Leudy De Los Santos goes by “D.” The University of Oregon sophomore has also been called a slew of other descriptors, pertaining to her ethnicity, sexuality, style of dress, and her gender. But one thing people might never expect De Los Santos to be is a rugby player – and one so dedicated.
De Los Santos tends to wear baggy jeans, t-shirts and button-downs, and backwards hats. Her dark skin and thin black dreadlocks are sometimes the basis of assumptions about her race and ethnicity. De Los Santos says most people are surprised to learn she’s Dominican, born in the Virgin Islands to a Christian family and speaks Spanish and some Creole.
Adding to the assumptions, many people, including her own parents, also questioned De Los Santos’s passion for sports because she wasn’t straight. She played sports most of her life — basketball, volleyball and soccer in high school. But she says playing for the UO Women’s Rugby team is the first time she’s felt like she truly belonged.
“People assume[d], ‘because she’s gay, she plays sports. When I came here, that wasn’t questioned — it didn’t matter.” Coming from Florida, she often faced discrimination for being a lesbian, which is how she identifies in society. She doesn’t like to categorize her sexuality — instead saying, “I’m just D.”
De Los Santos started playing for the rugby team in her freshman year, after one of the team members stopped her after class and encouraged her to join the team.
De Los Santos would reflect on that day some 20 months later after receiving the news that she had been honored a spot on the Pacific Mountain North Conference team for women’s rugby. When she found out, she cried, she said. “I never had an opportunity like this before… I never had the chance to be appreciated or demonstrate what I’m good at,” she said.
“Because of my sexuality, [my parents] didn’t want me to do sports and stuff,” De Los Santos said. But after learning their daughter won this honor, she said, her parents were really proud of her and her achievements. “My mom was really excited [for me] for the first time in her life. She’s really happy about how far I’ve come in life…opening up opportunities and working hard to better myself.”
De Los Santos has worked hard to get to where she is. Teammates have seen her game improve significantly over the last year, in everything from her fitness to her leadership. She decided in winter term, according to teammate Audrey Howell, that she wanted to improve her physical ability for the sake of her sport, and has been following through on her goals every day since.
Another teammate, Helen Woodbury, also mentioned De Los Santos’ efforts off the field.
“There are a couple people, and Leudy is in this group, who are always at practice, but also lift and do workouts and sprints in the off season, which is extra dedication that you need to have to win,” Woodbury said.
In the game, De Los Santos motivates her teammates with the energy she puts into her game. Though she’s not a team captain, teammates say she is a true leader.
“On the field, D is an insane tackler, it’s crazy,” Woodbury said. “….She’s always there for the tackle…She just goes into the the ruck and says, ‘let’s go, let’s go, we have to push!’”
“We have this thing called man of the match,” Woodbury said, which is an award that one team gives to a player on the opposing team to recognize an outstanding performance. “She gets them all the time.”
De Los Santos serves as inspiration for the team, putting in the effort to improve. “Everyone loves her and knows she works her butt off for rugby on and off the pitch,” Howell said. “She’s very motivating. Seeing her passion and her fire for the game inspires everyone, especially me.”
De Los Santos inspires her teammates even beyond the realm of rugby. Teammates says she makes a point to invite the rookies out to dinner with the veterans, and gives her teammates advice and support.
“D really tries to put it out there, this respect for everyone,” Woodbury said.
Howell says that as a person, she has talked about her struggles in her past, but doesn’t let it interfere with her passion for her sport.
“She holds herself pretty well… she doesn’t let things that don’t involve rugby get to her,” Howell said.
The sport has become not only a huge part of De Los Santos’ life, but is in many ways a metaphor for her life — getting attacked from all sides. She says that, although she’s felt accepted on the rugby team and in the Eugene community, she expects that not everyone will be so accepting of her.
“I’m a woman, person of color, to society I’m a lesbian – there’s so many ways I could get attacked on that there’s no way I could escape it,” De Los Santos said.
But in playing rugby, De Los Santos has found her niche. Part of the reason she moved away from Florida was to escape the negativity in her life. On the team, she feels a sense of sisterhood that keeps her motivated to improve, not just for herself, but for her teammates.
“Rugby’s a sport that I wish I was born into,” De Los Santos said. “… Rugby has changed a lot of my mindset. The UO women’s rugby team, they mean everything to me. … You can feel their love, they don’t discriminate you.”
In one conversation with De Los Santos, Woodbury said she explained how her own personality changes when she’s with her friends, her family or her team. “D said, ‘why can’t you just be Helen? I just try to be D. This is who I am and I can’t change that. Why would I try to be anything different?’”
In everything from her extra workouts to her leadership and her compassion for other players, De Los Santos stays true to herself. She has come to accept herself, she said, and whatever assumptions and discrimination comes with being who she is. The adversity, she believes, is what has made her who she is today — “D.”
“I’m happy,” De Los Santos said. “As long as I’m happy with myself, it shouldn’t bother somebody else.”