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World Rugby Sevens: From Rio’s favelas to the world stage for Eshyllen Coimbra Cardoso

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A keen volleyball player as a youngster, friends would try to lure her to the neighboring rugby games on Copacabana beach but her reaction was always the same: “No, no, no rugby.”

“My friends were always like, ‘give it a go,’ but I didn’t like it,” she recalled to CNN via a translator.

But over the weeks and months that ensued her curiosity got the better of her, and she dipped her toes into rugby on Rio’s golden sands.

“I liked it, loved it even and then I started going every week,” she said.

Her chance to take up the game was down to Rugby Para Todos (rugby for all), set up by Mauricio Draghi and Fabricio Kobashi in São Paolo where she now lives, but with a satellite project in Rio.

Eshyllen Coimbra Cardoso in her national Brazil colors.

Volleyball has long since fallen by the wayside but her rugby only truly became serious in the wake of the 2016 Olympic Games when she was inspired by the Brazilian national teams playing in the sevens competitions.

Rugby Para Todos were gifted a series of tickets to the Games, in turn passing those on to the children who had worked the hardest in training and been in attendance the most, among them Coimbra Cardoso.

“I didn’t see Brazil win but that didn’t matter,” she said. “It made me realize what was possible.”

Favela life

Two years later, she has represented her country after she was called up for the Canada leg of the World Sevens Series last month as Brazil opted for a mix of experience and youth development.

“When I was called up, at first I didn’t believe it,” she said. “The coach had to say it again. I thought, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen,’ and really I didn’t believe it until I landed in Canada. Then I was like, ‘This is real, this is serious.'”

Her disbelief is understandable having grown up in one of Rio’s notorious favelas — where crime and drug trafficking are often rife.

But she credits her family for such a sporting rise.

“I lived in a favela but my parents both worked so it was never like we went hungry,” she said. “It was a nice life, nothing to complain about.

“In a favela, you can either find people to help you or f— you up, so you have to work hard to get out. It’s hard but it’s not impossible.”

She makes no secret of the fact her neighborhood had its issues but there was the option to make the right choices.

“I didn’t get involved in trafficking or bad things like that so that was never a problem,” she said. “My parents’ philosophy was to show me the good way and I chose the good way.”

‘Rugby changed my life’

Her parents are understandably proud of her climb into the international ranks and she admits the only hardship of her rugby journey and relocating to another city is being away from her family, although she still returns to Rio once a month.

And she is grateful to Rugby Para Todos, which has seen thousands of people pass through its doors in another favela, Paraisopólis in São Paolo, since its inception 14 years ago.

“I never had the chance to know rugby until Rugby Para Todos on the beach, I never would have had this life without it,” she said, “So I’m very grateful to Mauricio and Rugby Para Todos.”

She is hopeful, too, that her own journey will inspire others, her advice simply that, “If you want something, you just go for it.”

It is a philosophy that has held her in good stead and enabled her to pull on the yellow jersey of Brazil.

“I have nerves when I play rugby but to wear the jersey of Brazil, it makes you want to give everything you have,” she said. “That, and rugby as a whole has been such an incentive. It’s changed my life.”

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