April 2020 Yorkshire Post
Having to wait an extra year to realise her Olympic dream is not something that has dampened Jodie Ounsley’s spirits, considering the seemingly-insurmountable challenges she has overcome en route to becoming an England international.
Jodie Ounsley was born profoundly deaf and has a cochlear implant
The England Sevens star, who is from Dewsbury, was born prematurely and profoundly deaf, which makes her long list of achievements all the more incredible. The 19-year-old was fitted with a cochlear implant shortly after her first birthday and despite only picking up a rugby ball aged 14 at Sandal rugby club in Wakefield, she has genuine hopes of becoming an Olympian next summer. She signed a professional contract with the England Sevens team in August, 2019 after impressing selectors in the 15-a-side code. Ounsley had scored in the County Championship final for Yorkshire at Twickenham, featured for England Under-18s against Wales at the Principality Stadium and played for Loughborough Lightning in the Tyrrells Premier 15s.
Yorkshire's Jodie Ounsley with England Sevens
The England Sevens player was named in the initial 24-woman Team GB training squad for the Tokyo games, with that number previously due to be narrowed down to just 13 before the Olympics, which have now been postponed to 2021. Ounsley simply sees the delay, caused by the outbreak of the global pandemic, as something that will give her more time to perfect her game to make sure she will be on the flight to Tokyo in over 12 months’ time.
“I feel like I’m just at the start of my rugby journey,” said Ounsley, who has racked up 14 appearances for England Sevens in the 2020 World Rugby Sevens Series. “I was in the Great Britain Sevens training squad, camps had started and I was working hard towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The dates may have changed but my desire to make it to the Olympics is just as strong. I see the delay as more time to prepare for my childhood dream of being an Olympian.”
Jodie Ounsley at Sandal RUFC, where she first started playing rugby
Every time Ounsley takes to the field she risks losing her hearing for good. She has to wear a scum cap to protect her cochlear implant but insists that the chance to play rugby and reach the Olympics outweighs the risks posed. She said: “I always have to wear a head guard to protect my cochlear implant. Rugby is giving me a career and an amazing life so I’m keen to maintain that whilst mitigating any potential risks. I’ve wanted to be an Olympian all my life and I’m determined to get there.”
Ounsley remembers occasions when she has ran the length of the field despite play being stopped because she couldn’t hear the whistle or being sin-binned by a referee, who thought she was ignoring his instructions. However, she says she is not the type of player who looks for excuses when it comes to conquering the individual challenges she faces. “I rely heavily on lip-reading, facial expressions and body language. That’s not always easy during a game,” said Ounsley, who scored her maiden try on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stage against Ireland in Cape Town.
“There have been occasions when I’ve run the length of the pitch to score only to discover I’d missed the whistle. It’s a lonely walk back when you do that. I always have to wear a head guard to protect my cochlear implant. This can be very uncomfortable playing in hot countries, overheating is always a danger. Selection at this level is very competitive. It has always been in the back of my mind coming through the various pathways that a hearing player may be selected instead of me. I think this has spurred me on to try even harder to improve and show what I can do. I’ve always been very honest with coaches and team-mates about being deaf, we can have a laugh, it’s not a taboo subject. Everyone has to know what communication methods work best for the whole team.”
Despite her lack of hearing, Ounsley believes there are advantages for her when on the pitch. She is constantly looking up to know where her team-mates are, giving her a better chance to exploit the space, something which is crucial during any sevens match. “Being deaf does also have advantages. I am very visual, I play with my head up looking for signs that team-mates are trying to communicate. This also helps me identify space and opportunities,” she said. “Playing in the national elite squad has been a steep learning curve, good communication is so crucial. My team-mates and coaches have been amazing and so supportive. I’m very positive about the future. I’d say to anyone who is debating to start playing rugby or any sport – just do it. You get so much more from it than you could imagine. And definitely do not let a disability hold you back, work around it and do it anyway.”
It is not just on the rugby field where Ounsley has excelled. She qualified for the Great Britain Deaflympics team at the age of 15 and made the semi-finals of both the 100m and 200m, despite being one of the youngest athletes at the games. The Dewsbury-born athlete is also a five-time junior World champion in coal carrying, a British Brazilian jiu jitsu champion and in 2018 was named the Young Deaf Sports Personality of the Year.
Ounsley required special permission to travel to Sydney for the Deaf Rugby 7s Championships in 2018 as she was too young to go under RFU rules. She helped England win that competition and has revealed that her parents were reluctant at first to allow her to play rugby.
“Since being a toddler, I’ve always been very competitive and good at sports,” she added. “Growing up, I wasn’t very academic but was always very successful in sports. Aged 14, I discovered rugby, I’d wanted to play for years but my dad kept putting me off due to concerns about my cochlear implant. I went down for what was supposed to be just a taster session, I think my parents thought I’d try it, get it out of my system and move on. I trained midweek at my local club Sandal and was invited to sub that weekend and I came on as a winger for the last few minutes. I didn’t think I was going to get a touch, but right at the end the ball popped up to me. I stepped a few players and ran the length to score, I was immediately hooked.”
Ounsley recently raised over £3,500 for The Elizabeth Foundation, which is a pre-school nursery for deaf children. “When I joined England, I realised I was in a very privileged position. I thought I could be a positive role model for kids, especially those who may feel a little different. I wished I’d had a deaf role model. I started giving little talks to pupils parents and teachers about my life, about overcoming adversity and a positive message of hope to achieve and live an amazing life. I now travel the country visiting special needs, deaf and hearing children. I’m still terrified every time I do it but I can see what it means to the children and that drives me to continue.”