saw in the gym the other day doing pull-ups with a weighted vest. Man, I wouldn’t want to go up against her!”
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