Before Ella Slaby ’25 was leading the rugby team to national championships and representing her country on the international stage, she was living abroad in Shanghai and working tirelessly to get recruited by an NCAA rugby program. During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, she reached out to Bowdoin Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews, a decision that would prove beneficial for both parties.
Over the course of the next few years, the two cultivated a relationship over email, but when Slaby joined a Zoom call with both Mathews and Assistant Coach James Read, the coaches realized how special she really was.
At the end of the recruiting call, Mathews asked the young prospect if she had any questions for the two coaches. Whereas most recruits might ask about off-season training regimen, practice schedules or other team-related fields, Slaby asked a question that has stuck with both the coaches to this day.
“What’s your sense of humor?” Slaby asked.
Admittedly, the question threw the coaches a little bit off balance. However, the unorthodox question told Mathews and Read everything they needed to know about the talented youngster. She was unequivocally unafraid to be anything but herself, even in her very first introduction with her future coaches.
“That [question] just captured us a little bit and makes you realize that you’re talking to a pretty cool kid,” Mathews said.
Following the recruiting call, both coaches were convinced that Slaby would be a perfect fit for the Bowdoin rugby program. Yet, it was her film that originally piqued the coaches’ interest. Neither coach had actually seen the young recruit play in person ahead of her time at the College. However, because her game film was so impressive, Read felt that they knew they were getting a top talent.
“You have to look at film with a different lens because, if you’re not there, you can’t see the speed and the intensity of the game,” Read said. “I think we knew—regardless of who she was playing against—just the way she handled herself: the way she ran [and] her skill set regardless of what the skill of the opposition was like. We knew we were getting a top, top-quality player.”
Three years after watching Slaby’s sophomore film, Mathews and Read were finally able to watch her play in person when she stepped on the College’s campus as a first year student. Immediately, the two coaches realized how truly special of a player they had on their hands.
According to her coaches, what Slaby does with the ball, and her overall level of play, are so high-level that referees are unable to keep up with her capabilities.
“She is sometimes a little bit too quick in what she does on the field, and she does things that referees might not necessarily think are capable of being done because she does them so fast and thinks so far ahead,” Read said. “So, sometimes she would get penalized for that.”
However, Mathews was quick to add that Slaby remains composed when her skill can often get penalized.
“She is always a good sport about it. Not once will she complain. She plays above the level of some referees.”
While Slaby’s skill level speaks for itself, her competitive nature and drive to improve as an individual are where she separates herself from the rest of the competition. After practices, Slaby and Read will often challenge each other to a friendly dropkick competition, with the aim to kick the ball between the uprights with both right and left feet.
“I think that those dropkick competitions are ways to mess around, but with a purpose,” Read said. “Not everybody does that, but she does it to try and get better. You can really see her competitive side.”
As for who wins, the competitions are often painfully even, with neither Read nor Slaby ever able to get too far ahead in the final tally.
It was this same competitive drive that gave the Bowdoin standout the opportunity to represent the United States of America at the international level. Just as Slaby reached out to Mathews, she took a similar approach to get the attention of the national team coaches.
In order to be selected for a tour with the national team, players must receive an invitation to attend a national development camp. From there, players are monitored and funneled into either seven-sided play or fifteens.
For Slaby, her first call up to the national team was this past summer, when she attended a U23 camp as a seventeen-year-old. Her second camp invite came this past February, when she attended the development camp at the Olympic Training Center in California. Finally, this past weekend, Slaby was able to don red, white and blue in her first ever tour with the U23 national team in a tournament held in British Columbia, Canada.
Once again, it was Slaby’s competitive spirit and unrelenting desire to improve her game that stood out to her coaches back in Brunswick. For Read, this, combined with her skill, will allow Slaby to climb as far as she wants to in the world of rugby.
“[Slaby is]someone who didn’t really know this was an option two years ago and now can take this as far as she wants—a game that’s played all over the world, has professional careers all over the world,” Read said. “She has an opportunity to go for that if she wants it. I think that is a great lesson to give to anybody. If you have an interest in something and you aren’t sure how it’s going to work, you take a risk, and you can achieve something.”