Special Series

Champions For Earth: Katie Rood Brings Lessons Learned on the Football Pitch to the Climate Fight

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Champions for Earth is a group of athletes, mostly British, who are speaking out about the seriousness and urgency of the environmental emergency faced by civilization. The organization draws on “sporting qualities of dreaming big, making sacrifices, pushing beyond perceived limits, and rising to the occasion” to help push climate action and scalable solutions.

In this special series, GreenSportsBlog features the stories of three athletes who have lead roles with Champions for Earth.  

Last week’s Part I featured Olympic gold medal winning canoeist for Team GB and climate activist Etienne Stott.

Today we turn to Katie Rood, whose grit, tenacity and passion have been on display on football pitches from New Zealand to England. She brings those qualities to the climate fight with Champions for Earth.

 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Katie, your footballing and environmental activist stories have so many twists and turns, let’s dig right in! Growing up in New Zealand, when did those interests begin?

 

Katie Rood: Well, Lew I grew up near a dam in the remote North Island town of Whangarei, the northernmost city in the country. It was beautiful, really: There were forests, creeks and six acres of our own to run around in. We were also just a 40 minute drive away from at least 10 world class beaches. So, appreciation for the environment was something that was natural for me.

I also knew I wanted to be an athlete as long as I can remember.

Rugby was my first sport, starting from four years old. Field hockey too. My best friend’s mum was from Liverpool and was a football coach. So, at 8 I started playing and immediately developed an attacking style. I gave up rugby at 13. At around 16, 17, I had to choose between football and field hockey. Ultimately, I went with football because there would be more professional opportunities around the world — there weren’t any real professional role models in the women’s game in New Zealand, so I needed to think globally.

 

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Katie Rood (Photo credit: Linda Nylind/The Guardian)

 

GSB: So, how did you go about pursuing football?

Katie: I moved to Auckland when I was 17, 18 to try to make the national Under 20 team. Unfortunately, a Navicular stress fracture in my foot kept me from making it. I ended up needing surgery and the recovery lasted almost a year. It was tough, I was away from home, ended up failing school and I became quite depressed,

The best thing that happened from that, was because I couldn’t sleep, I ended up watching all of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, rooting for Spain…

GSB: …Spain ended up winning it, right? 

Katie: Yeah! I’d never really watched the game before and wasn’t much of a fan. I just loved to play. Watching gave me a totally different perspective. Once I was able to get back on the pitch, I could take my game to a new level.

In 2012, I ended up going to the WSL, the top league in England signing for Lincoln Ladies.

It sounded great but it really wasn’t. I was mainly on the bench, got in a couple of games. The biggest problem was that the league was so poorly run; I didn’t even get paid! I was able to get by thanks to some funding from the New Zealand national team. And the club didn’t look after me when I got injured near the end of the season.

So, I went back to New Zealand, got fit, went to Massey University for business management, aced my environmental business course, and played for my local club, the Glenfield Rovers. We won the Kate Sheppard Cup — the FA Cup of women’s football in New Zealand — four times from 2011-2017 and I hold the current record for most goals in the competition.

GSB: …WOW! What kind of player are you, style-wise?

Katie: Ahhh, great question. My favorite player back in the day was David Villa from Spain and Barcelona and I think my style is similar to his: Attack-minded with a nose for goal. Arjen Robben (Netherlands and Bayern Munich) and Sergio Agüero (Argentina and Manchester City) are two others I love to watch.

GSB: I got it! Nothing stops you…

Katie: I like to think so!

I ended up making the national team squad during that time, but it was very frustrating because it felt like I was never taken seriously and only there to make up the training numbers, I never got an opportunity to play.

So, in 2016, I took a two-month road trip through New Zealand with friends to try and decide if football was still going to be my thing. Should I switch to rugby? Go back to hockey? Do something else?

I ended up taking a job as a development officer for futsal, an indoor version of football, in the north. It was okay but I felt as though there could be an opportunity to play full-time overseas.

And then I got a call for a tryout at Juventus in 2017…

GSB: The number one club in Italy?!?! How did they find you?

Katie: I really don’t know — maybe they saw my highlight reel? So, I quit my job, got on a plane to Torino, and gave it a shot.

It was exciting at first. Very intense, challenging and tough, just the way I wanted it. The frustrating part was I didn’t play a lot — the team was stacked with Italian international players and I think it was just the ‘easy’ option for the coach to leave me out. It was really difficult to communicate effectively but I persevered and gave it my all every day. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

And I finally got into the lineup for the New Zealand national team during that time, my debut was against the USA in Cincinnati in front of 35,000 fans.

 

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Katie Rood on the attack for Juventus (Photo credit: Getty Images)

 

GSB: Very cool. Did you go back to Juventus?

Katie: No. As much as I would have liked for it to work, it wasn’t a good fit for me to go back. I looked to the English league again as they were in much better shape compared to when I was there in 2012.

I went to Bristol City in the top league, but their style was defensive, so we didn’t attack much. It didn’t fit me. My confidence dipped again.

Then I got loaned out to Lewes FC…in the Championship, one level below the top league.

GSB: Was that another disappointment?

Katie: On the one hand, it wasn’t the super league. On the other, this club fit me. First of all, it’s community owned. And it’s the only club in the world that pays the women the same as the men! And I got to play!

I mean I got to Lewes, played that weekend — and all 90 minutes! — in front of a packed house. The crowd was amazing. The club had lost 11 straight games before I got there, but after a while we got some results and things started to turn around.

It was great to be playing and feeling valued again, I was also doing well with the New Zealand national team.

I got called up for qualifying campaign for the 2019 Women’s World Cup/2020 Olympics. In the Oceania qualifying I scored my first goal for my country, drilling a hard shot into the upper right. Scored four goals in five games. Scored again vs. Argentina in a friendly tournament a couple of months later.

But despite all that, I didn’t make the team that went to the World Cup in France.

GSB: What? How did that happen?

Katie: It hurt. The team brought in some retired and formerly injured players who they were familiar with. It ruined last summer for me, that’s for sure.

GSB: So many disappointments, twists and turns. But then you went back to Lewes.

Katie: This is my nature, I guess. Coming back. And yes, I signed with Lewes for 2019-20.

Despite missing a couple of games with a hamstring injury, I played well, scored vs. Chelsea and Sheffield United. Which was a buzz. I was finally able to enjoy football again!

And then COVID-19 hit and the season was cancelled a few weeks ago.

So, now we are working towards starting the next season at the end of August/early September. I am excited about being with Lewes. It means the world to be valued as a person and a player here.

 

Highlights of Lewes F.C.’s November 2019 match vs. Chelsea in which Katie Rood scored a “Wonder Goal” (the cut of her goal starts at the 1 minute 10 second mark of this clip). A Must Watch!

 

 

GSB: I hope conditions continue to improve in England so that you can get back on the pitch…And I am so glad Lewes values you on and off the pitch. One thing I hope they value is your environmentalism, your climate activism and your plant-based lifestyle. Talk about how you came to these aspects of your life…

Katie: Well one thing I remember from way back is that I just hated eating meat. My mum would have to hide it underneath vegetables to get me to eat it. At 20, preparing meat still felt disgusting. But I thought “eating meat is what healthy humans do.”

Fast-forward to being 23 in 2015 and eating meat no longer bothered me. I cooked chicken without a problem. Ate lamb on a pizza and enjoyed it!

A week later and I was consumed with guilt about it.

GSB: What happened?

Katie: I watched the movie “Earthlings.” It was an “aha” moment. I realized that I was doing just as much harm to animals by eating them as the person who was killing them.

So, I quit eating meat straight away. Thought I’d be jeopardizing my career by doing so as every narrative I was taught said “you have to eat meat” to be a strong athlete.

But the truth was I started to feel better, almost immediately. Physically, socially and emotionally. My guilt lifted. And then I went fully plant-based, cutting out dairy and eggs once I discovered the cruelty behind those industries.

Do you know that, from 2010 to 2015, I never played a whole season injury-free? Did that have to do with dairy-related inflammation? Since I’ve gone plant-based I’ve had only one minor hamstring injury.

And my eyes were opened; I saw the world differently.

GSB: That’s quite an awakening! How did your teammates react?

Katie: I started inviting friends over for food and documentaries like “Cowspiracy” and “What the Health”. “The Game Changers” will probably be the next one! I find it a great way to discuss the issues and share how epic vegan food can be. Lots of them have given it a go over the years and several have stuck with it.

GSB: What did your coaches think?

Katie: Overall, they’ve been alright, I guess. My Italian coach was a bit taken aback by it. Another said I played like a girl because of it.

GSB: Oh, I’m sure that went over well…

Katie: It’s the most backward insult to receive. Damn right I play like a girl! And a good one too!

GSB: After your switch to plant-based, you started to get political. Was that intentional?

Katie: I’d never been that political before; I had always voted for the candidates my parents supported and not thought much of it.

My veganism changed things. To me, it’s a moral code to reduce suffering in the world. So, I started speaking up about the horrific cruelty of animal agriculture industries.

And then, traveling all over the world for football, it became impossible for me to ignore the human suffering and planetary devastation that I was seeing. It was too much at times and I couldn’t keep quiet about it.

GSB: That is powerful, Katie. How did you deal with this environmental anguish?

Katie: I’d say that it started in 2015 when I started to recognize my privilege and felt that I had to share these ideas about veganism, and the need to alleviate animal and human suffering.

My platform grew when I played in Italy; I had about 10,000 Instagram and Twitter followers at that point.

I really started to find my voice as an animal activist after coming back to England, especially at Lewes. I learned about ecology and ecosystems and that led me to see how industrial agriculture, the environment and climate change were all connected. That led to me getting more involved, even joining some vegan protests at slaughterhouses.

Then in 2018 I found out about Extinction Rebellion [an organization that manages peaceful yet disruptive, civilly disobedient protests to promote the urgent need for meaningful climate action] and thought I’d check it out. Packed up a tent and a sleeping back and hopped on a train to London. It turned out to be life-changing.

GSB: How so?

Katie: At first, I felt a bit reserved. There were people everywhere, all very friendly. There was a full vegan kitchen, compostable toilets, and dance parties on what seemed like every corner in central London. I got braver and braver, going into the streets. We just took over. It felt right and empowering to see everyone come together for a common goal.

After a couple of nights camping on the streets, I hopped the train so I could get back to practice and up to our game against Aston Villa. I scored a couple of goals and got on the train back to London for the rest of the Extinction Rebellion protests.

But you won’t believe it — I got on the wrong train and headed to Reading instead of London, missed seeing and hearing Greta Thunberg. I was GUTTED!

GSB: Oh no!

Katie: I know! But it was cool, I got to tell my football friends about XR and then shared my football experience with my XR friends, they were so excited that I scored two goals! It dawned on me the power I had as an athlete.

GSB: Amen, Katie!

Katie: That night, after chopping up some potatoes in the kitchen I heard an announcement that an Olympic Champion was about to speak. I dropped everything and ran over to listen.

It was the first time I saw an athlete speaking out on behalf of the climate.

It was powerful and emotional, I cried. I knew I had to connect with him. That athlete was Etienne Stott. I managed to get his email and soon we were on a Skype chat.

Etienne is amazing.

GSB: No doubt about it…

Katie: I mean, Extinction Rebellion is quite radical; not many athletes…well, only Etienne got to the point of getting arrested.

He got me in touch with Dave Hampton and it was a very natural evolution that ended up with me joining Champions for Earth.

GSB: I know that Champions for Earth submits Op-Eds on climate to top publications, signed by the athletes. Have you been involved on those campaigns?

Katie: Yeah, I came on board right around the time Dave was planning their second Op-Ed, this one in The Guardian supporting the Greta-led Climate Strike. I’m super-proud of that.

GSB: You should be! What is Champions for Earth planning next?

Katie: We have a few things in the pipeline but are also all managing our own careers and activism too so it’s not alway easy finding the time and resources to pull things together. We’re about to launch a YouTube channel and hope that will provide some insight and inspiration for more athletes to join us.

I am really looking forward to making more of difference going forward through veganism, social justice and with our climate and ecological challenges.

After all, football gave me the opportunity to see the world; now it is my opportunity to try change it!

GSB: And now you will have the opportunity to play in a Women’s World Cup on home soil as the 2023 tournament was recently awarded to Australia and New Zealand. I think I know the answer, but I have to ask — are you going to make a go of it?

Katie: I couldn’t be more motivated for it! To think of all the times I missed out on selection…it would all be worth it to make my World Cup debut at home in front of loved ones.

 

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Katie Rood playing for the New Zealand National Team. She hopes to do so at the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand (Photo credit: NZ Football)

 

GSB: Assuming you will be in the team, how will you feel about talking about environmental and/or climate issues during that World Cup?

Katie: First of all, there will be a lot of environmental challenges with a Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, especially with people flying so far to get there.

It feels like a big task to try and consider ways in which we could minimize the environmental impacts, but I hope across the next few years we can come up with some great initiatives that will make a difference. If you have any great ideas of what we could do, let me know!

GSB: Here’s an idea — not sure if it’s a great one, I’ll leave that to you and the readers — but here goes: How about FIFA makes an investment in low-carbon aviation fuel?

Katie: That would be great if we can implement something along those lines from the top level! I’m sure we can find positive ways to raise awareness of it all. Perhaps a playing shirt could be gifted to each team’s most ‘environmental fan’ or something like that. Watch this space!

In terms of how I would feel about speaking out, I’m not sure what the world will be like in three years, but I don’t imagine that I would be able to keep quiet about the environment and climate when we have the whole world watching, and I’d hope that other players would be doing the same.

GSB: Katie…Or shall I say Roodie…I am so confident in your ability to change the world that I say, in the words of the late Joe Strummer of The Clash, “Roodie Can’t Fail” to inspire other players to speak out!

 

 

The finale of our three-part series on Champions for Earth will conclude next week with its founder, the retired rower Dave Hampton.

 


 

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