When she’s not handing off opponents on the rugby pitch or holding down a day job as a firefighter, England and Harlequins player Shaunagh Brown can be found ascending clifftops to jump off the edge into cold, unpredictable waters.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush and the longest two or three seconds of your life,” the 28-year-old tells HuffPost UK. “There’s a minute when you think ‘is the sea actually still there, why am I still falling?’ But I love the feeling - it’s like a high.”
Shaunagh has been doing traditional rock climbing and abseiling since she was a teenager, but has more recently discovered gorge scrambling – climbing up a slippery rock face and jumping into the lake, sea or waterfall beneath.
It’s not everyone’s idea of a relaxing day off, but for Shaunagh, who previously worked as a commercial diver in the murky depths of the River Thames, it’s the only way to unwind. “I think the higher the jump, the better,” she laughs.
Shaunagh climbs using an indoor wall at a local centre every few weeks and finds time to “do it properly” on natural rocks every few months. When we speak on the phone, she’s about to head to Snowdonia for a long weekend of climbing with friends.
Her dedication to the hobby is impressive in itself, considering the fullness of her schedule. During the season, she trains with Harlequins twice a week for three hours and spends two evenings weight training in the gym. Weekends are spent playing matches every Saturday and hitting the gym for “active recovery”, such as swimming or slow cycling, on Sunday.
On top of all that, she fits in 42 hours per week as a firefighter – like many female sportswomen playing at her level, she also works full-time. Back in April, she was on the night shift for Kent Fire and Rescue Service after playing in the final of the Tyrell’s Premier 15’s tournament that afternoon.
“Keeping busy is what makes me happy really,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what it is, I just like to be doing something or having a goal to achieve.”
Shaunagh, who grew up in south London, has her mum to thank for introducing her to sport at a young age. She first learnt to rock climb when her mum, whom she still lives with, sent her to summer camps during the school holidays. “Mum would very rarely just let me sit at home and do nothing,” she says, affectionately. “Being busy is part of my life. If I’ve sat still for two hours I feel like I’m wasting my life.”
Today, the hobby provides a distraction from the pressures that come with playing sport at international level. “There’s pressure to win, but a lot of the pressure in general is what I put on myself as an athlete,” she explains. “I always want to be the best at what I do and I just want to be the best for the team. I wouldn’t want someone else to slack off from doing their job, so I don’t do that either – it’s about being accountable for your actions.”
Rock climbing also provides Shaunagh with an output for her competitive spirit – the wall becomes her opponent, taking the place of a rival rugby player. “The thought of being beaten by a still object winds me up,” she laughs. “I think ‘how can I not climb this, it is literally a rock, how can it be better than me?’ The way I put that in my head is what makes me overcome most things, you just put things in comparison and break things down to the bear minimum; it’s just a rock.”
This logical mentality means she’s never fazed by jumping into open water or abseiling down a huge rock face. “I just put it in a rational way; I’m strapped in, these safety systems have been tested umpteen times, we’re fine on the weight limit – it’s not rational to think that anything bad is going to happen,” she explains.
Filling her diary with rugby and rock climbing also helps Shaunagh find balance away from her job as a firefighter. She describes having to keep a cool head in physically and emotionally demanding situations, such as rescuing passengers trapped in a car.
“I’m really good at switching off to be honest,” she says. “When I’m at work it’s got 100% of my attention, but as soon as I leave there it’s just all about what’s next. There’s no time to dwell on things I’ve done during the day – by the time I get home it’s dinner, shower and bed.”
With so much on her plate, is she never tempted to slow down? “Most people go to work, come home, maybe watch TV for a couple of hours then go to bed - I couldn’t do that,” she says.
“There was one point a few years ago when I worked in an office for two months, and during those two months of sitting down all day I couldn’t sleep properly. When I wasn’t active during the day – when I was being a ‘normal person’ – it didn’t work for me.”