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Sometimes there is no stopping an Army athlete, even when they have left the Forces. As one of Army Rugby’s legendary players over the past 10 years Jane Leonard was never known to take a backward step. And so it has proved in her career outside full-time service, too, as the stand-out challenges keep on coming.

Leonard captained both the Army and Combined Services teams while serving in the Royal Engineers, earning nine England caps and winning a Grand Slam as well as a memorable win over New Zealand along the way.

Her achievements also earned her the accolade as Combined Services Sports Personality of the Year in 2010, following in the footsteps of Rory Underwood, Rob Wainwright and Dame Kelly Holmes, who had inspired Leonard to join the Army in the first place.

“I used to work in a paper shop and was flicking through Soldier Magazine one day,” she says. “I was a huge fan of Kelly Holmes and she won Army sportswoman of the year. I was 17, 18 at the time and it helped encourage me to join the Army.

“Dreaming of winning something like that was at the back of my mind when I joined up, so when I did win it talk about being a manifestation and wishing and wanting something to happen! It was a surreal moment. But it was down to the team and management – we were on such a high with where we were going and I fell into the right place at the right time.”

She left the Army three years ago but still stayed very much a part of the red shirt rugby scene, not least in the Army Navy women’s burpees challenge earlier this year, completing some 4,000 on her balcony in Dubai in 30-plus degree heat, the highest individual contribution.

And the physical challenges have kept on coming, even with training for a seven Ironmans in seven days rudely interrupted by the pandemic. Instead her focus is now on setting a new record in the world’s toughest endurance race, the Great Pacific Race, a 2,400 row between San Francisco and Hawaii next June.

Leonard, along with her fellow teammates Sophie Pascal – a fellow rugby player with Worcester Valkyries – and Vicky Anstey, will be passing the Golden Gate into the world’s largest ocean next June with the current record of 62 days firmly in their sights.

But for Leonard this is just another step along her journey.

“Challenges find me, I suppose!” she says. “I am eager for a challenge and if anything comes across my path it’s rare that I say no. The more extreme it is, the more energy I put into it.

“A friend of a friend mentioned that Girls Who Dare were looking for a third person. I didn’t know what the race was or where it was going, just that it was in the Pacific and that I wanted to do it. Then after a few interviews I was offered a place in the boat.

“I managed to get a rowing machine just before lockdown and have basically been on that ever since! The boat that we’re using for the Pacific is in Southampton, which is not too far for the three of us to get there, so we’ve been out on the water a few times.

“It’s going to be mad! The thing about the three of us is that we’re complete rowing novices. No one’s come from a rowing background and aside from being on a Concept 2 rowing machine, so it’s quite nice that we’re all in the same boat, to excuse the pun.

“We’ve got a mixture of characters and strengths, so it’s going to be good.”

Girls Who Dare acknowledge that the challenge is as much mental as physical, with the organisation providing a sports coach to help build the resilience the crew will need on the water; although a support vessel will be following all the crews along the way, as soon as it is required the crew concerned will be disqualified.

For Leonard as an individual this has also meant immersing herself in as much research as possible from similar experiences elsewhere.

“Over the last six weeks I’ve been soaking myself in rowing material and documentaries, like ‘Through Hell or High Water’ with James Cracknell and Ben Fogle,” she says. “Even though they were extremely fit James Cracknell was saying that it was one percent physical and the rest was pure resilience to get through it. For me that’s fine, I relish that mental battle and the test of character. It’s right up my street.”

One area where Leonard will not need any more experience is leadership. Appointed the Combined Services captaincy before the Army for a game against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park – “I was so honoured to be asked to do the job. It was a massive privilege” – she quickly became accustomed to putting the needs of the rest of the team above her own performances.

And while she may be a relative novice on the water, coming to terms with the demands of a new sport is not new, either, given that her first full game of rugby came with England ‘A’ against the Netherlands and that she was coming up against the likes of Maggie Alphonsi, Heather Fisher and Helen Clayton in the trials.

As it turned out Clayton would play an unwitting role in helping find Leonard her position on the field, too.

“We all went out for dinner, where we had to stand up, say who you played for and what position you were,” Leonard recalls. “I was sat next to Helen Clayton, who stood up and said who she played for and that she was a flanker. That’s all I could remember when I stood up, and I said I was a flanker.

“So the next day I was playing flanker, and only got about 10 minutes because the coach took me off! Randomly I got into the England academy after that and got the ‘A’ game against Holland. It was a steep learning curve, but fortunately I had Gary Street as a coach, who was excellent.”

Street’s encouragement saw Leonard hone her game at Houghall College in Durham and then again at university before she became a full-time soldier in the Royal Engineers. And she says that the Army got fully behind her development on the field as well.

“I was so fortunate to get to play so much rugby and so much sport in the Army,” she says. “I only had support and encouragement. Then when I got to RSME I was asked to coach the guys and straight away as soon they found out that I’d played for England there was a change in their attitude.

“I’d always been in sporting teams, so naturally I liked the team environment. I like competition, and in the Engineers you’re competitive! Once you get the respect from the rest of the guys it makes life a lot easier. I’m not workshy either and throw myself into things. From my experience no guy has ever made me feel that I couldn’t do something.

“With engineering there’s a multitude of different disciplines – there’s bridging, demolition, mining, and so on – so you have to think on your feet and adapt to the next job. But you also have to have the confidence to believe in yourself and give it your best shot. With challenges it’s about self-confidence, and if you really set your mind on something it’s only you who is going to stop doing it.”

Women’s sport has come a long way in the last decade. This is no truer than in rugby – when Leonard first pulled on the white national shirt it had a tulip on the left breast, not the rose seen now. This has been mirrored at Army level, where the Women’s team has the same kit as the men and an increasing profile within the set-up, such as having the Army Navy match be planned alongside the Men’s game at Twickenham earlier this year and more women joining Premier 15s clubs.

“There is a difference in the number of fixtures that the men and women play, but compared to the differences that there used to be it’s exceptional now,” Leonard comments.

“One thing I tried to enforce at the time was getting the girls to play for clubs. I couldn’t get my head around that players wanted to play for the Army but weren’t prepared to play for a club. So with the management we told the girls that they needed to play for a club, or at least for their Corps, before they came into the Army team.

“Before then we would have three or four days training before playing, almost a week out of work. I can see how that’s attractive, you’re playing sport and with your friends, but we weren’t progressing, staying at the same level.

“So respect to a lot of the girls, they took on the advice and started playing for clubs and we started to improve. I would a hundred percent encourage every player to do it, and with all the other skills you get in a team environment you experience different coaching styles as well, which can enhance your game.”

Now back in the UK from Dubai – where she couldn’t help but pull on her boots again to help the start-up RAK Rugby club’s women’s team – she is well into the process of getting back into uniform, too.

“There’s an Artillery unit near where I’m living at the moment and I’m looking to go into the PT Corps,” she says.

It would be something of a homecoming for Leonard, but regardless of what she ends up doing in her future life you know that Army life and rugby will always have a place in her heart.

“It’s given me huge confidence to believe in myself and go for anything, and the support that I’ve always had from my peers in the Army team and the friendships I’ve made,” she says. “I’ve met some fantastic people who have helped me achieve what I’ve achieved, and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

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Words © Chris Wearmouth, Images – British Army Sport, Army Rugby Union and Jane Leonard