Chelsea Gillespie keen to write new chapter on refereeing return

The Emirates World Rugby Match Official served as an assistant referee for the first time in a decade on Saturday, having recovered from meningitis, moved across the world and become a mother.

Chelsea Gillespie admits she felt a wave of emotion as she prepared to make her return to the international game following a 10-year hiatus in Cork over the weekend.

But having overcome pre-match nerves – thanks to breathing techniques and a sideline talking to – Gillespie’s overriding sensation at Sara Cox’s final whistle was one of immense pride.

“There were quite a few emotions going through there,” she told World Rugby shortly after Ireland’s Guinness Women’s Six Nations defeat of Wales at Musgrave Park.

“I was a wee bit excited, obviously, to be back and just nervous and [I had] a real proud feeling.

“It was kind of surreal just to be like, ‘oh my God, here we are’. And then all the self-doubt [disappears] and the confidence comes back, so we've been [on] a bit of a rollercoaster.”

“It just snowballed”

It is almost 11 years since Gillespie travelled to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 as one of the most promising match officials on the women’s series.

However, shortly after returning from Moscow, she contracted meningitis – potentially due to drinking out of a trophy she won at an awards night – and was admitted to hospital.

Gillespie was hospitalised for a week and learned recently through her mum that nurses feared that her condition could have been fatal.

Fortunately, Gillespie was able to make a full recovery and returned to the rugby pitch at the beginning of 2014, refereeing three rounds on the series before serving as an assistant referee for a Black Ferns win against Canada on 14 June.

That would remain her final international appointment until her Women’s Six Nations debut on Saturday, however, as she emigrated to Scotland via England with her husband – former Scottish sevens player Darren Gillespie – and started a sports massage therapy business and a family.

It was during afternoons spent watching Darren play in the Scottish borders that Gillespie first began to think about making a comeback.

“My husband was playing when my son was born and sitting on the sideline, I was getting a bit frustrated because I knew I could be helping and there was a lack of numbers in referees,” Gillespie said.

“The game's given me so much I felt a bit guilty for not contributing back. And then I had my daughter, and I just slowly got more and more involved and then they were like, 'oh, Chelsea, you want to do this now?' And I was like, 'oh, I suppose'.

“And it's just snowballed and I'm back here, which is bizarre.”

Positive role model

Gillespie’s children, Alex and Heidi, are now old enough that she can devote more time to refereeing and she is determined to both make up for lost time and show them that nothing is impossible.

“It was a wee bit of a dramatic end previously,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“When you don't finish something on your terms, there's always that chapter you feel like you've not finished. You don't have that closure, I guess.

“And so, I always liked the idea of coming back but when I did come back, I just enjoyed it again and really found that, oh yeah, I enjoy this. I remember why I like doing it and as I said it sort of snowballed.

“I suppose I got a bit frustrated doing club stuff because in my heart I know I always like to challenge myself and think, ‘I'm better than this. So, can I do this now? Can I do that now?’

“And I was just lucky enough that the SRU [Scottish Rugby Union] and so many people around were like, 'come on, then' and I got these opportunities.

“Now, it's really surreal being [back]. I feel really grateful, and I feel like my life has changed so much since having children. That it's not just about me anymore.”

On being a positive role model for her children, Gillespie added: “That is probably my biggest ‘why’.

“Alex is six… so explaining to him that if you let me do this, this is something quite special and then maybe you can come and see this game – and he loves the stadiums – so that was good.

“And Heidi, I think her being a girl, I do want her to see that if you work hard, you can do this.

“I was a bit apprehensive about coming back because it was such an unknown from what I remember. It's a long time between.

“What's changed? What's not? Do I still have this in me? Am I still good enough? There was a lot of self-doubt.”

Setting goals

Gillespie says she also wanted to prove to the couple’s kids that “mum can do stuff too” and the whole family would have been proud of her following Saturday’s match in Cork.

“It was like getting back on a bike, that confidence comes back,” she said. “It took about 10 minutes and then I was like, ‘no, come on. It’s just rugby, don’t be silly’.

“I did get back in there. It’s just a confidence thing really, I think next time will be, obviously working with a different crew but I’ll know what to expect. It’s not so scary when you know what you’re walking into.”

Gillespie and Cox know each other from their early days on the series a decade and more ago, and she says she felt “very privileged to be able to work with her for my first one back”.

Seeing what the English referee and other contemporaries, such as World Rugby Women’s High Performance Referee Manager Alhambra Nievas, have achieved in the past 10 years has only strengthened Gillespie’s resolve to make the most of her second chance.

“I want to go as far as I can go,” she explained. “Now the World Cup is so close and I’m here I feel like, why can’t I?

“There may be reasons why I can't, it's not up to me, but if I can put myself in a position to say, yeah, your hands up, then I think that would be amazing.”

Last updated: Apr 16, 2024, 2:47:40 PM
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