We’re excited to continue our new series, “Pioneers of the Pitch,” where we celebrate the groundbreaking athletes, administrators, coaches, referees and fans who’ve left their mark on rugby in the USA. Each installment takes you on a journey through the inspiring stories of rising stars and seasoned legends, both on and off the field. Join us as we shine a light on these exceptional individuals and uncover their tales of dedication, passion, and triumph.
From graceful leaps to powerful tackles, Natalie Bjorklund’s athletic journey is a testament to the transformative power of sports. Growing up in the Czech Republic, Natalie, nicknamed Nat, found her first athletic love in the world of track and field, soaring high with the pole vault. Inspired by her ballerina mom, Natalie possessed a natural grace and determination that would later fuel her passion for rugby.
It wasn’t until high school, amidst the French immersion scene in New York, that Natalie discovered the grit and camaraderie of rugby. A Haitian friend, Christy, opened her eyes to this dynamic sport, and the seed was planted. Christy’s dedication and spirit resonated with Natalie, who found a natural fit in the fast-paced, team-oriented world of rugby.
But the path to the pitch wasn’t always smooth. Juggling academics with the demands of training, Natalie embraced the “grunt work,” putting in the sweat and focus needed to hone her skills. Her journey led her to Penn State, where her dedication shone through. She became a valuable member of the Nittany Lions, eventually earning the honor of captain during her senior year. This leadership role showcased her ability to inspire and motivate her teammates, both on and off the field.
Fresh out of Penn State, with a degree and captaincy tucked under her arm, Natalie’s sights were firmly set on professional rugby. The Rhinos presented the perfect proving ground, honing her physical prowess while she kept her mind razor-sharp through film study and… yes, even sudoku (not her forte, but effective!). Game days were meticulous ballets of physical preparation and laser-sharp focus. Her trusty five-year-old spandex (washed, always washed!) became her second skin, a testament to her dedication. Visualization and deep breaths calmed her nerves, transforming her into a warrior before the battle. Overcoming setbacks remained a work in progress, but Natalie’s resilience always shone through, evident in memories like her once-in-a-lifetime trip to Fiji to play the Fijiana Drua. That experience solidified her love for the sport and the incredible community it fostered, adding another unforgettable chapter to her ever-evolving rugby story.
Looking ahead, Natalie’s eyes are firmly set on the prize: playing for the USA National Team. Having tasted the competitive fire in the 2022 USA 7s National Team residency, her unrelenting training and unwavering spirit make her a force to be reckoned with. Beyond the pitch, Natalie envisions a future in public health, perhaps even coaching the next generation of rugby stars.
So, the next time you see Natalie Bjorklund on the pitch, remember the ballerina dreams that fueled her athletic journey, the unwavering support of a friend, and the grit that transformed her into a rugby rumbler. This is just the beginning of her story, and one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a thrilling ride.