Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Born and raised in Raleigh, 29-year-old Jaz Gray would have never imagined herself in Spain or Dubai—let alone off the strength of sports. A lifetime fitness fanatic, she was working as a personal trainer at Results Fitness Gym (which she co-owns with her younger brother, Jeramie Gray) when a client approached her about playing for a club rugby team. Just a few months later, she was contacted by the USA Women Sevens, where she now plays full-time as a wing, to train in California before receiving her first cap in 2021. Now a few years into her career, Gray is focused on being the strongest teammate possible, solidifying a network of care for the women immediately around her, her peers across the league and affecting the entire sport by example.
Rugby may have taken her to Spain, United Arab Emirates and more, but Gray is candid about the fact that her first love was basketball. That was the plan. After playing four years at Norfolk State University, one of the largest and oldest HBCUs in the country, she opened a gym with her younger brother, Jeramie. “We both have degrees in exercise science,” she says. “We did that for a few years, and he still has the gym now.” A twist of fate led a client into her gym, and that moment would change everything. “Eventually, one of my clients just asked me to come out and play on her club rugby team. I was 24 at the time, so I went out there, and I actually was playing 15s.”
Though Gray claims to be shy, she has dazzling confidence, laughing as she recalls the devastating losses that led her to the USA team. “I went out and played; we made it to nationals that year—we lost. The next year we made it to nationals again—we lost again.”
Unfazed, she continued her training, sharpening her skills and empowering her teammates more dynamically with every game. “That’s when the USA team started to contact me. I came out for a camp, and then they asked me to move out to California and play full-time and train full-time,” she says. “That was 2019—I still really didn’t know how to play, and I had never really played sevens. I had to go talk to my parents, talk to my brothers—but I just made the decision to do it, to take a risk.”
That risk would take her to her premiere match in Dubai, where she debuted with the fifth-ranked national team in 2021. “There’s 22 of us on the team, but only 12 people get to go on each tour. COVID set us back, and then I was just grinding for two and a half, three years, just trying to make a tour. Finally, last year in 2021, I made my first tour to Dubai. Even though we didn’t win or perform how we wanted to when I got back to the states, I was just like, but you did it. You accomplished the goal that you set out to do. It took you three years, but you grinded, you kept your head down, and you did the work. I was very proud of myself for that.”
That grind would take her to England, France and Spain, where she became widely known for her dangerous speed, outpacing defenders and establishing herself as a serious attacking threat. “The first weekend in Spain, we won the gold medal. In the final game, I scored two tries, and I was like, O.K., you can hang with them. You can hang with the best of them. I was really proud of myself for that.”
There’s no doubt that Gray prioritizes her training and love for the sport—a quick scroll through her Instagram features motivational videos of her rigorous workouts and lighter content, like her going on an intimate date with her favorite rugby ball. But she’s humbly insistent that her source of strength lies in the community around her, rooted in the support her family always provided. “I wasn’t doing good, and I would just call my mom and just be crying and be like, ‘I’m outta here.’ She’d say, ‘Hey, listen, if you're going to stress about it, then come home. If you want to grind it out and get better—then stay, and do that.’ They’ve just been very important in my life. My dad, he’s sometimes a little too happy for me. It just makes me aware of just how blessed I am to have both parents that I can talk to every day, that love me unconditionally. They’ve been like a huge part of keeping me going, keeping me motivated.”
When it comes to the rest of her team, Gray does not play around. In fact, her ongoing support and delicate, intentional care for her teammates have earned her a loving moniker. “They call me the Chief Connection Officer. When we’re on tour, I do simple things during the week, like a scavenger hunt, or tank-top day. It’s silly, but it takes your mind off of the work aspect. It just allows us to have fun,” she says. “It is very stressful, but it’s very important to remember you made it; you did something. The games are going to be what they’re going to be—but we can actually have fun while we're here. That’s a big thing that I push, the mental health aspect of it. That lightheartedness until the weekend when we play. Remember that this is your job or your career, and this is fun.”
Admittedly, there aren’t as many Black women in the sport as she’d like to see, but Gray has surrounded herself with sisters, like her best friend, teammate Naya Tapper. Tapper, who is also from North Carolina, has been playing rugby professionally since 2016 and competed in the ’20 Olympics in Tokyo. “Black women, we’re the minority, but when you see somebody else, you realize you’re not going through it alone,” Gray says. “I got somebody on my left, on my right. But everybody expects us to be enemies. Naya’s probably like my biggest competition, and we just go back and forth, we grind it out, and then afterward we go get drinks, and we’ll laugh about it. We make each other better like that.”
Gray’s taking her own representation seriously in the sport for Black girls coming up and has some advice for those in rugby and beyond: Get ready to work hard. “Be ready to go harder than anybody. No matter how good you are or what people tell you, always do more. Do more. Just keep doing more,” Gray says. “Take more risks, and don’t be afraid to step out on faith to do something you’ve never done before.”
As for her own legacy, Gray is leaving that in the nimble hands of her teammates. “To be seen how I want to be seen, it feels really good,” she says. “So, I just hope people remember that I was the best teammate to ever be a teammate. I want my teammates to know that I’ll be there if they slip up and that I have their back. That’s really all that matters to me.”
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.