Maria Thomas: From Pack to President
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Maria Thomas may just be one of the most successful rugby personalities in Canada that Canada never had.
To put it another way, Canada’s loss has been Trinidad and Tobago’s gain.
To talk to Thomas is to feel as if you’re in the presence of someone who is going to impact our game for years to come. She lives and breathes rugby; the ideas come faster than she can express them. Yet express them she does, in the most eloquent and logical manner.
I can’t wait to see how far her journey takes her. I’m willing to bet it’s as far as it’s possible to go.
But I digress.
Before she can take the world, she’s got work to do as Trinidad and Tobago’s first female president. She’s got to ferry her union out of the pandemic and back to playing. She’s got to grow the game as she has mandated herself to do. She’s got to make sure women’s involvement in the union continues to grow. She’s got to get more rugby into schools and encourage the schools to bring it back into the curriculum. She’s got to get recruitment going and get those players training. She’s got to get more friendlies going on with neighbouring nations. She’s got to keep the wonderful volunteers happy and willing to carry on.
And if she had her way, Thomas would get all this done before lunch.
In truth, Thomas would like to accomplish her laundry list of strengthening rugby in Trinidad and Tobago in the next ten months or so. She has a plan, and she is working on getting the pieces in place to execute it. She has her mandate as President of the TTRFU broken down into short, medium, and long-term goals:
Short term: We need to prepare our athletes. This means providing opportunities; giving them the tools they need to be ready to compete and fostering a community of respect and inclusion for them. They are the union.
Mid term: Retention is paramount. We have incredible resources within our community and empowering the community to impact and contribute to the future of the union will not only strengthen rugby in Trinidad and Tobago, it will also reveal an authentic and sustainable brand.
Long term: Building a foundation of integrity and transparency will create a framework to take us forward, facilitating meaningful succession.
As Thomas says, in order for all three to be achieved successfully, the grassroots will need to be empowered and encouraged to thrive. “Clubs, teams, and affiliated bodies require the tools to generate consistent revenue with which they can reinvest in themselves and by extension, the union. Providing accessible options to do this is a short-term focus that will have long term benefits.”
If it seems overly ambitious, you don’t know Thomas. She devotes every waking moment to making her tenure as President of the TTRFU successful. She isn’t doing it to fulfill her own mandate and feed her ego. She’s doing it because she really loves the game of rugby that much, and she wants it to thrive in her home nation. In typical Thomas fashion, she readily acknowledges that she is not a one-woman task force. The Executive Committee and wider community within TTRFU act as a unit and are all invested in its successful future. Thomas can’t achieve it all on her own, nor would she want to. Good administration is built on all the cogs and wheels running the machine.
It’s a potentially daunting task, but Thomas is invested. In a way, while the lockdown due to Covid-19 is difficult and makes competition near impossible at the moment, it’s been beneficial for Thomas to be able to execute some of her plans. She’s able to devote herself to getting the job done 24/7 because she’s currently home.
Thomas figures she can pour herself fully into the role another year before she’ll need to be thinking of generating income for herself. As Thomas explains, The Why is vastly important to her. “A lot has been invested in me via scholarships… volunteering is a means of reinvesting those resources into the rugby community.”
The selflessness is evident. Thomas doesn’t just want to succeed. She wants to leave the TTRFU in good hands and in a period of growth and development when she eventually hands it off.
You see, next year rugby in Trinidad and Tobago turns 100. There are plans to blow it up and make it a massive year-long celebration. There’s the rebranding, which is under way regardless of whether the world opens up, but there’s also a hall of fame she’d like to see established as well. But in order to do that, Thomas feels certain things have to happen first. And of course, this pandemic we are all enduring has to get under control.
How did Trinidad and Tobago get so lucky?
Maria Thomas was born in London, Ontario, and participated in many sports growing up. She didn’t play for Western University when she lived in London to attend school, though she did try out for rugby there. “I’d come back from Trinidad and try out for teams in my bare feet, trying to get reacclimatized. But I don’t think I was very impressive,” she laughs. Instead, she was encouraged by friend and Jamaica Rugby star Tamara Dixon to join her at local club, London St Georges. It was the camaraderie that kept Thomas returning to the game and which lead to her increased involvement in Trinidad.
In 2010, Thomas relocated to her Island home while she continued her studies abroad. Since that time, she’s been involved in the TTRFU as both player and volunteer, then later as the Union’s secretary, and now, as the President. “A big part of this journey has literally been me trying to get to Tuesday and Thursdays are training days, and Saturday is a rugby day. That’s what I have been seeking this whole time,” Thomas enthuses.
Her administration journey began because she sought to improve opportunities for women in rugby. “If you have complaints, I am all about complaints, because that is how you identify things you need to improve. But the caveat is if you’re going to complain, you have to put yourself into a position to bring about the change.” Thomas wanted to bring about the change.
Despite not representing Canada internationally or regionally, Thomas played one season for the Guardian Angels rugby team. She looked forward to those tours to reconnect with some Canadian friends. This touring team of mightily impressive ‘retired’ women players was also subject of her Masters’ thesis case study. The idea was borne on a recommendation by RAN which excited Thomas greatly.
While Canada never benefitted from her skills internationally, TTRFU has.
Thomas has proudly represented Trinidad and Tobago in both 7s and 10s rugby. She counts some of the key tournaments as her greatest playing memories, something she’s very keen for young talent to experience. Her favourite International competition memory is playing against friend and Guardian Angels teammate Dixon.
It was one of those life moments that Thomas loves: Here are two women, lived in the same residence at University, connected through rugby, both go off and live their separate lives, and meet again on opposite sides of the pitch – each representing their Country. The best moment within the moment was The Tackle. Each got one in, and they loved it. They’re still in touch and remain close as they both work on initiatives through WiLD (RAN’s Women in Leadership Development committee) and in other ways to create alternative pathways in the region.
As a player, rugby is Thomas’ peaceful place. She is a pack person who feels at home in a ruck, on the field, playmaking. “Rugby is my yoga,” she says. Being on the pitch is to feel zen. It’s that feeling of freedom she wants to impart on the next generation of players.
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Ahead of international competition, planning and training has continued so TTRFU is ready to roll. In order to represent well at Rugby Americas North tournaments, the players have to be fit and ready. Despite lockdown in Trinidad and Tobago and covid restrictions changing weekly throughout the region, Thomas is facing the challenge with her ‘failure is not an option’ attitude. Weekend camps, time spent as a team, competing against local teams when restrictions permit, all are going to be important elements in getting the international teams ready to compete.
When Covid-19 broke out, Thomas was in Russia completing her Masters in Sport Administration at the prestigious Russian International Olympic University in Sochi.
As a PanAm and Potanin Foundation (via the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee) Scholarship recipient, this prestigious program was an incredible opportunity for the intellectual and organizational side of Thomas’ rugby brain.
It was an experience she’ll never forget and is incredibly grateful for, but it delayed her travels home to Trinidad and Tobago by six months as the world dealt with various levels of lockdown in the early months of the pandemic (luckily, she’s a dual citizen of Canada and Trinidad and Tobago; it got her where she needed to go that much sooner, along with the great support she got from PanAm, World Rugby, and Rugby Americas North).
World pandemic aside, the program set Thomas up with the tools she feels she’ll need over the next year to help Trinidad and Tobago rugby.
About that presidency.
When Thomas decided to throw her hat into the ring for President of Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Union, it was based on the platform of strengthening the infrastructure of rugby on the Island nation, keeping the volunteer base thriving, and encouraging youth involvement. She took the vote with 2/3 ballots cast in her direction.
Her mandate as president is one year (completing the term that began in April 2020. The AGM having been postponed due to Covid-19), and so Thomas’ term will end in April 2022 when there is another election. One year doesn’t seem like enough time to exact change, but Thomas is careful to push for a move toward the international standard, as TTRFU is primarily volunteer run, and there is no stipend. While Thomas agrees that a two-year commitment for volunteers is more realistic, there has been discussion about aligning the term length with international bodies. For now, it’s safe to say that these folks really have to love the game. And they do. Certainly, Thomas does.
And she’d have it no other way. You have to know the community, she says. You can’t come from outside and expect to succeed in making any changes. It wouldn’t matter how much someone from outside knows, without community support and knowledge, it wouldn’t be done.
She also wants to make sure that she leaves TTRFU in a great place when her time as president ends. She’d love nothing more than to see two or three others running for president next April, as she believes the election process strengthens the community and helps to hold leadership accountable. She cares that much about the game and her own union that she’d rather lose to someone better than be uncontested. Her goal is to grow it, not own it. “Look how much rugby does for people,” she says. It’s what rugby has given to Thomas which drives her to give her wisdom back to the game.
Thomas likens it to competing for the same position on a team. That person who wants to be selected over you isn’t your adversary – they’re your best friend. They drive you to achieve your best and you do the same for them. Yet, if they’re selected you wish the best for them because their good performance will benefit the team. At the same time, you’re going to work harder for that selection next time. You don’t undermine them, you hold them up.
TTRFU boasts more than 150 volunteers, an impressive number for a small Union with 15 clubs and three affiliate bodies. Through youth development and the schools, the framework of the union has actually grown during this challenging time with two new teams forming and joining as officially sanctioned clubs.
While rugby is not strictly taught in schools, it is on the list of sports that can be taught, so one of Thomas’ jobs is to encourage schools to take it up. Thomas considers TTRFU a partner to the affiliate Schools Union and works with them to facilitate access to resources they need to thrive, as there is a lot of player crossover between club and school playing. Player retention is top of mind for Thomas and the TTRFU.
Thomas believes that first and foremost, players should feel as if they’re part of a community. The very reason she misses being part of a team is the same reason she played with the Guardian Angels. It’s that need to feel part of a community, to connect on a unique level that Thomas wants to impart on younger players.
One of the issues Thomas has been puzzling through is the common assumption that high performance is a considered a stand-alone component within rugby unions, away from development, away from grassroots.
“We don’t have the depth at a high-performance level where our high performance could not be argued to also be grassroots,” she says. There remains the need to work with the clubs to get those players identified and the training and practice they need. The luxury of grassroots development and high performance being two separate issues is not something smaller unions can boast. It’s all got to work in concert together in order for the union to be successful.
One of the most important lessons Thomas has learned in her work with rugby is that success doesn’t have to result in sitting atop a podium. There are different levels of success. “We need to redefine what success looks like for us,” she says. To her, it’s the work that has to happen before the big wins that will set up the union for the success she knows they’re capable of. Along the way there will be milestones met, and all of those have to be considered 'W's.
I asked Maria where she sees herself in five years. Her prepared answer was “I have no idea.”
As she explained, she is a short-term goal person. She has a goal set that she wants to see through, then it will be on to the next goal. She isn’t sure where in the world that will carry her, as at the end of the day finances will factor into decisions. But even if she goes elsewhere to make her impact, the hope is that there will be opportunities that allow her to keep her focus in Trinidad and Tobago.
Thomas is looking forward to the Rugby Americas North meetings in November, and hopeful they will be live and in person rather than virtual. She enjoys her time spent with the Women in Leadership Development (WiLD) Committee, making a difference for and empowering women.
Thomas believes that Trinidad and Tobago has a lot of raw talent. She considers one of her tasks to be supporting an environment where, if they put the work in, it will lead somewhere, to the benefit of the individual as well as the benefit of the Union. This is why she feels she needs to nurture the grassroots.
After talking to Thomas at length, I believe she is an individual who does what they say they’re going to do. She’s going to leave Trinidad and Tobago Rugby in a great, thriving place. Of course, she’ll never really leave it even once she’s no longer president. It’s her first love.
I can’t wait to watch Maria Thomas’ evolution. She’s bound for great things.
Like any good rugby yogi.
Karen L. Gasbarino, September, 2021
Rugby Hive Editor
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