Dance is a lifelong passion and career choice for Maria Nikolopoulou. From the age of four, the island of Rhodes resident has followed a path that has seen her gain Royal Academy of Dance credentials and pursue her dream to be a dancer, dance teacher, choreographer and cheerleading coach.
She is currently enrolled at the University of Middlesex and has ambitions to gain a PhD researching the science of kinesiology and how kinesiology influences the artistry of choreography.
“From the very beginning I showed a preference towards dance. Dancing is everything to me. It is not only a type of art, it is also a sport and a way of living,” the twenty seven year old said.
Four months ago Nikopoulo took a brave and adventurous leap when she turned up at a Rhodes Knights men’s rugby league team training session.
It was always going to be a big ask being the only female in the squad practising one of the toughest physical contact sports in the world.
Curiosity and a desire to learn more about the game led her to that first practice session. Understandably there was a slight hesitation before she fully committed to the sport.
“I knew Rhodes Knights was a rugby team and I decided to go and see whether I can become a member or not. At first the idea of being the only girl stopped me from trying out but my desire to learn more about rugby league overcame my initial reservation.
“I thought that in order not to be a girl alone in the team there must be at least one and the rest of the girls will follow. I’ve earned my spot in Rhodes Knights and it is now officially my team. I am very proud of my team.”
The dancer believes that her background in movement has been an advantage in her new sporting career in terms of defensive instincts and injury prevention.
“We, the dancers, have a much more clear perception of the human body. That mainly helps me to distinguish and predict the opponent’s movement according to the inclination of his body. I also would like to point out that the fact that we have strong and flexible muscles which helps us to avoid injuries.
“The truth is that I was not afraid of the contact even in the beginning. You have to do this so I just did it. In the first (training) sessions nobody tackled me regularly. It was really funny because they just held me and dropped me in a slow motion to the ground. Now I am a real member of the team so they treat me as an equal. Rugby is tough and it’s tougher if you are training with boys but I feel stronger every day.”
Head coach of the Rhodes Knights, Michalis Chatziioannou, is happy that Nikolopoulou turned up for that first training session pointing out the value she adds to the squad while providing an opportunity to increase the club’s playing numbers through female participation.
“Maria is a very kind and nice girl but at the same time she is mentally and physically very strong. I would never thought of a girl coming to training and encouraging some of the boys to push harder when everyone was exhausted,” the coach of the reigning Greek domestic champions said.
“When she first came (to training) I thought she would leave because of the fact that we don’t have a women’s team and it wouldn’t be easy for her to train with the boys. Then with her strong character she managed to adapt to training and be part of the team.
“I hadn’t even thought of starting a women’s team four months ago but Maria has persuaded me that we can make it happen in the near future. She is a perfect role model of a female athlete so that is a big help to persuade women to join the team.”
At present there is no official women’s rugby league competition in Greece so Nikolopoulou recently teamed up with female players from another rugby league club, the Patras Panthers, to play in a rugby union sevens competition at Egaleo in Athens. Patras finished a creditable second in the tournament after being defeated by a team from Tel Aviv in the final.
“It was a great experience and a great honor to play with the Patras team,” Nikolopoulou recalls.
“At first I was feeling really stressed but when the match finally started I forgot everything. I met new people and made memories on the field. We returned back home with medals but for me the most important prize of all was the friendship that was established between me and my teammates.”
With the support of her head coach, Nikolopoulou, who recently completed a rugby league coaching seminar in Athens, would like to share those experiences she enjoyed with the women of Rhodes by forming a new rugby league team.
“I assure you that I will do my very best to start a women’s team in Rhodes and help as much as I can to spread the philosophy and the advantages of rugby (league) to other women in order to make the sport more popular amongst women in Greece.
“Rugby and in particular rugby league is a game that teaches you to respect and support for your teammates. It is also a game that teaches you real life lessons. If life tackles you it’s ok, touch the ground, play the ball and continue.”