Secret Obsessions is Atlas Obscura’s new column where we ask wondrous people to take us down a rabbit hole. This edition features American astronaut Jessica Watkins, as told to Associate Editor Sarah Durn.
I really kind of stumbled into rugby. It started at an activities fair at college. I played basketball and soccer and ran track in high school, so when I got to Stanford I wanted to pursue something athletic. I ended up chatting with the women at the rugby booth.
The team had just come off winning a national championship in 2006, so they put an offer on the table: “If you come out, we’ll teach you everything you need to know, and there’s a pretty good possibility of being part of a championship team.”
A few days later, I went to my first rugby practice. We were given name tags and one of the older team members asked me what my name was. I said “Jessica” and they said, “That’s not gonna work: There are way too many Jessicas.
“What’s your last name?”
I told them and she wrote “Watkins” on the name tag. For the first year and a half, I think most people on the team had no idea what my first name was.
But already from that first practice, I just fell in love with rugby—the sport and this group of women who became my teammates. Everyone on the team was just so warm and friendly.
It really struck me from the beginning just how unique rugby is. It requires people of all shapes and sizes and strengths to come together to accomplish a goal.
My first year on the team, I was a freshman, and we did make it to the national championship game. But we lost to Penn State by a point.
That really lit a fire under us for the next season. We put in the work as a team to ensure that didn’t happen again. We were logging extra hours in the gym, extra hours on the field, extra hours watching game tape—whatever it took. There was lots of sprinting in the early morning hours.
At the end of that season, in 2008, we again made it to the title game. We were up against Penn State—again.
By the end of the game, we were down by one try, one score. There was no time left on the clock. But in rugby you can keep playing—even if there’s no time left—at least until the ball goes out of bounds.
We all knew we had this one last chance. We had the ball and were making our way down the field. We got close to our try zone and ran one final play.
The ball came to me, I took the shot, and we scored that final try, putting us just over the edge. With no time left on the clock, we won the game. That was a pretty amazing moment, just to be able to experience that as a team. We celebrated together, a total high.
The year after that I joined the national team as a junior in college. At the time, rugby wasn’t in the Olympics, so the women’s national team was working toward the Rugby World Cup.
Eventually, I was able to participate, and a little bit later on, while I was in grad school, I went back and trained with the team for the Olympics. Rugby sevens, a condensed version of the game, was added to the Olympics in 2016. Each team has seven players instead of 15, and you play for seven-minute halves instead of 40.
But ultimately I decided to finish my Ph.D. instead. The decision wasn’t easy. At the time, I was in the fourth year of my Ph.D. at UCLA, and every chance I had I would drive down from Los Angeles to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, outside of San Diego. It was about two-and-a-half hours each way. It wasn’t super sustainable.
So, I had to make a decision. I wanted to be in the Olympics, but I had always dreamed of being an astronaut. And I knew that I needed that Ph.D. to have a shot. Luckily, it ended up all working out for me.
In 2017, I joined NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Class, and then, between April and October 2022, I served as a mission specialist on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station.
Both when I was up at the I.S.S. and on the rugby pitch, a big part of each job was being a team player. A rugby team is comprised of people with all different skill sets and all those skills are required to be successful.
Human spaceflight is very similar. We work with an amazing team of scientists, engineers, and instructors who are all helping ensure we have a safe, successful mission.
One of my favorite parts about rugby is the culture that surrounds it. While I was on the national team, I had the chance to meet people from all around the world and play rugby in many different countries.
One thing stayed the same—within the rugby community, everybody has a seat at the table and is welcomed and accepted and appreciated for what they bring. Rugby fans and players, even when they’re rooting for or playing on different teams, can still come together after a game and break bread.
I think the same is true of human spaceflight—it’s this thing that we all get to share and celebrate together, around the world.
Jessica Watkins is the first Black female astronaut. In 2022, she completed a 170-day-long mission to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission. Before joining NASA, Watkins played competitive rugby on the USA national women’s rugby team and later trained with the United States’ women’s Olympic rugby team.