England rugby power couple Holly Aitchison and Hannah Botterman share their inspiring love story
England rugby teammates Holly Aitchison and Hannah Botterman fell for each other as teenagers – but after a false start, sport brought them back together.
Much like this summer’s Euro football tournament, the Rugby World Cup was hailed a triumph for women’s sports – and with the next edition, in 2025, set to be hosted by England, it seems inevitable that England’s Red Roses will be household names before long.
Holly Aitchison, 25, and Hannah Botterman, 23, were both part of the England Rugby World Cup team that finished runner-up – though Hannah was injured and ultimately missed out on the final against New Zealand, and instead cheered Holly on from the sidelines.
The pair met as teens while at Hartpury College in 2015. There was a “connection” straight away, but their relationship faltered as Holly struggled with her sexuality. But rugby bought them back together – Holly joined Saracens after switching from rugby sevens to 15-a-side in 2020, where Hannah has played since 2017, and the pair also found themselves playing together on the England team. They made things official in 2020, and haven’t looked back since.
PinkNews: Hannah, what made you fall in love with Holly?
Hannah: Well it doesn’t hurt that she’s a very attractive lady! [laughs] But seriously, when we first met at 16, it just felt like a bit of a connection. She’s very kind and caring and a very lovely person, and also happens to be quite funny. So yeah, I think just all of that made me like her a lot. Indeed, she’s a very, very kind, loyal person and I love that a lot about her.
Holly, you’ve described Hannah as an unbelievable entertainer with a serious side on the pitch. How has she inspired you?
Holly: I think anyone that knows Han will know that she’s a very social and entertaining person. She’s always the life of the party. So even in group situations, when it needs to be serious, she’ll be the person cracking a joke at an inappropriate time. If you happen to walk into a room, she’s the person that you’ll notice who is friendly, inviting, and someone everyone feels comfortable being around with.
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And did she play any significant role in helping you to come to terms with your sexuality?
Holly: I don’t think she really had a part in the helping process. We were 16 and we parted because I needed to do my own thing and work out what I wanted to do. I was coming to terms with my own journey and also doing that away from her. When I was ready and accepted exactly what was going on, then I came back and we went from there.
How do you hope to help others with your relationship?
Hannah: We haven’t really talked too much about our relationship publicly, other than the O2 Inside Line podcast that I did recently. For us, it’s probably more about being seen, representing the community and being role models for young girls and boys coming through in the game.
Holly: I think we’re lucky as well. In rugby, and in women’s sports in general, it’s definitely a lot more acceptable for people to be in relationships in the team and to be gay. We’re really lucky to be in an environment where we can be ourselves and are not judged and I think it’s a similar situation in women’s hockey and football. In men’s sport this isn’t often the case, with the toxic masculinity that goes with it, so we know we are fortunate to be in this position. I think showing visibility is important for people that aren’t as lucky as us.
Unfortunately, the Red Roses didn’t lift the Rugby World Cup 2021, but having made it to the finals, what are your goals for the next World Cup in 2025?
Hannah: Having performed well throughout the tournament, it was really tough to watch the final and see how upset everyone was. Being out with an injury means you feel helpless and can’t do or change anything that’s happening. So yeah, it wasn’t a very nice feeling. But I think as a group, we understand the bigger goal for us now going forward and it’s lit a fire in our belly to go again and win at home in 2025. Having the Rugby World Cup in England is going to be massive for everyone. I think there’s an understanding in the team that there is something else in the future that we really, really want and we’ll go in all guns blazing at that.
Do you think the LGBTQ+ community is acknowledged enough in rugby?
Holly: I think in many ways it is. We have the Rainbow Laces initiative that rugby does. Lots of teams that we’ve played in have been involved in that campaign, so there’s visibility that way but there’s always more that can be done.
Hannah: As far as sports go, rugby is probably up there with better representation, more so than in other sports. There’s moments where it’s more obvious, like during Pride month, when referees wear Pride jerseys and some clubs have annual Pride fixtures – I think Harlequins are really, really good at it. I think normalising it and just showing that it’s OK within the sport of rugby in itself is so important, especially on the men’s side. I think the women’s game is where the men’s game definitely needs to be in terms of acceptance.
There are a few players who have chosen to come out publicly and I believe being brave enough to do that is massive and will fast-forward acceptance in the sport tenfold. But the fact that they feel the need to do that is something I dislike as they shouldn’t have to say a word about it. It only takes one person to start a domino effect though, and if they aren’t afraid to speak out, then it will become a bit more normalised in the sport.
There was controversy at the men’s football World Cup after FIFA threatened to impose sporting sanctions on players if they wore pro-LGBTQ+ OneLove armbands on the field. How did it make you feel?
Hannah: I think it’s upsetting, especially when it was initially said that it would be OK. The way they have dealt with it was horrendous. Apparently the Football Association showed up a couple of hours before England’s World Cup game against Iran and asked them not to wear OneLove armbands. The World Cup is the biggest tournament of your life. Everyone’s worked stupidly hard to get there. I think it probably would have just taken one captain or one player to wear it and accept that they might get a yellow card or whatever else it is.
Holly: You can’t be putting these kinds of problems on the players.
Hannah: Yeah, 100 per cent. It’s the Federation that needs to take the brunt of it. It’s the biggest tournament in the world and it would have been great to show some representation and let the players support whom they wanted to, come out, and wear the armband.
Holly: On a more positive note, it’s really inspiring to see Alex Scott doing what she’s doing. I think with her kind of influence, as a role model to women but also as a commentator, to have shown that kind of bravery by wearing the armband in a country where she could go to prison, is unbelievably inspiring.
Do you believe that anti- LGBTQ+ countries shouldn’t be allowed to host international tournaments?
Holly: We’re talking about people that are openly part of the community, and you will never know what it will do them. Like me, at the age of 16 when I didn’t know how I felt about my sexuality and then going to an anti- LGBTQ+ country or competition where such an experience could really put me back. It’s not just the people that are openly out there and making changes but the kind of attitude you show towards them can affect younger people who are more easily influenced. You definitely expect to see some kind of change in the criteria from the people who want to host these kinds of events.
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