To mark International Women’s Day, 24 hours dedicated to the movement for women's rights, we are celebrating the achievements of extraordinary women in Britain’s Armed Forces like Captain Gemma Rowland who has never let anyone stop her from pursuing a career in rugby.
Speaking to Forces Radio BFBS broadcaster Chris Sturgess, Gemma is adamant that if it wasn’t for the British Army supporting her passion for rugby, she wouldn’t be the proud owner of five international caps for Wales.
“It was an incredible whirlwind experience that I did not see coming and I don’t think I really realised it... until the end of that Six Nations campaign.
“I just went ‘wow, I’ve just earned five international caps, how did this happen?’. I took myself off... to get some downtime and to just process exactly how amazing what had just happened was.”
LISTEN: Gemma talks about her passion for rugby
Gemma has been in love with rugby since discovering the sport at school during an incredibly difficult time in her life.
She suffered from bulimia when she was younger. Sport was always important to Gemma but when she became a teenager the focus became more about body shape and size which became a problem.
Discovering rugby was a breath of fresh air for her. Teen pressures to look a certain way no longer mattered on the rugby field. She said:
“... no matter your body shape, your size, there is a position for you on the field.
“You’re never too small, you’re never too big and I think that really helped me because I was surrounded by a group of girls all with different body shapes and sizes who had a place on the rugby field and felt comfortable in their own skin because they knew that the shape of their body had a specific reason to fill.”
The path to British Army and Wales international rugby success wasn’t straight forward at the beginning. The sports curriculum for female students at her school included hockey, netball, tennis and rounders with no room for rugby.
Some fortunate timing ran in Gemma’s favour when a new student joined the school who also wanted to play rugby. Gemma said:
“Laura Keates who is an ex England international joined our school for sixth form and was like ‘I want to play rugby’ and there was enough of a group of girls to say yeah we all want to do the same.”
“We begged a couple of teachers and said, ‘just run it as an after-school club, we’ll commit, we’ll prove to you that this is what we want to do and we think we’ll be good at it.”
The girls stuck to their word and ran it as an after-school club twice a week. The first year they entered the Rosslyn Park Sevens, the world's largest school rugby tournament, the fledgling team impressed by coming second. She said:
“The school... invested a bit more time in us and the following two years we won Rosslyn Park Sevens and that was my first exposure to rugby.”
LISTEN: Gemma talks about her career in the British Army
Picture Credit: @rowgem
While she was experiencing success on the playing field at school Gemma dreamt of forging a career as an archaeologist or doctor. However, her career path shifted when she was offered an Army bursary at 16 years old. This meant she would have a career in the Army waiting for her once she graduated. At 21 she went straight to Sandhurst and then dived straight into a young officer's course. She said:
“Six months in post I was out to Afghanistan on Op Herrick 17 which was an amazing experience to be thrown into the deep end and put your training to the test.”
“To be honest it was a bit of a deer in headlights to start with. I’d just turned 22 when we flew out there. Minimal life experience but maximum training.
“I think it really opened my eyes to actually how much knowledge you get invested in your training.”
When asked if she thinks the Army has changed since she joined eight years ago Gemma does think there have been improvements, certainly for those who have served for longer than her. She said:
“The Army was a completely different world then and I don’t want to say it’s softened because that’s the wrong word, but I think we’ve gained a better understanding of how people work.
“Both mentally, emotionally and physically. We are putting a lot more investment into scientific research in terms of how we can better look after people's bodies but more importantly how we can look after their minds as well.”
And if there’s anything Gemma knows about it’s using physical exertion to maintain her mental health. She knows what she likes and has been fighting for it since she was a teenager. She said:
“I’ve committed myself to it since I was 18 years old. I had to have a break while I was at Sandhurst and Afghanistan.
“I missed it like a love-sick puppy so since getting back from there rugby has been my priority focus.”
Gemma, who has Welsh heritage, debuted for Wales in 2015 after being spotted by the Welsh coach while playing in a combined services side against a Welsh select team at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales.
LISTEN: There are no limits for Gemma
Picture Credit: @rowgem
It's this continued dedication to rugby and fitness Gemma believes that has helped her feel capable of taking on any role in the British Army. She said:
“I’ve never suffered prejudice and I’ve never been in any environment where I’ve been belittled because I’m a female.
“I don’t know whether that’s because I have a stronger presence as a female clearly with my physical background?
“I’ve always prided myself on my fitness and therefore I’ve always earned respect from the guys that I work with because I am at the front when we’re on a fitness assessment."
More from Forces Network: All Roles Now Open To Female Personnel
In October Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that all roles in the military would now be open to women.
Mr Williamson's announcement meant that women already serving in the British Army can transfer into infantry roles, including the Special Forces.
If all roles in the British Army had been open to women when she joined eight years ago, Gemma says she would have liked to be a Royal Marine. She said:
“I think it’s a great opportunity for women to, not prove that they’re equal because I don’t think women need to prove anything...
"It’s just allowing them to do what they want to do and if they have that passion and that aspiration then why should... they be held back?”
LISTEN: Gemma talks about how she is motivated by the women she inspires on social media
There are many women in the British Army who are inspired by Gemma’s story of determination and drive but the Wales international says it’s not a one-way street.
She was recently injured and had to take time away from rugby to recover. She took to Twitter to ensure that the highs and lows of her rugby career are represented fairly on social media so the young women she inspires understand it’s not just success and glory. She said:
“The amount of support I received on social media to say ‘I’m going through a current injury myself, your stories are keeping me motivated, keep working hard, it’s great to see your hard work.
“A little positive comment from people who you don’t know but you know that you’re inspiring, it gives you that motivation to say, ‘come on Gemma, sort it out, we can do this, let’s make this a good day.”
Today Gemma is in the Watchkeeper Force, hoping to bring the new capability into service for the British Army. Watchkeeper is the Army's eye in the sky and underwent extensive testing in Wales before being deployed operationally to Camp Bastion in 2014. She said:
“Watchkeeper is an unmanned aerial system that we use as a surveillance platform. People that know their military history will know that we did have it available to us in Afghanistan but that was sort of an operational emergency capability.
"Now we want to bring it into scope as a full-time Army capability."
But of course, she still finds time to pursue her first love, rugby. Gemma plays in the position of centre for the Welsh women's national rugby union team, as a full back for the Wasps ladies team and even managed to squeeze in representing Wales at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Cover Photo: @BritishArmy