England hopeful Zainab Alema surprised by hero Maggie Alphonsi

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Zainab Alema has spent her whole life breaking down barriers in much the same way as her hero Maggie Alphonsi.

Zainab Alema has spent her whole life breaking down barriers in much the same way as her hero Maggie Alphonsi.

England hopeful Zee, as she is affectionately known, was named the Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year and is a remarkable woman.

An NHS intensive care neonatal nurse, she founded the rugby charity Studs in the Mud, which provides equipment and funding to allow women to play where rugby is not freely on offer.

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She also uses her social media platform to encourage black and Muslim women to play the game, while she herself plays for Barnes RFC.

And she recently got the opportunity to meet England World Cup winner Alphonsi, who surprised Zee down at Richmond Rugby Club.

It was an emotional meeting for the two women, with Alphonsi inspired by Zee as much as the other way around.

Zee read a letter that she had written to her younger self, detailing just how remarkable her own journey has been.

Born four months premature, Zee wanted to give back and that is what led to her becoming a neonatal nurse.

But just as important to her is rugby. As she told her husband Abu when they got married, he was not just marrying Zee, he was marrying rugby as well.

Playing in her sports hijab and scrum cap, Zee has never stopped breaking down barriers and smashing stereotypes.

Her nickname on the field is Bulldozer, and while it encapsulates her playing style, it could just as easily apply to the way she leads her life.

Billie Jean King, the trailblazing tennis great once said that ‘You have to see it to be it’. That reference to the importance of women’s role models is unquestionably true.

But for Zee, it also raises the question of what happens when you cannot see it. In her case, the answer is to become that role model.

“Can’t see it? Be it!”

Zee has certainly done that. It is no wonder that Alphonsi, a World Cup winner, a six-time Grand Slam champion and a member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame, is in awe of Zee and almost moved to tears when the pair met.

These two trailblazers have done so much for the sport on and off the field and continue to do so.