Newcastle's sporting hopefuls

A look into the aims and perspectives of our athletes slated to compete at one of the sports world's biggest stages

multiple writers
21st June 2022
Image credit: Instagram @newc_squash
With the Commonwealth Games coming to Birmingham this summer, a few Newcastle students are in contention to compete at the tournament.

Femi Sofolarin, a combined honours Geography and Business student, is balancing his duties with Scotland’s rugby sevens team with his final assessments. He spoke to the Courier from the Robbo library. 

After going through the Harlequins academy, Femi joined the Scotland set-up, with whom he won the under-18s Six Nations. After some time with England sevens in his gap year, he switched back to Scotland in order to pursue his studies at Newcastle alongside rugby.

“It would have been pretty difficult to have a fifteens contract and get a degree in three years as well. The uni’s been really good with allowing it too, with travel and extensions and stuff. There’s a lot of pressure on your skills in sevens as well. If you make a mistake you’re in trouble, so it’s been a good way to develop as a player.” 

“They’ve facilitated it. A couple of other boys in the past, Harry Glover and Will Glover, went through England sevens at the same time as well, so that’s one of the reasons I came to Newcastle, because I knew they’d got through with good degrees and it had worked. Obviously you’ve got the uni rugby too, which we’re doing quite well in, with good facilities too.”

Image credit: @NewcastleUniRFC

His studies and rugby haven’t always fitted smoothly, however: “Toulouse and London the last couple of weeks fell during an assessment period. I was working while I was out there. The team gave me my own bedroom. I didn’t have too much fun on those tours, not much sight-seeing and stuff. I actually handed one of my essays in on the day, on Saturday before we went and played at Twickenham. It was due at 12, but I managed to get it in so that was all good.”

After deadlines, Femi hopes the Commonwealth Games will be next on his agenda. “Obviously there’s selection stuff, which is a lot of pressure. But hopefully get a good training block in before the ‘commies’ and get the opportunity to do that. It would be a pretty cool thing to do.”

“Long term, I might not always be with the sevens. It’s really good fun at the minute, and it’s a great development pathway as a young player. If the opportunities were to come around in fifteens I would definitely consider them, but I really enjoy sevens now.” 

Beyond that, Femi has big ambitions. “The next [Olympics] would be 2024, which would be a pretty good age to be in sevens. If the opportunity was to arise… It’s sort of the pinnacle of rugby sevens, playing in the Olympics for GB. It’s definitely something I’d aspire to do.”

Cameron Melville, a second-year English literature undergrad, plays for Jamaica’s rugby sevens team when he’s not writing plays for his Theatre Script Workshop module. 

“My journey started off with the English pathway. I was playing rugby at school and got drafted into the Sale Sharks academy which was a lot of fun. I got on the radar for England at 16, but didn’t quite make it. I ended up doing Scotland stuff at under-18. I got picked for my first international against England, but the Covid happened so that didn’t happen.”

Image credit: @hoggard_chloe

After Covid, he picked up again with Jamaica’s rugby sevens team, which he admits “to be honest, I didn’t know much about.” Although Jamaica are the underdogs of the Rugby Sevens World Series, Cam spoke highly of his experience. His teammates “were in way better shape than [he] was” post-covid. “Considering we all get chucked together from different parts of the world and can bond so quickly, so well… It’s just about us doing well, as a team. It’s something I’d not seen for a while in rugby.”

International rugby has opened up opportunities for Cameron, whose highlight has been playing against his heroes. “We played against USA, which was probably the most special moment in my rugby career. They blew us away. They really were the best team you could imagine. I played against Carlin Isles, who’s one of the top try scorers in the World Series of all-time. He’s known as the fastest man in rugby - I’d watched him when I was twelve years-old.”

As with Femi, Cam had praise in store for Newcastle University’s sports set-up, as well as how staff have helped him balance his studies with rugby. “I’ve been playing rugby at uni and I’ve really enjoyed it, and it’s also really high level. The best part is the coaches are really happy to see me go and do these things. When I come back they’re happy for me. Rugby at uni is something you can’t not do. The social camaraderie of it is quality.”

With an eye on the Commonwealth Games this Summer, he was cautiously optimistic: “I still have to get picked, but it’s looking quite likely. I’ve been involved in the last four tournaments we’ve done internationally. The last being our qualifiers in the Bahamas, where we came second, losing out to Canada but gaining that qualifying spot. I still need to earn my place, but hopefully I’ll be there, at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.”

Rugby at uni is something you can’t not do. The social camaraderie of it is quality.

Cam Melville

Over on the squash courts, two athletes from the Women’s 1st team have been pipped for Commonwealth contention. We got to have a chat with Jade Pitcairn, a second-year Sports and Exercise Science student and Emma Turnbull, studying a Masters in Immunobiology, both coming from the Cayman Islands.

Emma is currently the captain of the women’s team for the second year, having been awarded full royals in her first year, she has been leading the squash team to one of their best seasons ever. Speaking to her, she talked about how she got into squash, and how her journey has been in Newcastle. 

“I started off actually playing tennis, and then because Cayman gets hot in summer, it was too hot outside so the tennis club went to the squash club. My mum was like ‘why don’t you try squash’, and I’ve just continued from there and never stopped. I chose Newcastle because it was quite highly ranked for squash - at the time I think we were top ten in the UK - and also for my course. It had both the course I wanted and squash so it seemed like a good fit. Then I’ve been captain ever since my second year, and now I’m in my fourth year so that’s quite an achievement I feel.”

She also commented on how she felt being on the same team as Jade again. “We used to train together when we were juniors, so when Jade was looking for good squash unis I said, ‘come here so we can train together!’ It’s been really good, it’s nice to have someone from back home, helps the homesickness sometimes to have someone else around. She’s fit in really well too, we both just got awarded full royals from the Athletic Union and squash has just had its most successful season this year as well.

Staying at the university for her Masters seemed natural for Emma, who continued, “Half of [my second year] was during COVID, then my third year was all online so we didn’t even get a season. So I kind of wanted to stay on for another year, for squash and for academics. I love what I’m doing, I’m quite academically driven. I don’t think I’d go professional [after university], but I’d really like to just keep training and play Caribbean championships every year and potentially bigger tournaments if they come around - there are some good people at home that come out of retirement for big championships - so that’s where I see myself in the future.”

Image credit: Emma Turnbull

A spot at the Commonwealth Games would be a brilliant way to round off her university squash career, and Emma has her fingers crossed. “I’d like the opportunity to perform on such a big stage. I think it’s one of the biggest squash competitions because we’re not in the Olympics, so the Commonwealth is the second biggest event for us. I’ve done the PanAm Games, but that’s just North and South America, this is worldwide so this is going to be a whole new level of competition. I’ve got a few senior events that I’ve done in Guatemala back in April that was the PanAm Championships, so now that I’ve experienced a few big matches I feel like I’m slightly more prepared.”  

Two years younger, Jade is no less of a formidable player than Emma. She joined Newcastle as someone who started squash at the age of 8 back home, and she has gone on to win two medals in the Island Games, which she played in Gibraltar in 2019.

She was delighted to have joined Emma at Newcastle, saying “It’s been really good, I started my first ever tournament - which was the Caribbean tournament - and I met her there so I’ve known her and been playing with her forever. You’ve got that one person from home that you can always relate to, who is always willing to be on court with you like that. We just came back from Guatemala travelling together, and it’s just good to have that home familiarity.”

You’ve got that one person from home that you can always relate to... it’s just good to have that home familiarity.

jade pitcairn

Jade also attributes her choice to come here to the university’s squash coach, Liam Gutcher. “I’ve always wanted to come to the UK, I was in touch with quite a few coaches and found that our coach here, Liam, was the best fit for me. He has such a good programme here, so much physio and training support as well. I just found that the interaction I had with Liam was the best and I’m happy with all the progress I’ve made here so far. I’m actually quite looking forward to third year, we have such a good team, everyone put in so much hard work and [it’s going to be] as good of a year if not better next year. 

Even with all that training under her belt, she is not easing up in anticipation of her trip to Birmingham. “I’ve been doing quite a lot with Liam in the last six weeks, then I’m going home next week actually to train with my team and get some doubles practice in as well. I’m super excited, it's going to be tough for sure playing against professionals, but I think it’s going to be such a great opportunity even just to go to another tournament where other sports are involved. We’re going to be travelling with the whole Cayman Islands team, so it’s going to be a good environment and a great time to just watch and support other people too.”

Best of luck to all our athletes, and we'll be cheering you on in Birmingham!

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