In the fifth episode of season three of the Her Spirit podcast BBC Breakfast Louise Minchin and BBC Triathlon presenter Annie Emmerson talk to rugby player Zainab "Zee" Alema.
Affectionately known as Zee, Zainab has had an inspirational impact on female players across the UK as well as in Ghana and Morocco. Her passion for playing has seen Studs In The Mud providing equipment and funding to allow women to play where rugby is not freely on offer and she continues to use her social media presence as a platform for encouraging more women to join the game.
Zee is a much loved Barnes teammate, wife and mother of three children aged four, three and one, Zee is also on the NHS frontline as an intensive care neonatal nurse at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. She founded the rugby charity Studs In The Mud, she has been recognised in many awards for encouraging black and Muslim women and girls to play rugby.
From the moment she was born prematurely at only 26 weeks, she was a fighter and says she had an innate drive: "If I want to do something, I try my hardest to get it done". She liked sport at school but until that PE class, she never loved any sport. That same PE teacher who encouraged her to give it a go got her into a training session at Ealing Trailfinders, but even then, Zainab's rugby journey almost didn't get started.
Growing up, Zainab never thought about playing rugby - she didn't even know women could. But from the moment she first got "stuck in" during a PE lesson at 17, she relished every second of "feeling free and just running". The game became intertwined in her life "like an old friend". But like old friends, there were times she'd question the relationship, feeling sometimes like an outsider, someone who didn't belong.
Her first rugby experience was aged 14 in Chiswick school PE lessons, she loved it and her PE teacher Meg Macaulay told her to stick with it. Then, while doing A Levels aged 17, her teacher Paula Middleton seeing her potential got the school to sponsor Zainab for a season and encouraged her to go to training at Ealing Trailfinders. It wasn’t easy as, unlike team mates who got dropped off by parents, she had to make the journey on public transport, walking alone down dark streets.
But Zainab wasn’t put off, in her hijab, rugby ball in her hand, she didn’t fit the African Muslim stereotypes but she has delighted in smashing them.
When she started nursing and needed an escape from the inevitable stress of the job, she looked for a new rugby club and joined Millwall. There, thanks to a move where at No 8 she picked up the ball at the back of a scrum and ran at the opposition 10, she earned the nickname Bulldozer. Smashing and demolishing stereotypes as well as the opposition was something Zainab took in her stride and defined her philosophy on life as a career woman, wife, mother and rugby player.
In 2020 Zee was announced as the Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year.
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