The rugby ref making history at the Olympics
Aimee Barrett-Theron is always up for a challenge. Especially when it involves the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Barrett-Theron was 12 years old when she saw the Olympics screened on television. Turning to her mother, she declared that one day she would get there. And with grit, determination, and tremendous skill, she did. Though Barrett-Theron didn’t know it at the time, rugby would be her way in. Barrett-Theron’s foray into the sport began in 2000 when she started playing touch rugby. Her coach recognised her talent and encouraged her to take it further. Within five years, she was playing provincially, first for KwaZulu-Natal and then the Western Province. Internationally, Barrett-Theron featured at the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup in England. Despite her successes as a rugby player, she longed to do more.
“It was time for me to look for a new challenge,” Barrett-Theron says. “So I thought I’d pick up the whistle and give back to the game that gave me so much.” In 2014 she took up refereeing, starting with the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series. “It’s great to be able to run out there and be noticed as a referee and not a female referee,” she says. While her gender didn’t matter as much as her judgement, it did influence how much effort she put in. “I had to work incredibly hard to get to where I am today,” Barrett-Theron says. “Coming into a male-dominated sport, I knew it was going to be tough.” Nevertheless, she persisted, and progressed to realising her Olympic dream when rugby sevens was added to the Rio games in 2016, after rugby was last played in 1924.
“It was an absolute privilege for me to be the only South African female referee at the 2016 Olympics,” Barrett-Theron says. Four months later, she made history back home. The South African Rugby Referees' Association included Barrett-Theron on their panel – a first for a female. In 2017, Barrett-Theron broke another record. She was the first woman to be selected for the SA Rugby Premier Panel, an inclusion that identified her as one of the country’s best referees. Having achieved her original goals, and then some, Barrett-Theron has one enduring wish. “I hope that I can continue to make South Africa proud,” she says.