Exchanging International Lessons on and off the Rugby Field
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Theresa Skutt
If you haven’t been following the Zionsville Rugby team, you’ve been missing an incredible season. The fuel behind the team comes from years of experienced players and coaches, as well as up-and-coming talented athletes from Zionsville and abroad.
I had the immeasurable pleasure of meeting new residents to Zionsville Jason and Jennifer (Jen) Speedy and their three boys, Jack, Luke and Sean, who moved to town from Edwardsville, Illinois, less than a year ago. I was also introduced to an incredible young man, Santiago (Santi) Rojas, an exchange student from Valladolid, Spain, who has become an “adopted” member of their family and a valued member of the Zionsville Rugby team.
Many may not realize that the Zionsville Rugby Club was established in 2003, has won conferences and championships in previous years and has had 35 of its players go on to play college rugby.
I sat down with the Speedys and Rojas to learn more about the exchange program, as well as our town’s rugby team. While rugby is traditionally not as popular as other sports in the U.S., it is a sport with a long and rich history built upon deeply rooted traditions and a culture of respect.
Jen Speedy shared how their hosting Rojas all began, shortly before moving into their newly built home here in Zionsville. She had joined a local community social media page so that she could network, engage and get to know her new community better. She read a post, and with a mother’s heart she responded to it.
“There was a post about an exchange student that needed to be rehomed,” Jen said. “School had already started, and Santi was living with Julie Siegal, a coordinator at ETC [Education Travel & Culture]. She was moving outside of the school district and had asked if anyone was interested in hosting an exchange student. I don’t know why, but I immediately thought, ‘Sure. We’re building this house and have an extra bedroom, and we already have three boys who are in different athletic programs.’ It just sounded like a good fit, and I just wanted to offer him a good ‘host’ home.”
Jen’s husband, Jason, needed a little more time to process the idea, and with good reason. His family is new to town, in the process of moving into a new home and juggling the schedules of their three active boys. What’s to consider, right?
“To be honest, when it was first discussed, I thought that it sounded like a cool idea, but did we really want to do this when we had a lot going on,” Jason said. “But after we met Santi at Bub’s Burgers and then took him on fall break down to Brown County with us, I knew that this was going to be a good fit.”
Jen added, “During that short trip [to Brown County], we got to know each other, and he immediately bonded with the little ones. It was like he’s always been around. He is very kind and well-mannered.”
The Speedys explained that Rojas had been playing rugby back in Spain and wanted to play while he attended school as a junior at ZCHS. They learned about the club team from Zionsville Rugby Club head coach and co-founder Larry Shiller and signed him up.
“I know that rugby is not that popular in the United States, but I wanted to play here,” Rojas said. “We started practicing in December, and I started making friends. It’s been really nice. Zionsville is amazing. The people are really nice, and the school is awesome. There are so many options and opportunities here.”
Rojas admitted that he is not as big a fan of our Hoosier weather.
“Compared to how nice everything else is, it [the weather] is not a big deal,” he decided.
Throughout his time here, Rojas has been advocating for the club and the sport to help grow the team and general knowledge about the sport.
“I play scrum-half or number 9 position,” Rojas explained. “Your number is based on your position [in rugby]. I’m the smallest and fastest guy on the team because I have to follow with the ball, behind everybody, running side to side, nonstop.”
Having attended the games, Jen added, “Santi is like a firecracker out there. It is nonstop sprinting.”
Similar to American football, each team has to score a “try,” which is worth 5 points. “A try is the equivalent to a touchdown,” Jason explained.
“You get to kick for the extra points, like football,” Rojas added. “I’m also a kicker.”
When we sat down for this interview, Rojas and his teammates had just obliterated the Carmel team with an impressive 31-0 finish.
While the team was exhilarated by their win over their opponent, Rojas explained that one of the most important traditions of rugby, worldwide, is not only the respect that is shown before and during the game but the shared meal with the opposing team. After every game, the teams and coaches sit down and break bread with one another.
“Respect is a big part of it [rugby],” Larry Shiller said. “You respect the referee, the opponents and your teammates.”
When asked what he thinks Rojas has brought to the club’s team this year, Shiller said, “He brings his knowledge of the game, and his technique is such that he can play with anyone. He knows what to do and how to do it well. The guys learn from him, and he’s a great addition to the team. Santi is spirited and brings some of that passion to the game, and that’s infectious to the other guys.”
I asked Rojas what he has learned from not only his teammates and coaches but from living with his host family all these months.
“There are literally so many things,” he expressed. “One of the main reasons I came here was to learn English. Before I came here, I barely spoke English. When I go back to Spain and take my English classes, it will be super easy, and my friends will be like, ‘Wow.’”
Rojas has enjoyed his educational and living experiences well enough that he is seriously contemplating coming back to the States for college, where he wants to study economics. The Speedys and Shiller are currently researching rugby scholarships on Rojas’ behalf.
“I’ve made really good friends here, and all my friends are already planning their senior spring break to come to Spain and visit me,” Rojas said. “I love economics and know that’s what I want to do. I already told my parents that I want to come back [to the U.S.].”
Jen concluded, “Our family is already planning a trip to Spain to visit Santi. I don’t know if every host family connects as closely with their child as we have, but we’ve all bonded really strongly.”
To learn more about the Zionsville Rugby Club, follow them on Facebook or on Twitter or email [email protected].