That rugby has shaped the lives of millions of people is a well-known fact. But it has meant that and more to Virginia Varela, the Venezuelan who credits the game for being a key element in her recovery from cancer.
Varela is a referee and World Rugby Educator. Married to the President of the Federación Venezolana de Rugby, Erickson Bermudez, the game has been part of her DNA for many years and that has helped her in moments of dire need.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, immediately after she returned from her first international appointment in Chile – a regional beach rugby competition – Varela is well aware that her story has already inspired many in her country and the region.
“Having shared my experience, I’ve been told that it has been of help to many others in different circumstances,” Varela says.
“Initially, I didn’t see it that way. I always thought it was my story, one in which rugby played a big and positive part.”
When she started her chemotherapy treatment, she had to stop refereeing as she was too weak for physical activity and was prohibited from being outside. Yet, the game that “it is my life, and helped me be who I am,” offered her a new platform to stay involved, busy and focused on positive things.
“When people found out I was sick, the outpouring of love and support from the rugby community was extraordinary. My family and friends were unconditional motors to push me through. The messages, the love, the support, even financial, that I received was overwhelming.”
Varela was persuaded down the refereeing route by a World Rugby Educator.
“‘You know the rules, why don’t you help us with the refereeing course and workshops?’” he told me. “That gave me a huge and positive push; it gave me strength and allowed me to feel useful to rugby.”
The mother of two says focusing on rugby helped take her mind away from other troubling matters.
“A new world opened and I began to read and study the laws and the game, and I started to see that there were a lot of things I could do to keep busy and be useful in the game we love at home.”
Having finished chemotherapy, she has a new horizon. “I told the Federación Venezolana de Rugby that I wanted to teach and educate. I could referee, but I wanted more than that, and last year, in my second shot at it, I became a World Rugby Educator.
“For others, passing the Educator course might seem easy. I cannot describe in words what this meant for me.”
Questioned about the role rugby had in her recovery, she does not hold back.
“It was all. All! I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, but I had a smile as I had the game of rugby. I took it with me to every corner, working and teaching with love.
“My faith, my family and rugby were pillars in my recovery. I never allowed myself to think differently.
“Life gave me a new opportunity and I took it. I found my love for teaching, for helping others achieve their potential. This turned my life around.”
Although a few years have passed, her human story is still one that is encouraging.
“If it helps one person to value the game of rugby as an instrument to be in a better place in these days of hardships, it will have been of service. I never wanted and don’t want for people to feel compassionate; I want to be an inspiration.”
“… rugby, what a wonderful and extraordinary tool!”, an emotional Varela concluded.