Kiki Morgan was just 10 years old when her mother Karlene passed away. Up until her diagnosis with ovarian cancer she had been her daughter’s rock, giving her the strength to deal with playground bullies and adjust to life in the United States.
Morgan, who emigrated to Rhode Island from Jamaica aged two, remembers one particular incident from her time in elementary school which highlights the importance of her relationship with her mother.
“You could say I was an energetic child,” Morgan explained. “One day my energy got me in a bit of trouble and my mom had to come into school.”
Morgan’s mind began to race. How would her mother react to her first ever detention?
Her anxiety soon lifted, though, as her mother arrived. “She walks into school with me and my nerves fell away,” Morgan continued.
“I was like ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, I have my mom by my side, the teachers can say all they want but my mom believes in me! All these bullies can go away because my Mom. Is. Here’.
“Throughout my whole childhood I had that invincible confidence whenever my mom was around. That love, that confidence, that support, I felt strong.”
Within two years, though, that innate cloak of invincibility had been penetrated after her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer having become pregnant with Morgan’s little brother.
“That feeling of love and confidence and invincibility went away because the woman that I thought was the most invincible person in the world was gone,” she said.
“This woman I looked up to, who was my hero, was gone and that feeling went away and for years I was kind of numb to it all, not caring about much except for books and school work.”
By her own admission, Morgan closed herself off from the world for several years following her mom’s death. As an adolescent she became a veracious reader – particularly of Harry Potter books – but she would skip to the final page first to make sure it had a happy ending.
“What was the point of escaping into this book if it was just going to make me cry?” she reasoned. “I could just live in the real world and do that.”
During high school, she began to rebuild her self-esteem through athletics, while her dedication to her studies ensured that she graduated as a valedictorian to earn a place at Brown University.
Morgan originally planned to parlay her college education into a career in neuroscience. But that ambition suffered a blow when a dorm-mate introduced her to Kerri Heffernan, who was then coach of Brown Women’s rugby team, and encouraged her to give the sport a go.
Convinced she was neither big nor strong enough to play such a sport, Morgan initially resisted before reluctantly agreeing to attend one training session.
“Of course, that was the day they were doing fitness testing,” Morgan said. “Not the day you want to try it out!
The rugby family
“We were doing fitness testing and going over tackling technique and I remember walking away from that practice just unbelievably sore and tired and confused but there was just something about it that pulled me back in.
“I was like ‘When is the next practice? When can we go again? How many times a week is this happening? Sign me up!’”
As a child Morgan had dreamed of running track for the US at the Olympics, however, rugby was able to return to her something much more important: confidence.
“I was still confused as to what the sport was and what we were supposed to do,” she explained.
“But I had this feeling inside me again of everything I thought I’d lost, which was family and that inner feeling of strength and invincibility I’d gained again in this community.
“I just didn’t want to let go.”
A sport for all
Morgan, who credits Heffernan and her successor as Brown head coach Kathy Flores as playing the biggest role in her development, has certainly not let the opportunities offered by rugby slip from her grasp.
Growing up she never envisaged travelling much outside of the US but her playing commitments have taken her from Czechia and Switzerland to Japan, while she has also represented her country at both sevens and 15s.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Morgan has found a place where she feels she belongs.
“I’m not one of the biggest girls, although I like to think I am, I’m not one of the fastest girls but when I step onto that pitch it feels like I can do whatever I want, like I can rise to any occasion,” she said.
“It’s just finding that feeling that you are enough, that you finally are enough and no matter who you are, there’s some role for you. There’s a place where you fit in.
Being me again
“And the community too, like not only do you feel enough on the field but you feel enough off the field. That these people are willing to accept you no matter who you are and give you this base to really express yourself.”
Morgan is learning code in her spare time as she looks towards a future beyond playing rugby union. But she is determined too to ensure that more women can experience what she has in the game in the USA.
She admits she is not yet a master of rugby – “I just want to learn as much about the sport as possible” – however, she is confident that her mother would be proud of the path she has chosen.
“I think first she’d call me crazy,” Morgan joked. “But then she’d be the mom to show up to every practice and every game with snacks and she’d have a shirt with my face on it or something ridiculous.
“But I’d think she’d be happy that I’ve found, that I’m me again. I’ve lived most of my life in this numbed existence, not really feeling much of anything, not wanting to feel much of anything, and I think she’d be happy that I’m me again.”