By Thalia Beaty
Kathy Flores, the legendary rugby player, coach and leader of the women’s sport in the U.S. who touched every generation of players and coaches for more than 40 years, has died. She was 66.
Nearly 300 former teammates, fellow coaches, former players and friends gathered on Dec. 16 for a virtual remembrance of Kathleen “Kathy” Flores, organized by the U.S. Women’s Rugby Foundation. Flores died of cancer in October at home in Providence, Rhode Island, the foundation said.
Thirty years ago, when the U.S. women’s national rugby team won the first women’s rugby World Cup against England, Flores was there. Later, she was the first woman—and first woman of color—to coach any national rugby team, leading the U.S. women’s team from 2003 to 2010.
Flores, of Hawaiian and Filipino descent, started as a player at Florida State University in 1978, and gained an outsized reputation playing the No. 8 position, former teammate Jen Crawford said.
Crawford recalled a match when she “came off the field thinking, who the heck was that No. 8? She must have been 6’2”, 220 pounds!” Flores, in fact, was 5“5’ and likely 150 pounds, her former teammates say.
Crawford described the force that Flores brought to the pitch.
“She didn’t have to say anything necessarily,” Crawford said. “It was her energy, that fiery look in her eye, her sheer determination and will that inspired you to play not only with her, but for her.”
In 1994, Flores eventually followed Crawford, who she was dating at the time, to join the Berkeley All Blues, a team in the Bay Area that’s part of the national semi-professional league.
Flores was not only in the starting lineup but captained and coached the team—all as a rookie—former All Blues player Becky Worley recalled. As a player-coach and then as coach, Flores and the All Blues competed in every championship between 1994 and 2007, winning 11 of them, according to USA Rugby.
At the time, Worley said there was essentially no professional coaching for women’s rugby.
“It was as grassroots as it could get,” she told The Associated Press. “Getting a field was one of the hardest things, and we would oftentimes just have to squat or go to a park, and the team would walk through the playing surface before the game to pick up the dog poop … and I can remember many practices that were on a field that had quite an uphill.”
Flores coached many teams at all levels from college to semi-professional—including the gay men’s team, the San Francisco Fog—to the U.S. national team.
Her visibility in the sport was a beacon to other players of color, former All Blues player Deb Watford said.
“Rugby is an incredibly empowering sport, it really does require you to have confidence in yourself,” Watford said, “But not only that, you have to trust your teammates to cover for you, to help you … so that you all can advance. She wanted to give that power to others, particularly to those who were underrepresented.”
In 2013, Flores joined Brown University as the coach for a new women’s varsity rugby team. Thanks to a donation around the time of her death, the university has endowed a coaching chair in Flores’ name, to honor her “contributions as a pioneering coach and educator,“ according to the school athletic department’s website.
A lover of dancing, wine, hugs and dogs, Flores was a private person in many ways, with the seriousness of her illness taking many by surprise. The current players at Brown remembered “Coach Kathy” as supporting them on and off the pitch in video messages played at the remembrance.
Despite rugby’s storied history in other places, from Wales to Fiji to New Zealand, it is a relatively new sport in the U.S., Worley said, calling Flores “the elder statesman” of the game whose contributions are only recently being recognized.
Flores was twice inducted into the U.S. Rugby hall of fame: once with the 1991 World Cup team and for the second time, in 2016, as an individual.
According to her friends, Flores was paid a small salary for coaching the U.S. women’s national team, but throughout much of her career, she worked as a massage therapist to earn an income in addition to her many commitments as a coach and an advocate for women’s rugby. A spokesperson for USA Rugby said it did not have salary information from Flores’ time as a coach.
Born in Philadelphia in 1955, Flores attended high school in New Jersey and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Stroudsburg University. She started a master’s in Exercise Physiology at Florida State University, where she began playing rugby, according to an obituary.
In 2007 when Flores led the All Blues to the national championship, Worley related how Flores arrived late to the team’s hotel. In front of everyone, Flores “put her finger in the air—‘We’re number one’—and walked straight into the pool fully clothed.”
“I’m going to hold that image of her triumphantly walking into the pool, surrounded by teammates, going way too soon, but as always, leading the way,” Worley said.