Real Life

I cheated death to coach

Given 10 years to live, this Kiwi mum defied the odds to follow her passion for rugby.

By Aroha Awarau

Working as a rugby coach for men’s teams, Jacqueline Roper has achieved her goals against incredible odds. But it’s off the rugby field that the Aucklander had to overcome some of her greatest hardships.

At 19, Jacqueline was told she had only 10 years to live when she was diagnosed witha congenital heart defect. Now, at 42 years old, Jacqueline has defied expectations and she is living life to the full.

Furthermore, because of her medical condition, she was told she would never have children, and was warned that falling pregnant could kill her.

Once again Jacqueline proved everyone wrong when she gave birth 16 months ago to beautiful daughter, Denim, and became a single parent at 40.

Her determination will see Jacqueline become one of a handful of women to coach an international men’s team when she flies to Africa in June to work with the Botswana sevens squad.

She says the secret to her success is a positive attitude and striving to be the best.

“It’s been an extraordinary journey,” she explains, while cuddling gorgeous Denim in her arms. “I’ve been there and done that. You can’t knock me down.”

Jacqueline’s life changed forever as a teenager when doctors told her she wouldn’t live to see 30, after discovering that one of her aortas hadn’t fully developed and she had an enlarged heart.

“When I was told the news, it inspired me to pursue all my dreams. I travelled the world and did all the things I wanted to do. I lived life like there was nothing wrong with me. That way I didn’t know any different.”

Forging a successful career as a sportswear designer, working for the likes of menswear expert Nigel Curtiss, Jacqueline also followed her passion for rugby – a love she developed while growing up in Taranaki.

During her overseas travels, Jacqueline also played the game and even represented Japan. But too many concussions led her from playing the sport she adored to coaching it.

“I wanted to stay in the sport. Coaching was the next step. I wanted to get ahead in that area, and the only way to do that was to coach men’s teams.”

She admits it was hard for many people to accept a woman coaching men in the male-dominated game.

“I’ve been through everything negative you can think of. One men’s team I was chosen to coach, 10% of the men left because they didn’t want to be coached by a woman. But the irony was that we beat the team that most of the men ended up playing for.”

“People also say a woman coach wouldn’t understand what men do on the field, or they don’t know what it’s like to get hurt. That’s absurd. Women can hit just as hard as men, and besides, we all bleed the same colour red.”

After gaining success as a coach, which included leading a Californian men’s team to a US national championships and coaching premier club teams back at home, Jacqueline is starting to gain some respect.

“Many are starting to know what I’ve done and where I’ve been. They don’t look at me as a woman, but what I achieved as a coach and judge me on that.”

She says the players respect her and look to her as a “big sister” who has plenty to offer.

“I’m a good technical coach, because I have a gymnastics background. I’ve transferred all that technical side into rugby.”

Twelve years ago, Jacqueline, who still thought she had only a short time to live, was told by doctors they could prolong her life by performing open heart surgery. And so she endured another challenge.

“The surgery was gruelling. But they were able to repair my aorta. I had a long road to recovery, but it was worth it. I’m still here and living my life normally,” she says.

Returning to New Zealand in 2008, Jacqueline had been given a new lease of life. But the one goal that had eluded her was motherhood – until two years ago, when she received joyous news.

“I’ve been told all my life that having children would be next to impossible, so you can imagine my shock when I fell pregnant at 40.”

Jacqueline was thrilled with the news and couldn’t wait for her baby to be born.

“I was put in a high-risk unit and had an awesome medical team. I was looked after so well that my pregnancy and birth went smoothly,” she explains.

Today, it’s a case of like mother, like daughter. Little Denim loves rugby as much as Jacqueline, and although still learning to walk, she is taken to most of the matches. She’s even attended an All Black match and the IRB Sevens World Series in Las Vegas.

“She’s going to be a good player. Even now she holds her toys with one arm, ready to fend someone off with the other.”

This year Jacqueline will fulfil a huge dream, when she travels to Africa to coach a national men’s side – the Botswana sevens team. And she aims to coach a leading New Zealand men’s team one day.

“There is a place for women in this sport – and I’m proving that we can be just as good as the men.”

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