Interview with Mackenzie Lewis
Tim Porter-DeVriese caught up with Mackenzie Lewis who co-founded the Colorado Mesa University women's rugby team and now serves as Head Coach of both the men's and women's rugby teams as she pursues her Master's in Sport Management at CMU. They talked about how she turned pandemic downtime into an opportunity to pursue a degree in sport management, building CMU's rugby team from the ground up, and how to be an effective leader at any age.
About Mackenzie Lewis
Mackenzie Lewis is the head coach and director of both the Women's and Men's Rugby Teams at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. She began playing rugby in high school where she was scouted by a USA Rugby coach and quickly earned herself spots on the all-state, territory, regional, and U20 National teams. She cofounded the women's rugby program at CMU as a freshman, serving as a player and coach. After graduating with a B.A. in Mass Communication Sport Broadcasting, she was hired on to continue coaching and directing the women's rugby team. In 2015 she was also named as head coach and director of the men's team. When COVID19 disrupted sports in 2020, she took advantage of the downtime by enrolling in CMU's Masters in Sport Management program, opting to complete all 36 credits into one year. As soon as life and sports return to normal, she looks forward to continuing to build CMU's rugby program with the goal of leading her teams to National Championship victories.
Tim: Can you tell me a little bit about your past in sport management, where you’re at now, and where you plan to go from here?
Mackenzie: My path was kind of windy and not really what I had intended at the start in relation to where we are at now. Covid changed a lot of things for a lot of people. I got my degree in mass communication sport broadcasting. I figured that those are two things that are never going away, sports and broadcasting. I always loved coaching and that’s the direction I ended up getting pulled into. As I’ve become a coach and worked through everything that I’ve been doing, coaching the girls and guys [rugby] teams, then becoming the director, I talked to my boss and decided I should probably get my master’s degree. I wanted to learn some new perspectives, and get different ideas of how to do things. I wanted to find better ways of doing things, become a better communicator, learn marketing, all those things. I’m typically really busy. When Covid hit and cancelled practices and games, we didn’t really know when things would start to come back. That’s when I made the decision to go into a master’s program in sport management to fine tune the skills I already had, find more efficient ways of getting things done, network with people. Ultimately, I would have the piece of paper that says I have the experience that I do, along with a network of people behind me to help if I ever decide to leave CMU or continue on and coach at an elite level or a national level. If I made that decision, I would have the accolades to follow me wherever I wanted to go.
Tim: You started playing rugby in high school. Did you know then that you were going to follow that into a career in sports? When did you know you wanted to do this for a living or build your life around sports?
Mackenzie: I knew sports were always going to be a part of my life. I am the middle of five siblings. I’ve got three brothers and a little sister. We did every sport under the sun from sun up to sun down. We were always competing in something, soccer, volleyball, football, or wrestling. I focused on soccer and volleyball my first years of high school and competed at the high school and club level. My junior year of high school is when I actually started playing rugby. I didn’t think rugby was going to be the future or that I’d be coaching. Life kind of changes things for you. I actually ended up coming to Mesa pursuing a soccer scholarship and thought I was going to play collegiate soccer. At the time I was actually on the USA rugby team and decided to not play collegiate ball and instead start a rugby program and play rugby. Long story, I ended up getting a handful of concussions throughout my career and that was the turning point. I got my ninth concussion a week and a half before I graduated college and that’s kind of when I made the decision. I had already been meeting with a neuropsychologist, having my brain looked at to see what potential future damage this was having and came to the decision that those who can’t play are going to coach. I still wanted to have a meaningful impact on athletes and students and still be a part of programs, but I just couldn’t do it in the playing capacity anymore. That’s when I shifted to coaching. I’ve always kind of had the leadership quality, standing up for myself, being one of five kids, and having three brothers. That was something that was always in me. It was a pretty easy transition to the coaching role.
Tim: You really hit the ground running by starting the women’s rugby team your freshman year at CMU. What was that process like for you?
Mackenzie: I knew that I wasn’t going to play college soccer so I wanted to do something. My roommate at the time was someone I used to compete against in high school. She went to Summit High School. At the time it was the number one women’s high school team in the nation. I always lost to them. I went to Chaparral High School. We always competed against each other and then played together at the club, regional, and territory side teams. So I was rooming with her and we knew that was going to be a goal, to see what we could make happen. There was a men’s team at our school already so it was pretty easy to kind of piggy back off of their bylaws and what they had going, to be able to start it on our own. The first fall semester, we got a handful of girls to go to guys practices. We wouldn’t tackle or do contact against them, [we were] just getting girls out there. By the third or fourth practice there were more ladies out on the pitch than guys and that’s when we knew we had something going and that we should continue to make it happen. We created our own program and the first year we just competed against teams as friendlies. The second year is when we competed in an actual league and division and didn’t lose a single regular season match. We lost to the University of Notre Dame in the Great Eight and we have had a winning tradition ever since. It’s been cool to see how far it’s come and grown. It was something that brought me happiness and joy that I could share with others and they could really enjoy it as well.
Tim: What draws you to rugby; what do you love about it? And what do you think is the future of rugby and in particular, women’s rugby in the US.
Mackenzie:The reason why I love it is because of the camaraderie and the family. For one reason or another it’s usually not somebody’s first choice so we are really good at getting the ex-athletes or the kids that were told they were too small, big, slow or fast. So rugby’s kind of one sport that encompasses all body types and athleticism so it’s a unique group of humans that decide to play. I think with the expansion of the Rio Olympics, reintroducing Rugby Sevens to the Olympic games helped with the expansion and growth in the states. People in America are now getting to know what rugby is, which is crazy because it’s a lot like soccer around the world. Everybody plays rugby and soccer but in the US it’s not one of the top sports. I think it would be awesome to see it continue to grow. Covid threw us a lot of curve balls. Our governing body filed for bankruptcy a month before Covid closed everything down, so they’re in the stages of trying to rebuild. At the same time a couple other organizations are trying to come up. At the moment women’s college rugby is looking a little crazy, but my hope and goal for the future is that everyone can come together and realize all of our goals are to have collegiate rugby in the US and have women competing at high levels, high school all the way up to the national team. I think that would be awesome. At one point in time rugby was an emerging sport and a lot of Ivy Leagues and D1 schools were jumping on board to create varsity programs, which was really neat. It would really help out with the title nine equality claims and balance out the sports in colleges. I think overall it would be an awesome sport. It’s a very impactful sport. I haven’t met a girl that has played for me that has not left or graduated as a better person with a bigger and better family. There are a lot of things that rugby gives you that you can’t get with other sports. I’ve played a lot of sports and rugby is a unique group of people.
Tim: Thinking back over the coaches, teachers and mentors that you’ve had, what’s a good piece of advice that you’ve got from someone you looked up to?
Mackenzie:I actually was hired and became the head coach at twenty-one years old. A piece of advice from one of my mentors at the time was from a women’s athletic director here at CMU named Kris Mort. She said, “the ship is only as calm as the captain steering it.” There are a lot of obstacles and roadblocks along the way and you have to pivot a lot of the time. Transportation fails, the mountain has snow on it, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle, games are cancelled, or refs not being able to get to the game are all things that could happen. Being the calm head will allow everyone else behind you to be calm. That was one of the things that stuck with me. Because I was a twenty-one-year-old head coach, some of the girls on the team were actually older than me when I started, so the second piece of advice she said was, since it’s such a close age gap, you need to be more mature, to step aside. You will have to make choices along the way if you want the respect of the team and to lead with respect. You can’t be partying with the team on the weekends. You have to make that division and set those boundaries and stick to them even if it hurts the friendship aspect of it. To get the respect and for the team to get behind you, those are some of the things you have to give up. Along the same lines, my first boss told me to, “be like a duck.” Calm on the surface and paddling like hell underneath! That has been in the back of my head for 15 years and there’s been a lot of paddling.
Tim: You’ve done something that is really cool which is to create something that wasn’t there or wasn’t handed to you. First a rugby team and then your job. I think a lot of people hearing your story will be inspired by the idea that their future lies in something that doesn’t exist yet, something that they can create. What would you pass on to someone who is passionate about sports? Whether they play or just love a sport, what would you say to someone who wants to make a career of it, someone just starting out on their own path?
Mackenzie: I guess I would say that every interaction that you have can make an impact. If your dream job doesn’t exist as of right now, don’t give up on those dreams. Coaches impact and change lives, for better or worse. You have the opportunity to have a positive impact on these people or make them never want to play the sport again. Understanding that power is important. Also, you need to get your foot in the door somewhere, someway, somehow. It really is about the connections that you make, so once you get your foot in that door, then you’re doing something you love and are passionate about. People say it all the time, “if you love what you do then you never work a day in your life.” I would say, continue to wake up and continue to grind. Get to that point where you are happy and content with what you are doing so you’re not working, you’re molding and creating awesome humans that are going to be able to move mountains in the world. Sports are much more than just sports. It’s everything else that goes with it, friendships, memories, moments and learning opportunities.
Tim: What’s unique about the Colorado Mesa College? What do you love about it?
Mackenzie: I think the cool thing about us, our location is really great. We’re surrounded by three pretty distinct geographical landscapes and we’re also on the border of Utah and Colorado. We play against the entire Rock Mountain region and we can easily go play Utah, Montana, and Wyoming schools. It’s an awesome area that you get to travel and compete in. Grand Junction is such a small knit community with a student to faculty ratio of 1:21. We serve just over 11,000 students but you still have professors coming to your games on the weekend or asking how the team did. People really care, which is something you don’t always get at the bigger universities. They care about the smaller rugby teams. They come and support and rally behind us and it makes it fun for people to come and watch the game. It’s a really awesome atmosphere in Grand Junction.
Tim: What kind of books, podcasts, or sports-related content are you enjoying these days?
Mackenzie: They’re not necessarily sport-related, but I like life stories. My boyfriend is an Army Ranger. He was telling me about David Goggins and his book. I started listening to his podcast and it really put life in perspective. He went through some really intense things and continued to grind on. No matter how hard we think our situation is at this point in time, there is always somebody who has overcome something bigger, better or harder. Reading some of these really inspirational books, especially during Covid where we can have this ‘poor me’ mentality, can bring it full circle and make you want to get up and do something. I have a student who plays on my men’s team and works for me. Three days before Thanksgiving break he asked if he could leave work a little early because he was having some headaches and wanted to go to the doctor. Fast forward to the day after Thanksgiving, he was having emergency brain surgery because he has a brain tumor. Seeing how he has overcome all this stuff is amazing. His birthday was yesterday so we did a parade. He is in between radiation and chemo and I got him a new rugby ball. Seeing him out on the field learning how to walk and talk again was inspirational. It’s easy to get down in the dumps, but seeing things like that, seeing Andy running around after just having brain surgery, is amazing and makes you think how small the world is and how big of an impact you can make with changing your mindset. He and my boss are making a pact to run the Boston marathon. She’s been running and training for a marathon, so they’re going to train together and do the Boston Marathon one of these days. They are two pretty competitive and committed people so they will hold each other accountable.