Until recently the sport of rugby union did not resonate with the people of Laos.
In her role as a coach Lao Khang was often met with dismay when she told families that their children were going to learn to play the game.
“Parents and community members would say ‘you’re going to do what?!’,” she said.
However, in the six years since Lao Khang first picked up an oval ball, and thanks to the work done by the Lao Rugby Federation (LRF) and the ChildFund Pass It Back initiative, the sport has made significant headway.
Participation numbers in the Asian country have increased by 900 per cent in the last five years, maintaining a 50-50 split between male and female players as it has grown.
“Now when we go somewhere and say we are going to play a rugby match, they say ‘Good luck, win the trophy’,” Lao Khang added.
“I feel like that’s a big accomplishment and we can use this popularity to grow and develop more and more.”
According to the LRF it is an achievement that would not have been possible without “Lao Khang’s tireless work”.
Find out the incredible story of Lao Khang of @Laorugby, named in the @BBC's 100 Women of 2018— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) December 4, 2018
As a star player, coach, and leader, Lao has inspired thousands of young people to take up rugby, and continues to be a trailblazer in Laos.
A phenomenal person. #RugbyBuildsCharacter pic.twitter.com/2DZhQdhnxn
100 Women of 2018
Her contribution to rugby’s rise in popularity in Lao was recognised by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) last month as it named Lao Khang as one of its 100 Women of 2018. Chelsea Clinton and Jameela Jamil were other notable names on the list, Alicia Keys was included in 2016.
“I’m so proud,” Lao Khang said of her success. “I didn’t start my work and doing these activities because I thought all of this would happen.
“I didn’t know so many kids would get involved and that it would spread so much like this. I just started because it seemed like a good opportunity at the time and now, look how far it’s come.”
It would have been impossible for Lao Khang to predict how important rugby would become to her life back in 2012, when she first came into contact with the sport.
Aged 13, she had been required to quit school to look after her family and work on the farm after her father fell ill. Her prospects did not stretch much further than the village in the Nonghet District of Xieng Khouang Province in which she grew up.
But rugby came to Namgonnoua Village six years ago, and Lao Khang was attracted to the sport as it offered a chance for women and girls to join in.
“They opened the opportunity to as many women as possible,” she said. “It was the first time that women were invited to play.
“Normally women are at home and when they invite people to join sport activities, they invite only boys. This time they invited everyone and said everyone can play.”
A difficult transition
Lao Khang grasped the opportunity with both hands and was invited to the country’s capital, Vientiane, just two months later to work as a coach on a project recently launched by the LRF and ChildFund.
Moving to Lao’s biggest city presented its own challenges. Having never left Xieng Khouang Province she was a native Hmong speaker and therefore needed to learn Lao while also developing the IT skills that would help her fulfil her new role.
“During that time I tried to develop myself - learn how to use computers, how to talk and write, how to speak Lao, how to be a coach and how to train as a player, myself,” she said.
“After I was training more and more with the Lions (a club in Vientiane), I had the chance to train with the Lao national team and travelled outside of Laos for the first time, to Thailand.”
Lao Khang had been urged not to leave her village to take up the internship, and she admits the transition was a difficult one.
“When I first arrived, I was alone. I had a room alone and I had to do everything alone. That was very different from when I lived with my whole family all the time,” she added.
“People in my village spoke badly about me when I moved to take the internship. They said I was coming to the city centre to be a sex worker or do other bad things.
“I felt so bad when I heard them say this but I thought to myself, 'Don’t let it get to you. You know you aren’t doing anything bad so keep trying your best to do good work and work hard’.”
Lao Khang played a pivotal role in helping to launch ChildFund Pass It Back, a regional sport for development curriculum supported by Asia Rugby and World Rugby, recruiting and managing 20 coaches from Xieng Khouang Province three years ago.
She now manages more than 40 coaches, who lead 70 teams within the province. More than half of all the players and coaches involved are female.
“This is a really strong part of our work because women and girls want to join when they see they have the chance learn about leadership, planning for the future or other life skills,” she explained.
“Half the coaches and leaders we have leading our activities are male and half are female. When we have a chance for a training session and we have only male coaches, the girls don’t feel comfortable to join.
“But when we have female coaches and male coaches and we encourage the players of all genders to join, it’s clear that there is a place on a team for everyone.”
She has achieved a lot in the last six years, but Lao Khang is not finished yet.
“The thing I want to see now is more and more clubs develop to play contact in rugby. We have expanded our activities to nine districts now and I’m working hard to get all the districts in my province to have a club that plays contact.
“Many young players want to play contact. They love it but we have to travel from their home district to the provincial capital to find a safe pitch to play contact on so it’s more difficult, but we are getting there.
“In 2019, three club teams from my province will play in the Vientiane 10s International competition so this is an exciting step.”
Photo credit: Lao Rugby Federation