Vahbiz Bharucha's inspirational tale is one of hard work and determination to break down barriers in the sport.
On June 22, 2019, the Indian women’s rugby team earned its first international victory, in the Division 1 Asia Rugby Women’s Championships against Singapore.
Sumitra Nayak’s twin penalties at the death sealed a narrow 21-19 victory after Singapore had come back into the match with consecutive tries.
The Indian team had barely spent a year playing international 15s, all with part-time players who played rugby for passion, but none more so than captain Vahbiz Bharucha.
For 26-year-old Bharucha, this was a tale of personal redemption. She had been dropped from the team in 2017 for failing fitness tests but had roared back and risen to captaincy with supreme dedication.
And it finally gave Bharucha a goal she had been working extremely hard towards for a decade, for her association with rugby dated back to March 2009.
For a young Vahbiz Bharucha, playing sport was in the genes. Her grandfather was a boxer and occasional wrestler, her father was a boxer in college and also played football and hockey while her uncle was a boxing and martial arts enthusiast.
Vahbiz Bharucha, for her part, ran 100m sprints and played shotput in school before turning her attention to handball, a sport she played for three years at state level and even captained the Maharashtra team. But rugby fascinated her at first glance.
She had first learnt about the sport in 2006 during a summer camp at school but her first proper experience of playing rugby came about three years later, in 2009.
“I still remember the day when my first rugby coach, Surhud Khare came to my school to promote his rugby academy,” Vahbiz Bharucha told the Olympic Channel.
“My close friend Neha Pardeshi (former Indian rugby captain and now vice-captain) and I were very excited at this new game. We knew India had a men’s rugby team but did not know that women played it too.”
Khare then invited the two youngsters to watch a friendly tournament a few days later.
“It was an unbelievable experience. We were so inquisitive about the whole thing – why they were passing backwards, why the referee blew the whistle at certain points. We did not know the rules then, so it made us more curious. The interest was building,” exclaimed Bharucha.
All this had occurred in the months leading up to her 10th-grade exams, probably the most important point in the Indian education system. Bharucha and Pardeshi were aware that they had to shift their focus to studies at that stage.
“But we promised ourselves we would go to Mr Khare’s academy soon. And sure enough, we promptly turned up the day after our exams got over,” stated Bharucha.
The enthusiasm with which Khare coached his students rubbed off on Vahbiz Bharucha and the ethos of rugby also appealed to her.
“I had only played football until then and I could actually challenge a referee if I did not agree with them. However, rugby abides by the principles of solidarity, discipline, respect, teamwork and passion. When I challenged the referee’s call in rugby, I was asked to leave the pitch. It taught me an important lesson,” said Bharucha.
She eventually impressed enough to be picked in the Indian seven women’s rugby team and was named captain at just 20 years old in 2013. But rugby in India was still in its infancy and not an option for a full-time career.
This was when her degree paid off.
Vahbiz Bharucha’s first brush with physiotherapy incidentally came during an international tour with the Indian rugby team, when she was still in junior college. She observed the team physio at work, realising the importance of that role in keeping players in shape.
Once Bharucha returned home to Pune, she knew what educational degree she wanted to pursue.
“I told my parents that I wanted to become a physiotherapist. It was not a mainstream profession, but my family were very supportive of that endeavour,” revealed Bharucha.
The subjects she had to study were admittedly ‘boring’ but Vahbiz Bharucha put in the extra effort because she knew at the end of the day, it was a serious profession which could impact human life.
“My life in college revolved around physiotherapy and rugby. I would wake up at 6am to train and would inevitably reach college late for a 9am class. I got a lot of dirty looks throughout my four years in college,” laughed Bharucha.
Now a freelance physiotherapist who does occasional home visits, Vahbiz Bharucha had even taken up that role during the Khelo India University Games earlier this year.
However, with physiotherapy taking up half her day, Bharucha was not left with much time to train. She put on a lot of weight and it gave her a rude shock in early 2017.
“We were called up to a national team camp and I knew I was in trouble when they took fitness tests on the first day of training. I called my mom later in the evening and told her that I may not make it to the team,” revealed Bharucha.
Her fears rang true. The then 24-year-old Bharucha could not keep up with the next few days of intense training and was dropped from the team. She got a ton of messages, some positive but mostly discouraging, asking her to quit rugby.
But Vahbiz Bharucha didn’t give up. She came up with a gruelling schedule to maximise both physiotherapy and rugby.
“I woke up at 5am, trained for a couple of hours, then saw my physiotherapy clients from 8am to 2pm. After a few hours of rest, I trained again in the evening. In addition to that, I cycled everywhere I went, I decided to stop using motor vehicles, which further enhanced my fitness,” stated Bharucha.
The solid routine also gave her mental peace and she earned back her spot in the Indian team within a year (in 2018) and rose to captaincy again.
Now a senior member of the Indian rugby women’s team, Vahbiz Bharucha has been chosen as one of the Indian representatives, along with teammates Sumitra Nayak and Sandhya Rai - for Asia Rugby’s ‘Unstoppables’ campaign, a movement launched to revolutionise women’s rugby in Asia.
World Rugby (rugby’s international governing body) had begun this unique campaign in 2019, where 15 women from 15 different countries, told the world their inspirational story and in turn, encouraged young girls into the sport.
This is the first time that Asia Rugby has come up with its own version and Bharucha’s selection means that life has now come full circle. From being the 16-year-old kid inspired to play rugby, Vahbiz Bharucha has now become the inspiration.
“The campaign is not just to encourage players, but also coaches, management and other people who work hard behind-the-scenes,” explained Bharucha.
“There is nothing better than to be a role model and become an example for someone. I will continue doing what I have been doing and hopefully, I get out there a bit more and inspire youngsters. That is the responsibility I have on my shoulders as an ‘Unstoppable’,” signed off Vahbiz Bharucha.