A trailblazer for Rugby 7s, Sharni Williams has over 35 caps and is an out and proud lesbian athlete who hopes to spur the message of ‘love is love’ and build a community with queer athletes in the rugby world.
Self-Professed ‘Country Girl That Loves Sports’
A self-professed “country girl that loves sports’, Williams grew up with a natural inclination to positions of leadership, where she was captain throughout her schooling career. This translated to her professional sporting career. She co-captained the Australian team in the 2016 Rio Olympics and led her team to victory, winning a gold medal in the sport.
Her introduction to rugby union is a little unconventional and kick-starts her journey into finding herself. After moving to Canberra in 2007, she worked at Sportsman Warehouse and met a woman who made her question her sexuality. Invited to play rugby, she decided to try it out, stating, “how can I be a friend of this person? I’ll go play rugby.”
The rugby community welcomed her with open arms giving Williams a sense of belonging. “That’s probably what I missed from being in a country town and then not realising what the world has to offer.” Leaving Batlow meant leaving behind the pressures of conforming to social norms and seeing the host of opportunities that came with women playing a male-dominated sport.
“It opened my eyes up to different genders. You’d see lesbians together or gays together. For the first time, I felt like I belonged.”
Hopes to Empower Young Athletes
At the Rio Olympics, Williams told partner and now-fiancé Mel Smales of her plan to come up into the stands and kiss her once they won the gold medal because “there was no way we were losing.” Following this public display, she has since partnered with Gilbert to create rainbow headgear which she wore at the Tokyo Olympics after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) granted their approval.
Williams says this rainbow headgear is a celebration of visibility, “I’m happy with who I am, and it took me a long time to be able to get there.”
Currently part of the AIS Thrive with Pride program, which involves 14 athletes across ten different sports, Williams hopes to empower young athletes by broadening the culture of equality and highlighting the power of allies in the queer community.
“You’ve got athletes like Lewis Hamilton wearing a helmet painted in pride colours and Sebastian Vettel wearing a rainbow shirt to show his support.”
“I was sitting in Sydney watching the place burn, being told that the town was unsalvageable and was like what can I do?”
She raised $20,000 from the GoFundMe page she’d created in response to the bushfires. “I was listening to the scanner of all the fires happening, and when we were delivering the money to people, they were over the moon. I was excited that I’d used my platform for good.”
Williams also coaches on a video platform to instruct eager athletes to improve their skills and provide guidance from an elite sporting background. She hopes to bridge the gap for those in smaller rural communities and offer opportunities to develop the rugby league community from the ground up.