Hana Schlangerová admits she was shocked — “in a positive way” — to discover she had been accepted onto the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship this year.
Schlangerová first heard about the programme during a conference in 2018 and was convinced by her peers to apply. She says she did so in hope rather than expectation, but is now determined to use the opportunity to develop her skills and help women’s rugby flourish in Czechia.
“To be honest, I still can't understand how and why I did get it,” Schlangerová told World Rugby.
“Especially now when I have met all the other people, all the other females involved in rugby who got it, and when I see what they are doing and how far they have gone.
“It's just, I'm me. I don't know half of the things they do and I haven't done what they have done.
“It's just incredible. I'm really still surprised and shocked — I mean in a positive way.”
‘Rugby was different’
Schlangerová is, of course, being modest. She has achieved a lot in rugby since accepting an invitation almost 20 years ago to join one of the two women’s teams that existed in Prague at that time.
Rugby had been a presence in her life since early childhood, when she would chuck a ball around with her younger brother.
Years later, Schlangerová would act as a taxi service for her sibling when he needed lifts to training, and she would sometimes take part in informal games of touch as she waited on the sidelines.
The chance to play herself didn’t materialise until she was at university, but once it did Schlangerová seized it with both hands.
A basketball player in her youth, her size and athleticism ensured she soon became a sevens international. “I have learnt a lot from rugby,” she said.
“Not just about myself, but also how to get along with other people. I was doing a team sport before but rugby was different.
“You don't need just [tall] people on the team, you need all people on the team.”
Schlangerová would also represent Czechia in a women’s test match in 2015, although arguably her biggest impact has come since she retired from playing.
She sits on the Czech Rugby Union Technical Committee, and is also chair of the body’s Women’s Rugby Committee.
“What she did for women’s rugby in Czechia is just amazing,” captain Petra Kriklanova told World Rugby last year. “I tell her many times but she won’t listen!”
Schlangerová has since stepped away from coaching the national team in order to concentrate on her part-time role at the union, the scholarship and raising her three young children.
But, she is keen to absorb as much information as possible from the programme, and those taking part in it alongside her, so that she can have an even greater impact back home in Czechia.
“It's a great opportunity to learn,” she added. “Not just through the money I've got [or] through the courses I can now afford.
“But, also through meeting people, talking to people, just listening to the people who are involved already — it's so inspirational.
“What I hope I can achieve [is] I can learn a lot, so I can then give back to rugby because that’s what I like to do and I hope I can pay back.”
Schlangerová says that her horizons have been broadened by coming into contact with fellow scholarship recipients, both from this year and past programmes.
COVID-permitting she hopes to visit other European countries, including Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain, to learn how those nations increased female participation numbers.
“Meeting people from around the world, not just Europe-wide, it's really widened the view of rugby I have,” Schlangerová said.
“Thanks to this network, I know what's happening in different parts of the world and it's just amazing to follow the girls, what they are doing in Asia or South America.
“You don't really expect from the European point of view that women's rugby is big there. Now, I actually see it is and there are great women who are leading their unions — that's very inspiring.”
Capitalising on potential
Domestic competitions are due to return in Czechia next month, and Schlangerová hopes that playing numbers will not have been impacted too heavily by the pandemic.
But, as she looks to the future, Schlangerová’s goal is that future generations of Czech women and girls will get the same opportunity to play rugby as she did basketball and handball.
“I’m probably not a very ambitious person in terms of making big plans or anything,” she said, “but I really wish I can do my best to help women's rugby here in Czech Republic grow.
“I think we have incredible potential… compared to other unions, we have just a few players and we can still do incredible things.
“The players are really great, so I wish I can help those players who have the potential to reach their best through the national teams.
“And like all players, all girls and women involved in rugby, I wish to make women's rugby in Czech Republic something that is just a recognised sport for fun and engagement and the encouragement that it can give to every single girl who will join us.”