From NBL1 to Super W: Katie's Rugby Rise

by Rugby Vic Media

NAIDOC week, which this year is held from July 4 to July 11, marks a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in the past, present and future.

The 2021 NAIDOC theme is ‘Heal country, heal our nation,’ a nod to the culture and heritage of our country and an urgent demand to protect.

This week, Rugby Victoria joins the nation in coming together to celebrate the rich history, diverse cultures and achievements of Indigenous peoples.

Katie Bugden made the extraordinary switch from Melbourne Tigers NBL1 star to Rugby Union rookie this year – despite having never watched the sport.

Only two games into her new venture, she has made a rapid rise to the elite.

After catching the eye of Melbourne Rebels Super W Coach Alana Thomas, while playing for Melbourne Unicorns in the Lindroth Cup, Katie burst into selection for the 2021 Super W Squad.

“It was a shock for me… still do this day I’ve only ever played two games of rugby,” Katie said.

When looking at Katie’s family heritage, it was always meant to be. Rugby flows through her veins.

Her father, Geoff Bugden, was a two-time premiership-winning front-row star for the Parramatta Eels in the 1980s. While her brother, William Bugden, played 88 games for Northern Pride in the Queensland Cup.

The highlight of Katie’s fleeting time in rugby came on Super W Grand Final day, where her parents watched on as she played in the Super W Select team against the President’s XV.

“I’m playing a sport now that my family understands when they watch,” Katie said.

“My mum and dad were fortunate enough to come to our Super W games in Coffs Harbour, being close to my hometown in Lismore. It was a really weird moment.”

“It was awesome to have my dad watch me play footy and give me advice.”

“Being away with the team, I’ve learnt so much that I can’t wait to bring back to club rugby.”

Within the blink of an eye, the strong-willed winger fell in love with the sport she was destined to play.

And according to Katie, the switch from the basketball court to the rugby pitch has already paid off.

“I just needed a change,” she said.

“When I played basketball, they told me I played it like a footy player.”

“I always had to hold myself back from contact; all I wanted to do when I started playing rugby was to hit someone.”

“I already love the rugby community.”

“If you look at a rugby team you’ve got a 6’2 girl here and then a 5’2 there and they can both potentially play in the same position. You always have a place and role in the team, no matter your size.”

“It’s just so empowering, and along with the community, is what made me fall in love with rugby.”

Bugden is a member of both the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people and she grew up on Bundajalung land in Lismore, NSW.

NAIDOC Week is a celebration of all these important elements for Katie - her family, her history and her culture.

“I feel so strongly to Bundajalung land, it’s a place I grew up in and the community where I experienced the most,” she said.

“But all the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people have immediately accepted me as family, even though I didn’t grow up on that land.”

“The connection that we have in our community is so amazing.”

“I go to Indigenous Uni games each year, and the whole time it feels like a family reunion, even though I don’t know these people. I just automatically feel such a connection to them.”

“When I think about my heritage, I think about the hundreds of thousands of years that connect me to the Indigenous people across Australia.”

Earlier this year, Katie received the honour of designing the Melbourne Rebels Indigenous Jersey for Super Rugby’s First Nations Round.

The Jersey was inspired by home and travelling home, diversity and honouring the Boon Wurring people. The design told the story of the club travelling home after being away from AAMI Park.

“Their story really related to me; travelling and home,” Katie said.

“Most of my artwork is centred around community and connection.”

“I live away from my family and I live away from my homeland, so a lot of my personal stories when I paint are about returning home. That’s what the Rebels came to me with after spending a year away from home; we wanted it to represent our community that came together and is returning back home.”

“What I came up with really resonated with me personally and also told the story of the club. It just connects so closely to how I feel.”

“I grew up looking at other sports Indigenous jerseys each year and being amazed by them.”

“Seeing so many other people who love it too… I went to a Rebels game a while ago and saw another person wearing my jersey at my train station coming home. It’s not just me that resonates with the story; it’s other people as well.”

“I’m so proud that people can say, ‘This is my team, but also my culture. My team respects me by wearing our history on our chest.’”

Blessed with innate sporting ability, Katie has found herself equally inspired by her artistic endeavours.

And it is her artwork that has not only strengthened her storytelling, but ignited a deep connection between her and her country.

“I’ve been painting all my life, but never indigenous painting. I never really connected with it.”

“Last year during lockdown, I found it as my escape.”

“I returned home for a while and spent a lot of time on country away from Melbourne and realised I have such a strong connection with my ancestors when I am on country.”

“When I paint, it is my direct connection I’ve never really had before; to understanding my culture, to reconnecting with my ancestors and sharing the emotions I have about my family.”

“I live 2000km away from my family, so when I paint, I think about that connection.”

“A big part of my life is storytelling. I always said to myself I would write a book one day. Now, instead of that, I’m telling my story with every painting I make.”

NAIDOC week is a time where Indigenous communities and Australians from all walks of life come together to celebrate the First Nations People’s culture, history and achievements.

From the arts to sport, NAIDOC Week isn’t just an opportunity to learn more about this history, but also allows individuals to support those within the community and have their voices amplified.

As an educator and future teacher, Katie is committed to using her platform to speak out and ensure that her people’s heritage, culture and values live on for future generations.

“I celebrate NAIDOC week with friends and go to events with my university (Swinburne).”

“I just love to educate people on what it means to me and my culture.”

“It opens up a dialogue for people to be educated; if you never ask, you never know.”

“This week highlights the people, communities and organisations that come together and collectively celebrate and show their ongoing respect for my culture, which is so important.”

To learn more about Katie’s artwork, visit her website here.