Aimee Barrett-Theron, the shy little girl who grew up to be an Olympic rugby ref

Aimee Barrett-Theron was 12 years old, watching the Sydney Olympics on TV, when she turned to her mom and said: “One day, I’m going to be there.” Never underestimate the power of a childhood dream, especially when it’s expressed as a goal. 

At school in Durban, the shy Aimee was an athletic all-rounder – sport was her “happy place” – but it was rugby that really brought her out of her shell and stretched her skills to the limit, leading her all the way to provincial and national colours in the Sevens game. 

And then, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, she took to the field, not as a player, but as a ref, having worked her way up from whistle-blowing at barefoot under-13 boys’ games. 

Today, Aimee is one of South African rugby’s most respected and sought-after referees, a natural and determined barrier-breaker who insists on being seen “not as a female referee, just as a referee and a servant to the game.” 

In the midst of the Rugby World Cup action in Japan, Aimee sat down with Ruda Landman for a candid chat about overcoming obstacles, laying down the law, and daring to make your wildest dreams come true.

Hello and a warm welcome to another conversation about change. About life, and decisions and how sometimes it throws you off and sometimes you’re in charge, or you think you’re in charge, but not always. My guest, Aimee Barrett-Theron, South African rugby ref, lots of firsts in that very male-dominated field?

Yes, definitely.

Ja. You’re the first one to be included on SA Rugby’s Premier Panel.

Yes, ja, it was a huge opportunity from SA Rugby and a really big step forward for them. There’s only a handful of female professional referees in the world, so being given that opportunity has been incredible so far.

Ja. You grew up in Durban and, as a school girl, could you ever see this happening? I mean what were your dreams?

See, as a youngster I always loved sports, I always wanted to go as far as possible, but your typical careers, you know, there’s a very small percentage of people that make it to the top. And I think, you know, growing up we didn’t have the money for the extra academies, we didn’t have the money for, you know, extra coaching and things like that and it was just keep working hard at your school sport and, and see where you go. But I…

What sport did you play?

A good bit of everything actually – hockey, touch rugby, softball, tennis, athletics, really as much as I could. It’s, sport is my happy place. So I enjoyed school, but it was even better just being on a sports field, my team and…it was, I am a pretty shy person, so when I, when I got to the opportunity to play with my teammates, like, that was my time to come out of my shell and enjoy my time. So, ja, I was, it was great growing up and sport. But there was a specific moment when I was about 12, it was the Sydney Olympics. And I, I, we were in the lounge and I said to my mom: Mom, I’m, I’m gonna be at the Olympics. And she, you know, as all moms would do, it’s a massive dream but she was like, she was behind me from the start, and…

She didn’t shut you down. She didn’t say ‘don’t be ridiculous’.

Yeah. Ja, ja, and that’s like, I’ll forever be grateful for that, because I ended up there and, for that, a twelve-year-old and, you know, your average school, your average living, your average life and ending in the, in one of the top tournaments in the world, so ja.

Yes, absolutely. And then you got a rugby bursary to go to Stellenbosch, that must have been quite exceptional for a girl.

Yeah, a really big moment and I’m grateful to Stellenbosch that it’s…

How did that happen? Did you, did you apply? Did, how did, how did it happen?

Yeah, so when I left school, I started to study but, family situation, I had to start working and earn some money, and all the rest of my friends were studying and starting to work. So, I just started applying. I, at that time I was playing rugby and I made it to the SA team, SA Sevens, SA Fifteens and I thought, well this is my opportunity, I need to use these, these opportunities to see what I can do as far as I want to study, as far as studying and…

Sorry, I want to take you one step back. Tell me about having to drop out?

Yeah, very difficult time.

It must have been very hard.

Yeah, yeah, so my dad left the year I left school and it just put us in a financial situation where we couldn’t afford to, to carry on studying.

How did you handle that, how did you work with, with the, I talked about decisions and change moments.

It’s very much a…

And you were young, you, at 18, it’s hard.

Yeah, a speed bump but, some people call it stubbornness, but I call it determination. And I, I refuse to let other things stop me from what I, from what I want to do. So, I knew that my, my goal would maybe be a little bit behind or be a little bit delayed because of it…

But you didn’t give it up.

No, no, I think I like challenges and I needed to be involved, so worked and coached and did as many things as I could to build my CV that when I, when I could apply to university that it was still substantial.

So how long did it take?

Four years.

Shoh.

Ja, so by that time people, my friends were finishing and they were starting to work and I was starting first year at 21. So it was different, but at the same time I have this, I’m a bit more philosophical about it, that everything happens the right time and when I, I think being a little bit older, being in Stellenbosch, it just, I just had the maturity to get down and work hard. And I was balancing playing international rugby and studying and so it was quite a lot on my plate and I think, maybe, fresh out of high school it would have been more different but at that stage I was, I was comfortable with stuff. It was busy, but I had really good supportive friends, supportive lecturers, and, ja.

Tell me about being selected for the national team?

Incredible actually. I remember getting the email and I just I had, I had quite a career in touch rugby and then started playing sevens, as I said, okay listen there’s, there’s some more opportunities with sevens and literally the year after that got the email that I was in the SA squad. And I just thought I’m 18, 19, like what, what, are you sure is that, is that definitely my name on the list? And I remember going to the camps, and I went on my first tour, and I’d only been playing sevens, like, not even a year, and I was putting on the green and gold jersey. I think growing up as a South African, that is, rugby is one of our cultures and, you know, being able to put that on, and I remember putting it on the night before the tournament started and I just, yeah, this goose bump moment – I still have goose bumps now thinking about it. It was, it’s amazing to represent your country and sing your anthem and, yeah, it’s something you can’t describe.

Where did you go? Where was the tour?

Uganda, actually. Yeah. So very, very interesting. Great to explore Africa, to play against all the, the top nations in Africa. Sevens is such a high-speed game and you, you don’t, it doesn’t, it’s not your top-tier nations that necessarily do well, you know, you have a couple of speedsters and you play the game well and in 14 minutes anything can happen, so it was a great experience out there and a, a nice welcoming into the rugby.

And as a white South African that must have also crashed through a few boundaries.

Ja, ja, it was…

Just in experience.

Yeah it was something different and I think we can be a little bit sheltered and it was just, it was just eye opening. And I, I am more a thinker than a sayer, and I did a lot of thinking in these times and being able to travel the world and, a lot of the tournaments, I often come back and it’s easy to think certain things about South Africa, but every time I come back I love South Africa more and more, because of just, we’re so diverse and we actually have a really good life here.

Why did you choose kinesiology when you went to study?

So, growing up, being involved in sport, I loved the body, loved movement, love training the body, trying to get the maximum potential out of the body, and obviously you pick up injuries along the way as well. And the people that fix me, the physios, the biokineticists, I love them because they put me back on the, back on the field and I, I remember thinking I want to be that person for, for someone else the next generation athletes, so, ja. Got involved at, at the university and running my own practice now has been amazing because every day I go to work and I love what I do. And I close the door at the end of the day and I just, I’m so grateful that I have what I have because I’m doing, you know it’s that old-school cliché of, if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. And so I’ve never worked. Officially, unofficially, you know.

So many young people just start studying something, but you knew exactly what and why. That’s wonderful.

Yeah, and it was that determination. I picked it young and I knew exactly what I wanted to do and, yeah, didn’t stop for much to get myself there and it, it was tough but it, it’s so worth it.

And where did your playing career take you? What was the, the high point?

Wow, that’s, that’s a big question because there’s, there’s so many different places. I mean, the 2009 World Cup we played in the semi-finals against Australia and the 2010 World Cup we were in England. Just huge, I don’t want to say tick-boxes in my career because it sounds too small, you know, just moments of playing against the top nations in the world, doing the sport that I love, it’s been incredible. So definitely the World Cups are the highlights for me and then it also comes back to the local, the provincial season, you know. In, in the last couple years of my playing we managed to win the provincial league and just playing with those girls, the camaraderie, you know, week in, week out you’re training together, so, national camps you get together every couple of months, but week in, week out provincially you’re playing together. And, you know, these girls put their bodies on the line for you and you do the same for them and I think rugby is unique in that way, because of that physical component that it’s, there’s just so much, so much feeling towards it and so much passion. And just, you know, lifting that trophy at the end of the season is incredible.

Have you made permanent, long-term, lifelong friends?

Mmm, absolutely. And, and not just in South Africa, all over the world. I know I can travel to most countries and, and message my friends and, and I could stay with them absolutely no problem. And it’s just, it’s, it’s deep, deep friendships. And a lot of my and social circles here, it’s, it’s all real sport, it’s all sport friends, because we share that common, common passion.

Tell me about the decision to go into refereeing.

So, it was quite a, quite an interesting one. I love a challenge and so year after year I’m always looking for something new and people always say I’m a really busy person and that’s just because I, I want to get better, I want to be a better person, I want to try something new. And so the reffing was a way for me to challenge myself and also to give back to the game that gave me so much, you know. With rugby, or without rugby, I’m not sure I would have been able get that university degree but, you know, getting the bursary, travelling the world, where most of my friends haven’t even left the country, it was, it was a chance for me to plough back into the game and to help the next generation. I think reffing is easily one of the hardest things I’ve done, and not necessarily the physical side because obviously with rugby you’re training you, you know, you’re working week in week out. It was more the, the mental and emotional side and…

Why?

It … the game pushes you in such a way there’s so many decisions to be made in a game and I think that’s where I got caught. You know, shouting at the TV watching on a Saturday, it’s actually so much more complicated than what it seems, the law book is very intricate. And we, there’s a fine art to refereeing and you actually want to learn when not to blow the whistle. Because if you’re gonna blow every infringement it’s gonna be stop/start, see, like NFL, and the game…

Yes, yes. Ja, there’s no flow.

And the players would get frustrated and the show’s all about you, where, for me, the players are the rock stars and the game is about them. And if I can get by without being noticed, I’d be happy to do that, so, yeah.

You think you’ve done your job, basically.

Ja, ja. So, the less said about the referee, the better. And I think, yeah, just the emotional side…obviously there’s judgement when it, you know, a female referee. I think when I first got started it was a lot more tough, but now, these days I’ve been very, very lucky that people will just embrace me and they, and they, most the time they, they know who I am. People are starting to get to know that, oh, Aimee the female referee, that’s, she’s alright and she’s done some internationals. And, so, it was tough to go through that way but, ja, it’s been a good challenge, I’m a better person.

Can you, can you remember the first time you reffed a male game, a men’s game?

Mmm. So, ja, when I started…

That must have been, they’re all physically bigger than you are. Lots.

Yeah, so, yeah. So when I first started and, because there’s, it’s mainly men’s rugby In South Africa, I started with the boys, the little under 13s, and that was barefoot. And that was fun, that was a run-around, I didn’t know what I was doing, they didn’t know what they were doing, we just had a good, a good time. And then when it got to the more, the more serious stage, a few more of the serious club games and things like that, I, the, the hardest part was arriving at the field and walking around the field to the change room and just seeing everyone, like, realize that it’s a female referee. And you can greet coaches and, and they have like this, oh…

Double take.

Ja, like, referee? Okay. And, everyone was polite, respectful and I was allowed to get on and do my own job, but, of course it’s, there, they’re curious. And I, I knew that that was coming and I tried to prepare myself to think, listen, it’s gonna be different, of course they’re gonna be curious about it, don’t let that affect you when you run onto the field, you know – you know rugby, you’ve been playing internationally for however long, you’ve been to the top tournaments. I had watched an incredible amount of rugby as well. I, I know the game, I’m not saying I’m perfect at it, there’s certainly no perfect performance, but I’m comfortable when I’m in the four lines. So, ja, I tried not to let the outside factors really affect me.

And, as you say, things have shifted, there’s no … women are much more accepted into what used to be a completely male world.

Ja, absolutely. And I think I must credit Western Province rugby and, and SA Rugby with that, because the, the gents have embraced me. And, it’s wonderful. I mean, being on the premier panel with guys like Jaco Peyper, Marius van der Westhuizen, Rasta Rasivhenge, and, and, just to name a few. And, you know, I can give them a call any day of the week and just be like, hey, you know, can you have a look at my scrums or something like that and they just treat you like an equal. And ja, it’s been great and just to get that support, and to be fully contracted, and that’s a, it’s a first for South Africa and it was a huge deal, and…

But you first have to find that strength in yourself, what you’ve, what you’ve described – saying to yourself: I know I can do this, I know I do have the background. You first have to, have to find your backbone, kind of thing.

Yes, and that took a, it took a good bit of time. I think with reffing the early couple of years, I realised how difficult it was, and you get judged on every decision you make. And especially in the beginning, you probably make more bad ones than good ones. And, ja, it was important for me to stand up and, and embrace that I’m gonna make mistakes. And one of the lessons I’ve learned from refereeing is that sometimes mistakes are the best way to learn, and I’ve taken that to other aspects off my life, because it just takes so much pressure off you.

Yes.

And, and there’s so much learning in life rather than knocking yourself down and week, week after week, it’s, it’s lessons going forward, so…

Ja, the baby learns to walk because he falls.

There we go. Ja, ja.

Did you feel also that you have to be this role model now and you kind of carry the whole female race?

There’s two sides to that and I, I definitely think that’s my, one of my first things is to be a referee, not a female referee, not anything else, just be a referee and be a servant to the game. And, again, let the rock stars be the rock stars and I can get in, do my job, get out and go home happy. But then, the other side to it is, it is very important in South Africa for me to tell my story and to keep breaking those barriers for the next generation. And rugby, female, women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports, so it’s important for people to see that there is opportunity. I mean I’m, I’m contracted and there’s opportunity to travel the world and, and so, other women getting involved, not necessarily in rugby, it can be any sport, to let them know that it is possible. And it could be in the business world – I’ve, I’ve done some talks and, and some businesses just to say it is, you know, it’s, it can be male-dominated and you can be mentally prepared for that, don’t be upset, it is…

Is what it is.

That’s, that’s how it’s been, but now it’s our turn to step up and make changes so, just going in with a mindset, not aggressive, not anything else, but just: hey guys, I’m here. I do plenty of hard work behind the scenes to make sure that I’m performing at that stage because I don’t want to be spoon-fed or given opportunities because I’m female. But, ja, I think overall if I can, if me as a female, if I can make it in rugby in South Africa then the opportunities are endless for others in other domains. So, ja, I do see that and there’s a lot of, a lot of hard work going in. And the local societies, I, I work with some of the local referees that are just starting out, other women, we can, we do high school refereeing and they run touch and they’re the ball girls at Newlands and, just to get them involved and give them a taste. And, and, if I can share my national and international knowledge with them and help them, that’s, that’s one of my goals.

And plans and dreams? Professionally?

So, because it’s never really been done before, I, being a female referee in South Africa, I think opportunities are endless and I’m looking forward to cementing a position reffing Currie Cup Premier and reffing all of the men’s competitions in South Africa. This year’s been a busy one reffing Varsity Cup, Varsity Shield, Super Sport Challenge. I’ve started with the domestic Currie Cup, the under 21s and, yeah, looking forward to just being, you know, cementing that name in, in one of the best competitions in the world, really. And then I think internationally, we must keep pushing, and I would love to ref a men’s international. And, ja, I think the time will come I think the, the bigger rugby powers are open to it and there, there’s really a lot of hard work done on their side to give women opportunities. I think in the female internationals, we’ve got the World Cup 2021, I’d love to feature there and, and put in some strong performances. If you go on the last World Cup in 2017 the, the level of play was incredible. When I played 2010, it was only two World Cups before that, the level has increased dramatically and, yeah, being a part of that is, is one of my goals.

Tell me about reaching the Olympics? The little girl’s dream?

It was amazing. Ja, interesting.

You were, you were one of the refs on the South African panel. How does it work?

So, it’s a, World Rugby panel and they select referees and that can, you can come from any nation and they pick a team that goes towards the tournaments. And at that stage I had just started reffing, it was about 2015 and I reffed a local tournament, it was the Olympic qualifiers in South Africa and because I was one of the few female referees, they, they brought me in and they brought two more rugby refs down – two, two role models at that time. And, ja, the, the World Rugby manager was there and he, and he had a look and he just said, listen, our squad is set for the Olympics, so keep working hard and we’ll look to bring you in for the next cycle. And then I saw him again in Dubai, so obviously worked during that time, there’s an invitational tournament in Dubai, and he saw me again and he called me over and he just said, listen, making some changes to the squad, we would love to have you. And, my life just stopped, and I just stared at him and, ja, it was a, I remember going back to the hotel that night and just breaking down, I don’t like to have, like, soft moments but I broke down in the hotel because, like, that was a dream that I’d been, that I’ve been living since I was 12. And…

Who did you phone first?

Phoned mom. Phoned mom. I phoned, it was fiancée at the time, and yeah, just, I didn’t really have words. I was just like: he’s, he’s, just told me, like, it’s a possibility, like if I work hard, he’d, they’d, he’d, they’d want me in the squad and I could, I could be there, you know. And, so final selections obviously weren’t set at that stage, but I was in the mix. So I’d gone from being in for the next cycle to being in the mix and being given a couple of international series tournaments – I think it was offered to Atlanta and Langford and I can’t remember the other one, but ja, just some chances to prove myself and I, I just knew from that night, as I said, I’m, I’m making it. I’m gonna do whatever it takes.

Ja. How much time did you have? How…it was about nine months or so?

Yeah, less than that. So that was December, my first tournament was April, April and May and then the Olympics were later that year, June, July, so.

And what was it like being there?

Oh, amazing, amazing. I think it was small moments for me. It got really real standing in the queue at the airport and Venus and Serena Williams are standing behind me. Jis. Having these moments of like: oh my goodness, this is, this is real, you know. And just to see international superstars at their sport, amazing. Running out from the tunnel with the players and, credit to Brazil and the, and the crowd, because they just made every game special – whether you’re running with the whistle or you’re running touch, they just went absolutely mental. And it was just this, this feeling, it was constant goose bumps. And it was amazing to do it with the team that I went with as well, so as much as we, from all the way around the world, they’re, they’re such good people and such, ja, we built some really good friendships to, to share this, this tournament together and it’s something I’ll never forget.

You say you, you phoned your fiancée. Where did you met, meet Zaandré and what made you decide that she might be the one?

So, actually, first day I landed in Cape Town. So, I got that rugby bursary and I knew one person in, that went to study at Stellenbosch, she was a good friend of mine, we grew up playing sport together. And so I gave her a call, I just said, listen I’m making this big move, please can you help me, please can you come get me at the airport, can you show me around town and, you know, just, just look after me a little bit. And she was good friends with Zaandré, and she actually brought her to the airport when I first arrived, so, yeah. I got in the car, she spoke my ears off from the back, she’s obviously, she was a student as well, she just told me everything about everything and, ja, just became really good friends. And spent a lot of time together, because we, so, she plays provincial netball and loads of other sports as well so we used to train together, we used to go out, eat together, we lived quite close to each other so we wanted to spend almost every day together as much as we could. So she quickly became my best friend and, ja, then things slowly started to change in that first year and, ja, I took a, took a big step, and I think her, she…

Who made the first move?

She did. And I would love that to be on, to be on camera because it’s a, it’s a battle between us. But, so, growing up in Durban I was quite open about my sexuality and she had only been dating boys before she met me. So, it was quite new and I think our, our start was quite difficult, because she comes from a conservative background. We were living in Stellenbosch, so your general impression is very conservative. I actually came to Stellenbosch with the idea of, you know, coming to marry my, my farmer, farmer man, and that obviously changed from the first day that I was there. But, ja, so things started off, like, she made the first move and then…

Uncertain.

Ja, and then it took us, took us a while to say, listen we’re serious about this, we want to do this. But ja, I mean looking back it was obviously the best decision we could have made. And it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. So, ja, and, and, we’re ten years later.

Hasn’t been easy personally? I mean, all relationships are difficult, but do you think it was more difficult maybe?

I think so. I think being, especially being at Stellenbosch, being with her, being from her, the background…

It is still not the norm.

Ja, ja. I think, there’s no need to beat around the bush, it’s not the norm at the moment. For me it’s the norm, but, and for her now it is also the norm. It just took a little bit of time. And I think we got to a stage where we both felt comfortable to be open about it. And that’s one thing I, I really liked about the, the refereeing society, and the local society. I didn’t introduce her as my friend, she was: this is my girlfriend and it was fiancée and then it was wife. And they loved her from day one. So, I mean credit to her an amazing personality, but ja, I, I’m really grateful that she has been embraced like that. So, for us, we just, we, we, it’s our normal life, and we treat it as normal.

And the, the decision to formalise it, to get married? How did that happen?

So, it took a, it took a little while. I’m, I am not a fan of commitment, but it was important for me to show her that I am committed to this. And, especially because it was different to how she envisioned her life and maybe different to how her parents thought she was gonna end up. It was important for me personally just to commit to her to say listen, I’m committed, I’m in this, I love you, let’s do life together.

And to make it public.

Ja, ja. And then, then, from our personal life I thought, I thought it was important for other people to see that it is possible, and we are happy. And whether you, whatever relationship you are in yourself, you can be who you want to be, and you can be happy. And I think it’s important for others, especially those younger than us, to see that it’s normal, and you don’t have to worry about other people judging you. People are gonna do what they’re gonna do, but you do you and I’ll do me, and, and we’re happy, you know?

And the physical space? Where do you live, why did you choose it?

So, I, we live in the southern suburbs in, in Cape Town. Growing up in Durban I never thought I’d leave I now always have a special place in my heart for Durban. But when I moved to, when I was studying at Stellenbosch, I ventured out into Cape Town and fell in love with, fell in love with it. And it’s, it’s ironic actually, my, my dad’s family grew up in the area that I live in now and it’s, it’s quite nice for me to have family close to home. I think growing up in Durban it was just my immediate family and my mom’s side of the family come from England. So it was, it was quite a, an adventure, but it only happened every couple of years to go and see them. So now I have family close by. And I also like a quiet space. I think life can be very hectic and I need some switch-off time, very family-orientated, ja.

And what’s your, what’s your home like? What sold it to you? Is it light, is it big windows, is it trees? What do you, what do you look for?

I, I don’t think I’m too specific and it’s gonna sound really cheesy, but home is more the people.

Ja.

So, the fact that my wife is there and my very fluffy cat. I’m happy. Like, I could have anything, it’s not a very big house, but we have everything we need. And I think growing up, I, you have these dreams, like when I grow up, I’m gonna be rich and I’m gonna have this massive house with these beautiful cars…and I realised you don’t need that. I have everything I need. I have the people in my life that I need and I have space, there’s, it’s important for me to have a little bit of quiet space as well. And, ja, we’re very happy.

Well, all of the very, very best, and I hope every one of those dreams comes true.

Thank you so much.

And thank you for spending time with us.

Thank you.

Until next time, goodbye.