Rugby not only gave Soledad Galleguillos a sense of belonging and the means to avoid bullying as she grew up, in later years it provided an education. Today, she has been able to transfer her learnings and the values of the game to other sports too.
The former Chile sevens player has had a busy 2019. She was awarded the World Rugby Women's Executive Leadership Scholarship, took part in the first Sudamérica Rugby Women’s Forum in Asunción, Paraguay, and left Chile Rugby to join the Chilean Olympic Committee, and work on a major multi-sports event that will be held in the country.
“There have been many changes in my life; I never imagined my whole life would be focused on sport and that it would be [centred] around rugby,” Galleguillos said from Santiago, Chile’s capital.
Her story in rugby has a number of landmarks: when she first played, representing her country, taking charge of women’s rugby in Chile, being awarded the World Rugby scholarship.
“Receiving the scholarship was incredible,” she said, excitedly. She had submitted an application the year before, even if she thought it wasn’t good enough. It got better the next time World Rugby came calling.
“My determination and staying positive were part of my preparation, [I was] always confident of my potential. I took a lot of time for my presentation and I got a lot of help from Catalina and Marjorie,” she explained, referring to Catalina Palacio and Marjorie Enya, the Colombian and Brazilian who became the first two South American women to receive the scholarship in 2018.
Growing up she was involved with gymnastics in Temuco, a city south of Santiago. Aged 14, rugby was introduced to her school by a well-known rugby coach in her region, Cristian Isla.
“Rugby was being developed and when we got the invite I clearly remember it was [during] a maths class. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to skip class. We played touch rugby and I didn’t really know what was going on,” she recalled about that cold morning in 2002.
When the invitation then came to join the Rucamanque Club, Galleguillos had no second thoughts. “We were 40 girls from my school, five from my class,” she said.
“Rugby allowed me to be around older girls and I soon become popular. Thanks to rugby, I was never bullied at school.”
Galleguillos added, laughing: “I also loved the social aspect – gymnastics doesn’t have the values or the after-match [activities] of rugby.”
The following year she travelled to La Serena to play in a national tournament. She lined up as a flanker in a team of adults.
“I met more people and realised that I was good at rugby,” Galleguillos said. “It was a great experience that gave me more confidence.”
At 16 she was one of the regional pioneers that played in the first official South American Sevens tournament in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in 2004.
“You do feel like a pioneer; when I started we were few playing rugby in Chile, in the region,” Galleguillos said.
“Because of the existing prejudices we had to work hard to show why we wanted to stay in rugby. Thankfully, those are now much smaller.”
Rugby's snow ball
To describe the growth of the game, she offers an analogy.
“Now I see it was like a snow ball. Women’s rugby started to roll slowly, small, and took strength and momentum; it will continue to grow.
“I feel proud to have helped in my country and the region.”
At 31, after 10 years in the national team, she has stopped playing competitively and now only enjoys the odd game with old friends in a beach rugby team called Pamelas.
However, her determination is obvious and the Asociación de Rugby de Santiago asked her to coordinate tournaments, develop clubs and leaders, all unpaid efforts to help strengthen women’s rugby.
Galleguillos said: “They saw my interest and that as a player I was always asking for more, because clubs needed help.”
After returning from a Women’s Forum in Paraná, Argentina, in 2014, she was offered a part-time role as Development Officer. A physiotherapist by trade, she shared her time between rugby and working in gyms.
Finally, in 2017, she became a full-time employee at the Federación de Rugby de Chile. She left in August to join the Chilean Olympic Committee.
“I now help in whichever way I can, as a mentor, consultant; I’ve just stopped coaching as my role leaves me no time,” Galleguillos said.
In her will to help others, she recently travelled to Uruguay as a fan to enjoy the Sudamérica Women’s Sevens Championship from the stands and ended up working with Costa Rica as a physio.
It was at her second attempt that she was awarded the World Rugby scholarship. Her plan is clear: with the end goal of working in the Pan American Games, Santiago 2023, her focus is on her master's degree which she is studying for at a local university and will complete in December 2020.
Other than the master's, she will use the funds to travel to Europe. “I am a very good friend of the other South American scholarship winner, Argentine Lettizia Alcaraz, and we will combine our travel to make it more profitable.”
Together, they will start in Spain, where “we will meet a number of institutions that will inspire us in leadership and management as per my focus, and coaching in Letti’s. My goal is to be a leader in management by 2023.”
The trip will end in Dublin where over two weeks a crash course in English “and visits and mentorships with World Rugby – half a day for those two weeks learning on how the game is managed at the house of rugby.”
Stretching her scholarship funds to the limit, she will travel to Tokyo next year for a secondment in rugby during the Olympic Games.
“The four things in my planning and project have complemented, making me a better professional in sports management, in rugby and as a person,” Galleguillos said.
“I now want to help other women in the region to win the scholarship.”
Even though she is no longer involved in the daily grind of rugby, she is far from gone: “I feel an even bigger commitment to the game, being able to offer even more.”