MDX student Katie Johnson is on the path to a dream career after receiving a sponsorship to study Sports Science while lining up for the Saracens Women’s Academy at Oaklands College.
The 19-year-old is one of three students that has been in training with the North London club’s women team since beginning her degree programme in September 2022.
Katie has devoted much of her life to rugby after being taken along to watch her older brother play as a young child.
“I was only about four or five so really young,” she said.
“I was watching and I thought I want to do that, why can my brother do it and I can’t so my Dad said I could have a go. I enjoyed myself and I never stopped going from there.”
Katie started playing regularly from the age of seven, playing tag rugby in a mixed group.
By the age of 14 she had to make a choice between rugby, cricket and swimming, for which she was training up to ten hours per week.
She said: “I enjoyed rugby the most. There is so much to it and lots going on.
“It isn’t a repetitive sport and in a game situation there’s lots of different opportunities to do lots of things such as kick, pass, tackle if you are in defence, there are multiple set ups and techniques.
“In training there are lots of different drills to perfect so there is never a chance for it to get boring.”
Her talent apparent, Katie played at Enfield before progressing to college at Oaklands joining the full time Rugby Sports Academies overseen by Saracens Women, which is where the link was ignited.
“I wanted to go further so was looking for the next path and how to combine education and rugby. The opportunity was there so I thought why not try and push for it.
“I liked the idea of strength and conditioning as I had been finding that I loved all the stuff I was doing in the gym off the pitch. It sounded very promising to be studying alongside playing a sport I love- what else could I want.”
Action shots: Matt Impey – Wired Photos
Katie said she was “so happy and relieved” when she learnt she had received the scholarship.
She was invited to the women’s pre-season training at Saracens, where the focus is on fitness and tactics. Despite recovering from a knee ligament injury, Katie immersed herself in the new challenge.
“I was a bit scared, especially as the tear had knocked me back a bit but it was really good when I got in there and started training, the standard was so high.
“It was a massive step up from what I had been doing so it was daunting. The others had played at such a high level so you feel worried that if you make a mistake you are setting back the team a bit.
“Once I started to settle in though it felt less scary. I was also made to feel very welcome, the other players were lovely which helped a lot.”
As the youngest player there, Katie says she learnt so much from the set up and her teammates put her mind at ease whenever she made a mistake.
“They kept saying keep going, put it behind you and you will do better next time,” she added.
“I am fly-half so number 10 but it does not matter where you play, as long as you show that you are willing to try, you can go anywhere.”
Katie, who is specialising in Strength and Conditioning, is enjoying her course so far and relishing the chance to be learning in the new West Stand facilities.
She made her debut for Saracens Women in the Premier15s at the start of the season, when the opportunity arose with international players away on duty.
As a Senior Academy player, the training schedule is intense; three days rugby training then gym work three to four times each week. Game day is at the weekend and Katie, as a dual registered player, can also be found representing Championship team Old Albanians to enhance her senior rugby development.
With another Premiership Cup block on the horizon with many international players away, and a break in the Premier15s competition, Kaite hopes to line-up for Saracen’s first team again.
She said: “It’s a very different environment and standard and on my debut two months ago against Loughborough I was so nervous and scared.
“It was the day after my 19th birthday. I was so happy but really wanted to show why they had given me that shirt and show why I deserved it on that day. I know that’s a lot of pressure but wanted to play well.
“I was so chuffed to be playing and I remember every detail- the adrenaline got to me, once I was on the pitch you forget everything else. It was so good.”
Katie’s other career highlight to date is representing England at under 18s level in a match against Scotland, made even more special when she scored the opening try.
The dream now is to become a starting women’s player for the Saracens and be an international player which she says would “be amazing”.
Katie would also like to use her MDX degree to become a coach.
“I can’t think of anything better,” she said.
“I love talking to people and helping them out so it’s a perfect role. What I am learning combined with being in and around an elite environment is definitely helping- I am implementing how the strength and conditioning coaches are with me in to my course.”
Katie was inspired by the kicking ability and training mentality of England player Johnny Wilkinson as a child.
Then when at Oaklands College she was coached by ex-international and Saracens women's player Rocky Clark.
Katie said: “She inspired and pushed me further and made me realise my full potential, she never gave up on me, I always look up to her and she's always willing to help.
“I admire her vast achievements and I hope to make positive changes like she has on the girls’ rugby community.
“Stereotypes are frustrating and I struggled with it a lot when I was younger. Some people couldn’t understand why I was playing rugby and I couldn’t understand why that was a problem.”
Katie’s wish is for rugby to be given more of a presence in schools so younger girls are more likely to engage with the sport.
“Everyone says the game is for all shapes and sizes but it is true, there is something for everyone, whatever you want there is space on the pitch for you and rugby brings people together,” she said.
With women’s rugby breaking new boundaries every year and the increased demand in professionalism within the Premier 15s, Saracens Assistant Coach and Performance Pathway Manager Lewis Sones said that allowing young Saracens players to have the opportunity to develop their on-pitch potential while keeping a focus on their education and career after rugby was “hugely important” to the club.
“With the shared state of the art high performance facility in the new West Stand at StoneX stadium, our scholarship players are able to easily manage their studies alongside elite rugby commitments with access to Saracens performance staff and the Middlesex tutors all under one roof,” he said.
MDX Director of Programmes Chris Bishop said The London Sport Institute was “delighted” to be partnering with Saracens, adding: “We are pleased to be able to support player development from an educational perspective, which will continue to build on our existing, long-standing relationship.”
To find out more about studying Sport at MDX click here.