Grace Adhiambo ditched football for rugby, now she's queen of the game

Grace Adhiambo Okulu

Grace Adhiambo Okulu sprints with the ball in her first match for Nagato Blue Angels in a Sevens competition held on February 11-12, 2023 in Kitakyushu, Japan.

Photo credit: Pool

Constable Grace Adhiambo Okulu recently joined top Japanese rugby side, Nagato Blue Angels, on a six-month contract from the Nakuru Athletic Club. Okulu has represented Kenya in various international competitions, including the Commonwealth Games, Africa Women's Sevens and the Olympic Games.

How did the journey here start?

My love for rugby started when I was in class five after I ditched football when I overheard a classmate, Bernard Wainaina, saying that some girls were travelling to the UK for a rugby tour. I decided to find out what rugby was. The little I learnt about it prompted me to start training so that I would get selected to travel to the UK. Although I was not selected due to passport issues, I shifted to rugby completely and ended up loving the game. One particular factor that stood out for me regarding the game is that unlike football where handshakes between teams and officials are done before a match, in rugby, handshakes come after the match to show respect. After the fight, you have to show some respect and appreciation to your opponent for their performance.

You must have encountered some challenges during your walk to stardom…

It is really hard for a woman who plays a sport which many people consider manly. I have faced a lot of cyberbullying. I am on TikTok, and whenever I post a video, I get comments such as, “You look manly”, or, “Who are your parents?”

The fact that I am successful at what I do does not matter to the bullies. They don’t understand that since I play rugby, which is a physical game, I need to be physically fit.

Another challenge I have experienced is that women’s rugby does not get as much support as men’s rugby gets. For instance, we don’t get as many fans coming to watch us like men do. Also, not many people know that women’s rugby exists in Kenya yet we have a national team comprising 40 players representing the country.

How has the game changed your life?

In many ways. Rugby is what paid my school fees in high school. It has also helped me pay fees for my brother. I’m now taking care of my parents through rugby and have travelled to many countries too, thanks to the game. I recently got a contract to play professional rugby in Japan, so yes, this game has really changed my life.

Have your parents supported your career?

I come from a sport-loving family. My mum, Lilian Achieng’, used to play handball, football and volleyball, although not up to the highest level. She loves sports. The same goes for my dad, Hesbon Okulu. He loves playing football. That was his thing. They support me now more than they used to when I had just started. At first, they did not like me playing rugby because of its physicality. They were afraid I would get injured, but now they are my biggest fans.

I’m based in Japan at the moment, they call me daily and send me messages of encouragement because it is difficult living in a foreign country where you do not know anyone. They watch me play and are so proud of me.

Would you advise a sports person to join the police force in Kenya?

First, I send my thanks to the Administration Police Service. They have been really supportive of me. When I joined the police service, I assumed that I won’t be able to continue playing sports, but obviously, this is not the case. I have the permission of the Administration Police Service to play in Japan. Last year when I was on training at the Administration Police Training College, I would be allowed time to train with the national team for international assignments, as well as personal time to train.

Doping has thrust Kenya in a negative light in recent years…

When it comes to doping, the list of banned substances is reviewed annually. The best present you can give yourself as a sportsperson is knowledge regarding this. All you have to do is go to the anti-doping agency website and familiarise yourself with substances that have been banned. Most people have failed doping tests because they use supplements. If you are using supplements, then you have to know the brands you are allowed to take.

Should you get banned, it will be hard for you to go back to the sport because every time you post good results after your ban, everyone will be suspicious.