Kathy Flores summed up her philosophy about the sport of rugby during a 2010 interview with the Associated Press.
“Women have always wanted to be physical,” she said, “but they haven’t had the opportunity.”
The assertion was rooted in historical fact. During some of the first documented instances of women playing rugby anywhere in the world, in Northern England and Scotland during the early 1880s, onlookers were so outraged that riots broke out.
But things slowly changed. By the time Flores graduated from Monmouth Regional, there were fledgling rugby programs popping up at institutions of higher learning across the U.S. When she enrolled at Florida State University in pursuit of a master’s degree in exercise physiology at the age of 23 in 1978, she joined the club there and promptly won four national championships captaining and coaching the team.
During an interview with the Associated Press last fall, her teammate on that squad, Jen Crawford, recalled an early match when she “came off the field thinking, who the heck was that No. 8? She must have been 6’2”, 220 pounds!” Flores, in fact, was 5’5′” and likely 150 pounds, teammates said.
And she was just getting started. Flores first captained the U.S. Women’s National Team in 1987, and in 1991 led them to a stunning upset 19-6 win over heavily favorited England in the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Final in 1991. Flores would go on to coach the National Team from 2003 to 2010, returning with it to the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, and from 2013 until last October she was the coach of Brown University’s Division I women’s rugby team.
Flores coached 10 teams in all at various points throughout her career, men’s and women’s, professional, semi-professional, and collegiate, and earned virtually every accolade imaginable in the sport – including being named Coach of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2000, Personality of the Year by the International Rugby Board in 2003, and Coach of the Year by USA Rugby in 2014. She was inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame twice, first as an individual in 2016 and second along with her World Cup championship teammates in 2017.
Yet she was recalled as being as good a person as she was an athlete and mentor. After pushing her team at Brown hard in practice, staying hands-on even long after her cancer diagnosis last year, she would have coffee with players on campus later.
“She would always ask us, ‘How’s your mental health?’” one of her players recalled in an article in the Brown Daily Herald student newspaper, shortly after her death. “We thought it was funny because it was such a direct question, but I think it showed that she wanted to make sure that we were all okay.”
“It was no longer (a coach-player relationship) when I got here,” another player recalled. “It became mother-daughter.”
Inclusivity was hugely important to Flores, who vocally and publicly pushed for improved funding and support for women’s rugby her entire life – after the 1991 World Cup win, she noted that the majority of the team lost their jobs when away traveling for competition. As the first woman and first woman of color to coach any national rugby team worldwide (Flores was of Hawaiian and Filipino descent), she also relentlessly promoted the importance of acceptance of individuals of all races, nationalities, and backgrounds at every level of the sport, repeatedly also lending her support to LGBTQ+ initiatives.
“I love the sport, and I want to expose as many people to it as I can, particularly young women,” Flores told a San Francisco-area newspaper in 2013. “It’s important for their confidence and self-esteem. With college girls, after playing rugby, they start thinking better of themselves and realize what they can do better. You see them walk into interviews differently.”
Shortly after her death due to cancer last fall, nearly 300 colleagues, former teammates, fellow coaches, friends, and loved ones gathered for a virtual remembrance organized by the U.S. Women’s Rugby Foundation. They recalled not only a legend in her chosen sport, but a lover of dancing, wine, hugs, and dogs – who will be sorely missed.
To read some of the remembrances they shared, go to: https://www.forevermissed.com/kathy-flores/about