Bianca Silva had known what she wanted to achieve for a while, but it was not until November last year that she sat down and committed her biggest ambition in rugby to print.
On a “little piece of paper” she wrote that she wished to be recognised as the best player in Brazil.
Silva was made to wait just a few weeks before the Brazilian Olympic Committee announced that she had been named Player of the Year, turning her dream into reality. In April this year, she was recognised as Rugby Sevens Player of the Year by the Confederação Brasileira de Rugby.
Despite a highlight-laden weekend at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco, the speedy winger had not expected the accolade to arrive so soon.
“When I got the news, I thought ‘Oh my god, I did it!’,” Silva said.
“For me it was particularly special that this happened in 2018 because that was the year during which my performance was particularly consistent and with the World Cup and everything else we had the chance to showcase to the world what Brazil can actually do on the field.
Glimpse of potential
“For me it was very special that all of this happened in the same year.”
Silva scored five tries – only four players managed more – to emerge as Brazil’s standout player as the South American nation finished 13th in San Francisco.
The 20-year-old’s potential was showcased as she scored one of two tries in her country’s opening defeat to Canada at AT&T Park.
Having received the ball inside her own 22, Silva left two Canadian defenders flat-footed with an exquisite dummy before motoring upfield, stepping past the covering Ghislaine Landry and galloping into the open space and under the posts. All in just 13 seconds.
It was a try that encapsulated everything that appealed to Silva when she discovered rugby as an 11-year-old living in the Paraisópolis favela in Sao Paulo.
“The first thing that attracted me to rugby was the possibility of doing something to show how I fast I am,” she said.
Falling in love with rugby
“I love the feeling of playing as a winger and getting the ball and not letting anyone catch me.”
Silva had been encouraged to attend a Rugby Para Todos (Rugby For All) session as she waited to find a school place after her family had returned to Brazil’s most populous city having spent a period living in the countryside.
Following a few days of rugby-related “fun and games”, she was introduced to an oval ball for the first time and as she started to learn more about it, she “fell in love with the sport”.
Her early days in rugby were made even more special by the fact that her first coach was Marcia Muller, the former national team player who is one of the creators of the social project.
“Since then I have never stopped playing,” she admitted.
Although Silva is keen to stress that life in Paraisópolis was not violent during her childhood, it was tough, and money was particularly scarce.
There was always food on the table and school uniforms and materials for Silva and her two sisters, but only the “very, very, very basics”. The family budget could not stretch to dolls or toys, and her mother agreed to let her play rugby only if Silva washed her own kit.
Silva subsequently started playing for the Paraisópolis Lionesses, the club comprised of the girls who graduated from the Rugby For All project which she represents to this day, although her family remained cautious.
“Up until I started playing rugby, I had never spent a night away from home or travelled to participate in a tournament,” she said.
“So, all that stuff that came with the game was something that [my family] were not used to, so they were always very concerned about knowing who I was going with, where I was going, what time I would be back, what we were doing there and who was paying for it.
“Whenever I didn’t obey my mum at home she would say ‘You’re not travelling with the team’ so I was more frequently with the boys than the girls because the girls were travelling, and the boys were there.”
Playing with Paraisópolis’ under-15s boys’ team as a much younger girl also helped to shape the player Silva would become. “They felt more challenged because I was a girl,” she explained.
“So, they didn’t want to let me outrun them or catch them. But it gave me the sense of measuring the people with whom I can actually compete in terms of ‘I can outrun this boy and I’m going to do it’. And looking straight forward and then keeping going and keeping going.
“So, in that sense it helped having this additional competition with the boys not wanting to be outrun by a girl.
“Then when I started playing with the girls I already had this mindset of setting a goal, looking forward at it and keeping going.”
That is the mindset that made Silva Brazil’s Player of the Year at 20 but she has not ticked off all of her ambitions just yet.
The winger says she is driven by the “challenge of showing that women can and do also play good rugby” and, ideally, she would like to do that at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Silva was deemed too young by Brazil’s then head coach Chris Neill for a place in his squad for Rio 2016, but he told her to aim for 2020 and having starred in San Francisco she is determined not to miss out again.
Brazil’s qualifying campaign begins in Lima, Peru, in June and although she was not involved on home soil, Silva witnessed the positive impact having rugby as part of the Games had in Brazil.
“Rugby used to be something that was quite niche [in Brazil] and having it in the Olympic Games helped to legitimise the importance of it and show how big it actually is,” she said.
“Even for people who knew rugby already, it gave us a sense of importance, a sense of grandness essentially that we just didn’t have beforehand when it was just something that you do with your friends.”
Silva is not someone who pays much attention to barriers – “I don’t care what the difficulties are, I’m going to do it” – but she is determined to smash through one that she sees in Brazil.
“There is still a very sexist perception that only men can and know how to play rugby, and it’s all about breaking this stereotype,” she said.
“The more they talk about how women are not supposed to, or can’t do it, the more we want to do it and actually succeed at it.”