The GSB Interview

Sonia Preisser Rubio, NC State


Sonia Preisser Rubio, a PhD candidate at North Carolina State, researches alternative (aka non-traditional) sports. Her thesis investigates the linkages between alternative sports, the athletes who play them and pro-environmental and/or pro-social behaviors and attitudes.

GreenSportsBlog was fascinated by this topic and by Preisser Rubio’s global, curiosity-filled journey that brought her to this important research.


GreenSportsBlog: Sonia, how would you define alternative sports?

Sonia Preisser Rubio: The definition I prefer to use, from Coakley and Dunn (2000), is that alternative sports are sports that ideologically or practically provide alternatives to mainstream sports and their values and could be categorized as extreme, lifestyle, outdoor or nature-based, like windsurfing, martial arts, kayaking, snowboarding, rock climbing.

For example, snowboarding and the snowboard culture was born in part to challenge the status quo, and to create an alternative for those that did not identify or ascribe to the values/beliefs of the ski culture. Skateboarding is another great example of this.

Dr. Eric Brymer, an Australian academic who has inspired my research, has studied extreme sports, which he defines as sports where if something goes wrong, there is a high likelihood of death. I have chosen to focus not just on extreme sports, but rather focus on all those that fall under the alternative sports umbrella.

Sonia Preisser Rubio (Photo credit: Sonia Preisser Rubio)


GSB: That is an interesting distinction: Not all alternative sports are extreme, but all extreme sports are alternative. What attracted you to alternative sports?

Sonia: I grew up in Mexico City and had an upbringing that was not very traditional. My parents had a large age gap between them and came from opposite social classes.

Sports was and is very big in my family. My dad and all my siblings are swimmers; my dad still swims every day and he’s 88. He played football in college in Mexico before joining the air force; after that he switched to Frontenis – a racket sport popular in Latin America. My mum was a yoga teacher, and loved playing racquetball and squash. She was also a great dancer and won several disco competitions back in the day.

Growing up with them as parents, it was only natural that I started swimming before I could walk, and that they enrolled me in Olympic track gymnastics at age one. I also attended a Japanese immersion school for no other reason that it was close to my house. Physical activity was instilled in us through our yearly Undokai (sports day) and our daily morning Radio Taiso, or radio calisthenics, before the start of classes.

A very young Sonia Preisser Rubio on the uneven bars (Photo credit: Sonia Preisser Rubio)

GSB: WOW, what an interesting background with so many varied crosscurrents…

Sonia: Yeah, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in Mexican society because sports and exercise was such a big part of who I was and for my family. You see, Mexico does not have a sports culture in the way that other countries do, so it was strange that most of my time outside of school was dedicated to sports — swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, karate, tennis — in addition to language and piano lessons.

Not surprisingly, I burnt out on sports at 11 or 12 and stopped playing altogether through junior high. It was partly influenced by a conversation I had with my dad since he knew I wanted to become an Olympian. Unfortunately at the time making a living from it in Mexico was almost impossible. The reality for many Mexican athletes is that our society is not built to make a living playing sports. Not unless you’re a male soccer, baseball player or boxer of course. Things are slowly changing, but when I was growing up there just was not a way to make a life out of it. And my dad was honest with me about that.

Eventually, I moved to Edmonton in Canada at age 15, where I lived with a host family to learn English and attend high school. It was during that time that I was exposed to a ton of new sports through gym class, my host family and friends.

GSB: What kind of sports?

Sonia: Well, my homestay sister played ringette, a hockey-like sport that mostly women play. Instead of a puck they use a ring, and the stick is different since you must catch the ring right in the middle rather than bouncing it off the stick. That is grossly oversimplifying it but you get the gist.

I also got to try my hand at broom ball, hockey and even curling in my gym class. My friends introduced me to snowboarding, BMX, drifting and skateboarding. 

My homestay sister also played rugby growing up, so needless to say my homestay family were thrilled when my German teacher made all of us in her class try out for the female rugby team as she was the assistant coach. Up until then I’d never heard of the sport before.

GSB: What did you think of rugby?

Sonia: Honestly, I was unsure at the beginning. At the time I very much cared about my hair ribbons and didn’t want to break a nail. I was still trying to figure out who I was, particularly coming from a society where it’s frowned upon for women to exhibit characteristics that are deemed “masculine”. It was hard for me to unlearn that, especially because I grew up being told to hold back my strength rather than embrace it. I am glad I had my parents and homestay parents support and encouragement because rugby has changed my life.

There is nothing like it, the culture, the sport, the people. It certainly helped me not only break those societal norms that have limited women for so long around the world, but it allowed me to discover and embrace myself fully. Plus, once I got tackled for the first time it was game on! Haven’t looked back since.

GSB: Is rugby an alternative sport? I believe it’s one of the 10 most-played sports in the world.

Sonia: You are correct. It is the fastest growing sport in the world.

That’s a tricky question! Rugby is a sport that I would argue has a duality to it. By this I mean that although it is a traditional sport in many countries like Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, there is an argument to be made that it is also an alternative sport depending on the society. It certainly is in the U.S. for example, and specially for women’s rugby globally.

Rugby draws people from all walks of life, belief systems, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds. The greatest part of the sport, to me, is that people do not have to change who they are, everyone is as important as every other person on the team, you are valued for who you are, as you are, and it is the differences between individuals that strengthen the pack, which are celebrated in the community.

There is also something quite powerful in knowing that every single person on that pitch will get hit at one point or another, for the team. Each player will quite literally put their body on the line for the team. Knowing that and knowing that when it happens to you as soon as you hit the ground you quite literally have 14 other individuals who’ve got your back. We have a phrase that we use a lot, which is “with you”. It’s usually used to let your teammate know that you have their back, that you are there to support. It’s a central part of the sport on and off the pitch, and I for one have not experienced anything quite like it in any other of my sports.

GSB: Now I think I’ve got it — rugby can be an alternative sport but also a traditional one depending on context. So, did you continue playing after high school?

Sonia: I still play now; it’s part of who I am!

After I graduated from high school, I had a bad accident in which I broke my ankle, damaged a tendon and all my ligaments. The doctors told me to forget about playing rugby, doing snowboarding or any of “my sports” again. Little did they know, I am not the type of person that gives up that easily. And so, I spent a year rehabbing it and although my return to rugby took a while – mostly because of my semi-nomadic lifestyle due to work and school – I managed to return to snowboarding before returning to Mexico to start my undergraduate degree. Next, I transferred to Richmond, the American International University in London where I earned my B.A. in International Relations with a Sociology minor.

Sonia Preisser (#6 in yellow) reaches high for the catch in 2019 rugby match (Photo credit: Jennifer Woitena)

GSB: What did you want to do, work-wise?

Sonia: My goal had always been to work at the UN. When I was younger, I wanted to represent my country there, and as I got older, I became more interested in its poverty alleviation, disaster relief/emergency response, refugee, women, and climate change work. But I think out of all of it, I have been drawn most to the environment.

In fact, I’ve been interested in it since as far back as I can remember. When I was four or five, I won a national contest for a drawing I did on the environment! The connection and care for nature is something that my parents instilled in me from a young age. That has been reinforced through my encounters with people from all over the world.

GSB: So, did you work for the UN?

Sonia: Not with the UN directly but have done work alongside it through various roles. I did work in the environment after completing my BA in 2009, interning at Greenpeace Australia Pacific. I was part of the Foods Campaign team where the goal was to inform consumers on what went into their food so that they could make smarter, healthier, and environmentally conscious purchase decisions.

Next, I decided to pursue a master’s in development studies at the University of Sydney. While pursuing my masters I was awarded a fellowship to go to Thailand to learn about Buddhism and meditation, doing so alongside Buddhist monks. Part of the experience included absolutely no contact with the outside world — we didn’t even get to watch the 2010 World Cup and Mexico made it to the Quarterfinals!

GSB: What did that experience teach you? 

Sonia:It shifted my perspective of how I viewed the world, and the relationship between people and planet.

Thing was, I was unsure of where I wanted to go with it, especially after I completed my master’s degree.

GSB: What did you end up doing?

Sonia: Eventually, I went to Tanzania as part of One Heart Source, a youth-led organization, where I had the incredible opportunity to live with the Maasai. I contributed to their efforts to teach English at local schools as well as help raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. It was there that I saw sustainable development efforts firsthand, as we helped make their orphanage self-sustaining by digging water-collection pits and caring for their vegetable garden.

I was incredibly lucky to learn a great deal from the grandma, or Bibi, of the Boma, or little family village, at which we stayed.

GSB: What did you learn?

Sonia: That Bibi was a pioneer! She veered away from Maasai tradition and decided to no longer be nomadic. Bibi also converted to Christianity and made sure that her granddaughters went to school, which as we know in Africa, and many places in the Global South, has been a big issue. I didn’t want to leave but this experience showed me how much impact this kind of on-the-ground, getting-your-hands-dirty work can have.

Some of the Maasai children Sonia Preisser Rubio taught in Tanzania (Photo credit: Sonia Preisser Rubio)


GSB: What came next?

Sonia: Although I wanted to stay in Tanzania, I was unable to find a job. Instead, I interviewed and got a job with Peace Child International in the UK and so I moved back to England.

I had several roles, including coordinating the Green Economy Eco-Business Innovation Challenge (GEEBIZ), which aimed at working with young entrepreneurs around the world who were solving problems within their communities through business and providing them a platform to amplify that impact. We helped connect them mentors and ran a competition. This project, culminated with selecting the best ideas and flying the finalists to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012.

At Peace Child, I also worked as part of the international youth climate movement on the road to Rio+20 where I served as the liaison for youth groups in Latin America and Oceania. The goal was to ensure that the voice of the youth and future generations was considered in the post-millennium development goals and post-Kyoto Protocol conversation. I wanted to ensure that we provided a platform for indigenous youth and other youth groups that did not have as easy access to the conversation. And we worked on helping facilitate the wording on youth and future generations that eventually ended up being part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Agreement.

GSB: What was your main takeaway from Rio+20?

Sonia: One thing that really stood out was that I saw a lot of athletes being part of the conversation, but mostly what caught my attention was some of the conversations on the hallways where sport was being talked about as a potential tool to help achieve sustainable development. I remember thinking to myself at the time that’d I’d be curious to know exactly how that worked, how could playing a sport contribute to alleviating poverty and protecting the environment? Rio+20 was definitely where my curiosity was piqued about the role that sports could play in the move towards a sustainable future for all. But I had a job and other priorities at the time, so I let it go… for a few years at least.

Sonia Preisser Rubio (l) at Rio+20 in 2012 with other youth climate leaders (Photo credit: Sonya Silva)

GSB: When did you pick up the sports-sustainability thread again?

Sonia: At the X-Games at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas — I was a volunteer with the sustainability team in 2014 and 2015 and saw a shared mindset towards sustainability.

The more I thought about it, about my experiences traveling and living around the world, and specially about the sports and their communities I have been a part of, the more I realized that more often than not I encountered individuals with very similar world views regardless of race, religion, cultural background, sexual orientation, or social class. Yet with nothing in common but the sport we were a part of, we shared a similar view of the world, and that’s when it clicked. I realized that the times this has happened it’s been in relation to what are known as alternative sports. That’s where I knew I wanted to go back to school and find out more.

I wanted to know if this shared worldview was a result of alternative sports participation? Or are likeminded individuals attracted to these sports? It’s my million-dollar question, or chicken and egg if you will. 

GSB: That sounds like a transformative experience. What did you do next?

Sonia: It really was, it reminded me of my why, and so I went back to school. I pursued a Master of Science in sustainability studies at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. My research was in large part based on the aforementioned Dr. Eric Brymer’s work to improve the understanding of the experience of, and changing the narrative often associated with, extreme sports and their participants.

Some of his work emphasizes the extreme sport experience as a precursor for the development of humility, courage, and in line with Dr. Barbara Humberstone’s work, as a platform for the embodiment of nature to take place, developing a deeper appreciation or connection with the natural world as a result.

Essentially, my research at Texas State attempted to build on their work, with my scope including all alternative sports. I interviewed alternative sports participants focusing on understanding what their perception of their alternative sports participation entailed, and whether they perceived their involvement in these sports to have influenced their pro-environmental, and prosocial attitudes and behaviors.

GSB: What did you find?

Sonia: That participants perceived their participation in these sports to have influenced their prosocial and pro-environmental behaviors. There was a slight difference in perceived influence between those that participated in nature-based (snowboarding, hiking) vs. non-nature-based (handball, minibike racing) alternative sports regarding their pro-environmental behavior. Similarly, I was surprised to find that rather than spending time in nature, it was the communities of these sports that had the biggest mental health impact.

This study was exploratory in nature, but it helped me realize there is a lot of potential there, particularly to use these sports as tools for the achievement of sustainable development. But first, there is more that needs to be understood about them and how they can best serve this goal. This is the reason I decided to pursue a PhD.

I came to NC State in Raleigh last fall, to pursue a PhD in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and to work with Dr. Jonathan Casper and Dr. Kyle Bunds. My research is focused on the intersection between alternative sports, behavior (including mental health), and sustainable development. I am mostly interested in improving understanding on how and if alternative sports influence how participants view the world, and their subsequent behaviors as a result? If so, what aspect of the alternative sports experience influences this?

I still have a long way before I refine my dissertation research since I am only in my second semester. However, I have been a busy bee working to publish the results from my thesis and preparing to present those results at a couple of conferences this year. I have also been selected as a KIETS Climate Leaders Scholar at NC State, which means I have received funding to intern in the field at the end of this year and attend COP27 in Egypt in November. Finally, I am excited to begin a study on rugby and mental health. I am currently going through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval process to be able to conduct the study. I am hoping that by this summer the study will be done, and that I may be able to incorporate some of the knowledge from it into my eventual study for my dissertation. But baby steps; I hope to finish my PhD by 2024.

GSB: What are your long-term goals?

Sonia: In my ideal world I can turn the intersection between alternative sports, behavior, and sustainable development my life’s work. I would like to have the ability to continue to research after I graduate and consult for international organizations and governments on how best to utilize alternative sports to help solve social and environmental problems. I would like to be THE expert in this intersection and dedicate the rest of my life to helping achieve a sustainable future for all through this work.

This photo and the photo at top: Sonia Preisser Rubio studies and takes part in alternative sports (Photo credit: Sonia Preisser Rubio)

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