Not coming from a sporting family did not prevent Argentine-born Natalia Díaz (in the photo, kneeling extreme left) from embracing different sports before finally finding her place in rugby. The road to the oval ball, with which she has flourished on and off the field, has taken her from athletics to competitive weightlifting to rugby.
“Between the ages of 11 and 20 I ran athletics as a speedster, also competing in heptathlons,” Natalia said in conversation with World Rugby.
At 20, as she was beginning her studies to become a physical education teacher, she turned to weightlifting. “It made sense to me - both needed explosive muscles”.
Soon, she was representing her country in South American competitions in a region where the sport is competitive and strong. Although never reaching Pan American or Olympic status, Nata, as she is known, would be amongst the top participants.
While not a full-time professional, she did receive stipends from the High Performance Programme and the National Sporting programme.
Rugby had not yet featured in her life other than in the form of a Puma jersey her late father had given her.
“I can’t remember who, but someone approached me and invited me to play rugby. I was too focused on my weightlifting career at the time,” Díaz remembered.
The gateway to rugby
Having spent 10 years competing at a high performance level, she grew tired of individual sports and began her search for a new challenge.
Rugby came knocking on her door in a rather strange way. “Centro Naval, a club that is very close to the high performance centre where I lived, invited me to do a coaching session with its women’s section on weightlifting and running. Something quite informal,” Díaz said.
“I liked what I saw and as I decided to drop my high performance life; knowing I wanted to continue in sports, I chose rugby.”
Her introduction came during a beach tournament at the start of 2013. “I only knew how to run very quickly. I needed to learn the game, the contact, how to tackle, how to take hits, how to fall to the ground.”
In weightlifting, her daily routine involved only herself and her coach. In rugby, Natalia instantly became part of a team.
“That was an instant hook and it got me thinking that individual sports could do with that same team spirit,” she said.
“Living together, training, companionship. Rather than just me and my coach, I had friends and team-mates around.”
After first experiencing rugby as a winger and as she became more knowledgeable in the game, she was moved to prop where her strength was well utilised, although she still possessed the necessary speed for sevens.
Sharing the field with a number of internationals, including one of the stars of the team, Yamila Otero, injury saw her miss out when they won the Buenos Aires provincial championship in 2015. She was nonetheless an integral part of the team by then.
“I played between 2013 and 2016, but injuries became a problem for my job as a trainer,” Díaz said. “So, in 2017, I decided to help as a fitness coach in Centro Naval.”
Her last game came in interesting circumstances.
“We had travelled to the national championship and we were short of a few players. The coach told me I also had to play!” she remembered, with a smile, as she recounted her last few minutes as a player.
What came next
Having stayed with the team another year as trainer, 2019 was a sabbatical year. Knowing that the Argentine Rugby Union were searching for a trainer for the women’s team, she applied and after four months of interviews and waiting, it was confirmed on 23 December of that year that she had been selected.
“A great end to a tough year,” she said.
She started what was a huge year for rugby full steam ahead. After three training camps, COVID-19 intervened and the country closed down three days before Argentina was scheduled to fly to South Africa for the Olympic Repechage tournament.
Argentina had one of the longest lockdowns in the world. Natalia had to adapt her role with players in different living conditions and with access to a varying amount of training equipment.
“Once we found a rhythm, we managed to work every day with 35 players all in their own homes,” she said.
“Lockdown gave me the opportunity to work on their fitness - something we wouldn’t have been able to do in a normal season. We had to adapt quickly. I had to adapt quickly as I like being close to the players.”
Her input was recognised and she recently extended her contract with the Argentine Rugby Union for 2022.
2021 was also the year in which she was chosen to receive the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship, which she will use to focus on sports management.
“As a professional, this will be very important for my future. It will allow me to focus on development projects, high performance, on trying to reach more and more people involving them in our game,” Díaz said.
She had started a Bachelor’s Degree but dropped out to be with her mother when her father passed. She will resume her studies next year.
“I can see some things that can be done with women’s rugby to make it bigger and better,” she said.
“There is a big group of very intelligent women that have received the scholarship and I feel very much supported. We have a Whatsapp group and many interesting things come from it.”
“I still have a lot to learn. I love the opportunity I have.”