Jodie Ounsley has enjoyed a whirlwind 12 months in which she has built a reputation as one of English rugby’s most exciting prospects, who just happens to be profoundly deaf.
Ounsley made her HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series debut for England in Glendale last October, a mere three years after stepping onto a rugby pitch for the first time. The 19-year-old scored her first World Series try against Ireland in Cape Town two months later and had featured in four tournaments by the time the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed the 2020 series.
More recently, Ounsley has switched back to 15s with Sale Sharks Women and is just as busy away from the pitch. She has become a patron of The Elizabeth Foundation, a young deaf children’s charity which played a big role in her own development, has started a pet photography business and is in the “early stages” of releasing a sports clothing brand.
Ounsley has also visited schools to share her inspirational story, and in July, her achievements were recognised with the Rugby Players’ Association Gain Line Award. The prize came with a bursary that has helped to fund her sportswear venture.
“I wouldn't presume to label myself as a role model. I do go out of my way to help lift and inspire young people,” Ounsley told World Rugby.
“I've visited lots of schools, mainly special needs. I'm not a natural public speaker but try to get across a positive message of hope, ambition and being proud of your own uniqueness. My message is 'Be unique!'
“I do get inspirational feedback from people across the world about the impact my visits have made on some kids. It is so, so rewarding for me knowing I can make a little difference in someone's life.
“This is definitely an area I'm passionate about and will be involved with in the future.”
‘I was instantly hooked’
Ounsley certainly has a remarkable story to tell. Born prematurely, she needed medication that impacted her hearing and ultimately led to her undergoing an operation at just 14 months old.
Growing up, she was an active child but despite taking an interest in rugby, it was in other sports that she initially excelled. Grappling sessions with her father, Phil — a former professional mixed martial artist — helped her become a British Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion, while she also represented her country in athletics at the Deaf Olympics.
It wasn’t until she was 15, after her younger brother had picked up an oval ball, that Ounsley first headed down to Sandal RUFC to give the game a go.
“I was brought on as sub in the last few minutes,” she recalled about her first match.
So overwhelming to receive this award, grateful to be recognised for something I feel so passionate about☺️ https://t.co/A5x2WhCgnN— Jodie Ounsley (@_jodieounsley) July 30, 2020
“I received the ball in my own 22 and all I thought was run for my life, which is funny thinking back on it. I stepped around a few players and went the length of the field to score my first try. I was instantly hooked from that moment on.”
As Ounsley admits, “things moved pretty quickly” from that moment, but her journey from club novice to international sevens player was not without its challenges.
The 19-year-old recalls being sin-binned during a cup final at Twickenham. She could not hear the referee telling her she was offside, and the official mistook her ignorance for insolence.
“The ref thought I was deliberately ignoring him and sin-binned me. I laugh about it now but at the time I was confused about the situation,” Ounsley explained.
“There have been a few occasions I've touched down after length of the field sprints only to discover everyone stopped long ago at a whistle I didn't hear. Again, I can look back and laugh now I suppose but it can sometimes be frustrating.”
She added: “It would be easy to assume it's been a smooth ride. If I'm honest it has been very frustrating, stressful and there have been occasions I've thought I can't do this.
“When I joined England Sevens the whole squad were amazing at integrating me. [Head coach] Charlie Hayter and the team tried innovative ways to help me with comms in training, by using mics and cameras to assess what I was seeing and processing.
“Body language and signals between team-mates is fairly common anyway so that helps a lot!”
Exciting new challenge
Ounsley has dreamt of becoming an Olympian since she can remember, and remains hopeful of playing next year in the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I won't let a bump in the road change anything,” she said. “That dream is still there and as strong as ever. The practicalities of the route there has changed.”
For now, the winger is just looking forward to stepping out onto the pitch as a Sale Shark.
“Sale have been very good to me and I'm so excited at this new challenge. They have amazing facilities and staff. I'm finding my feet and getting to know the squad. [I’m] really looking forward to pulling on a Sale Sharks jersey for the first time,” Ounsley said.
“I want to take it as far as I can. I am aiming high in 15s and sevens, Olympics, Commonwealth [Games] and [Rugby] World Cups.
“I am still fairly new to rugby so understand I'm on a steep learning curve. I found the last year so inspirational being surrounded by amazing athletes and characters on the World Series.
“I work hard and stay very focused. It's an exciting time for me.”