New mum Kelsey Gentles keen to prove doubters wrong after 18-month rugby league absence

Ross Heppenstall

Kelsey Gentles makes her long-awaited return to rugby league action this weekend with a fierce determination to show that becoming a mother should not have to spell the end of an athlete’s career.

On Sunday, the York Valkyrie winger is poised to play her first game for 18 months in the Challenge Cup encounter at Sheffield Eagles.

The 25-year-old gave birth to her daughter Maia last June and is engaged to former London Broncos and York Knights player Jacob Ogden. After her sabbatical from the game, Gentles is aiming to prove that motherhood and playing rugby league at the highest level can go hand in hand.

The England international’s comeback journey has not been without its challenges, though, and there have been huge physical hurdles to overcome.

And despite the growing acceptance that starting a family does not mean the end for a professional sportswoman, Gentles revealed that she has received unpleasant remarks from some supporters.

Speaking to Love Rugby League at the 2024 Women’s season launch at the LNER Community Stadium in York earlier this week, Gentles said: “If I’m picked to play on Sunday, it’ll be very emotional.

“When you’re playing rugby league, you get wrapped up in winning and the intensity of the games. But then when that’s taken away, you appreciate it so much more and I’ve really missed playing.

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“I’ve not played since September 2022 – and my last game at the York stadium was in June 2022 – so I can’t wait to come back. Obviously your body changes when you have a baby, but that’s natural and certainly shouldn’t be something to be frowned upon.

“I breastfed for a while, so I returned to training a bit later and pre-season has been difficult. It has been frustrating at times that my body isn’t what it was before. I had a difficult labour and had to give my body a break and be patient with it.

“I had planned to continue training during pregnancy, but I was diagnosed with a hip problem and was struck off all physical activity. I actually struggled to walk towards the end of my pregnancy and do normal things, which then caused a few issues with coming back to rugby league.

“It was hard to get the movement again and doing a rugby league warm-up when you haven’t done one for 18 months is exhausting!

“When you’re used to being in those high-performance environments, there isn’t much room for being mediocre. I’ve had to be patient with myself because it really has taken a while for things to settle.

“My body’s capabilities are different now and in some ways better, so the fog is lifting and I’m getting to a place where I feel I can really compete again.

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“Physically I’m stronger and will probably be able to withstand the hits a little bit better because I’ve gone through that traumatic incident of giving birth. It’s definitely a learning curve but it’s so good being a mother.”

York Valkyrie star Kelsey Gentles drawing inspiration from tennis great Serena Williams

Gentles grew up idolising Leeds Rhinos legend Danny McGuire, but her greatest inspiration is American tennis great Serena Williams. “She’s a strong black woman who has come from almost nothing to be so successful,” said Gentles.

“She’s had her children but when she was pregnant, people weren’t very nice to her and I experienced something similar.

“I went to a couple of games when I was pregnant and there were a couple of old rugby league fans saying ‘you’ve ruined your career and should retire’. Those things really do stick in your mind and you never forget them.

“If I hadn’t been so strong-minded, and had such great support from my partner, it could have really affected my mental health. But in fact it only made me more determined to come back and prove people wrong.

“Like Serena Williams, my priority will always be family and I’ve got a little girl who is looking up to me now, so I have to put my best foot forward. Significantly, I want the message to be that I’ve not ruined my rugby league career. I’m back and my career is very much alive.”

Gentles could be set for a positional switch from the wing into the pack upon her return and will also have to adapt to the rule changes which have been introduced since she last played.

Maia, meanwhile, is now eight months old and Gentles will tie with the knot with Ogden in September. They met via Instagram in 2019 and began a long-distance relationship.

“We were online friends and started messaging each other before meeting up,” remembered Gentles, who hails from a big family in Leeds and has worked as a pundit for the BBC on men’s and women’s rugby league games.

“Jacob was playing for London Broncos at the time and I was in London for the weekend, so we just met up for a coffee.

“It went from there and we eventually decided we want to live together, so he moved up here and signed for York, the same club as me. When I became pregnant, we had a conversation about who would take the step back from rugby league.

“Jacob decided to retire because he’s happy with what he’s achieved, allowing me to keep on playing and fulfil some goals I still want to achieve – including getting back into the England squad.

“Jacob’s happy to bring Maia to the games while I play and they will be there on Sunday to support me. I’ll be walking out with my daughter in my arms, so it’ll be special.”

School in the day, rugby player at night

Gentles works full-time as a special education needs coordinator at a high school in Leeds while Ogden has a job in security. They have just bought a house together in Leeds and Gentles explained: “My job is very intense but I love working with kids.

“Their special needs range from autism and ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to physical disabilities including being in a wheelchair.

“My job is my true passion, but I have always juggled my rugby league commitments alongside my studies and now work. Having Maia is something else I have to juggle but it’s amazing.”

Gentles grew up supporting Leeds Rhinos with her brothers Leon and Tyrone and played for East Leeds before joining Castleford Tigers and then switching to York.

Having missed out on selection for England’s home World Cup in 2022 due to a knee injury, Gentles has a desire to return to the international fold.

She added: “If I get back into the England squad then great but if not, I’ve still had fantastic memories playing for my country. I’ll obviously have to prove my worth but I remain very ambitious, although my focus right now is on playing well for York.”

Rugby league, collectively, should wish her well.

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