Basketball to rugby - a woman's story
One and half years ago a talent identification search began in the Netherlands to find cross-over talent that was currently playing sport at an elite level. Organisers were interested to find out if athletes playing other codes in the Netherlands were keen to give Rugby Sevens a go. Basketballer Tessel van Dongen read an article about it and a year later decided to take the leap.
“I read an article about how Sevens had been added to the Olympic programme for Rio 2016, and I thought that this could be a real opportunity for me,” said Van Dongen.
“However, at the time of reading it I was heading off to represent the Netherlands at the Under 20 European Basketball Championships. I decided to concentrate on playing basketball and I left the article for what it was. But there was a burning thought in the back of my mind that I must find out more about the sport of Rugby Sevens.
“The Olympic Games is often regarded as the pinnacle for an athlete to compete in front of a truly global audience, representing their country. To be honest I didn’t think I had quite what it takes to reach that level through playing basketball and I had also heard the Rugby Sevens talent identification programme was going to host an induction day. So I thought that this is now my chance to give it a go! At the time I didn’t expect too much, however, all I knew is that I needed to know whether I had the talent and if rugby is really a sport for me.”
The talent identification day went better than expected as Van Dongen was included in a women’s selection side to play in three tournaments in the Netherlands. “Looking back to my introduction to Sevens, I think that playing in those tournaments was really the turning point for me.
“At the time, I was anxious to tell my basketball teammates, coaching staff and management that I wanted to cross over and solely concentrate on playing Sevens, therefore having to give up playing basketball. Up until then basketball had consumed much of my life but I sort of knew that I wasn’t going to become the next biggest basketball star in the Netherlands.
Speed and power
“In terms of playing basketball my strength was not so much with the technical side of the game but I considered myself more of a hard working team player, someone who hustled up and down the court.
“I had always made the Netherlands squad, however most of my game time came from off the bench. I was mainly used as a bench player and my coaches had told me of my weaknesses and limitations. I didn’t let this put me off and I continued to work and train harder than ever, hoping to improve my performance. I guess I kind of wanted to prove myself.”
The fear of quitting basketball ended up being welcomed with lots of positive energy and feedback from her teammates and management, according to Van Dongen.
“I remember many questions following my announcement. In the back of my mind I was wondering if I had made the right decision to give up basketball and follow my newly chosen sport. As I said earlier basketball had been the only sport I knew anything about for the last 10 years of my life.
“However, I can honestly say I fell in love with Sevens rugby – it has it all, speed, power and explosiveness. What I also really enjoy is the fact of playing outside, whereas we trained and played indoors with basketball. Although I must say it was tough getting used to playing in all the different types of weather conditions.”
Van Dongen only entered the world of rugby in recent months but her on field performance attracted the attention of head coach Gareth Gilbert during a tournament last September, where she gained selection to the Netherlands Women’s Sevens squad.
“It came as a complete surprise” according to Van Dongen. “It was an opportunity I welcomed with open arms after having just jumped in boots-and-all. I'm proud of how far I have come and it wasn’t until just prior to the inaugrural Women’s Sevens World Series tournament in Dubai that Gilbert informed me that I had made the final cut of those players who would be competing on the circuit."
"I think my ability to stay focussed and mentally switched on helped me make the transition from basketball to rugby easier”.
With the Amsterdam Sevens just over a month away, Van Dongen and her teammates will be hoping to put in a massive performance on home soil. It's something coach Gilbert is confident about.
"Tessel is a very talented individual who has the made the switch from basketball to rugby look very easy. Her evasive skills and hand eye coordination are of the highest level," he said.
"She is still learning a lot about the game but she has a very good learning ability and that’s why she has been able to step up to the elite team in just one season. I expect even greater things from her as she has the right mentality and work ethic to be a top athlete."
The Women Seven's World Series continues in Amsterdam on 17-18 May