The Brazilian player's special moment at the Rio Sevens captured imaginations. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in October.
Izzy Cerullo on internet fame after her engagement at the Olympic Games
IT ALL happened so fast.
At the end of the women’s sevens competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, volunteer manager Marjorie Enya publicly proposed to her girlfriend Izzy Cerullo, a player for Brazil.
The internet was set ablaze. Looking back on it now, Cerullo explains the pair’s reaction to their sudden fame.
“It was a strange, surreal experience!” the now 27-year-old says. “We weren’t actually expecting any of that to go viral. Marjorie’s intentions, when she proposed, were for it to be a small thing with her venue staff, because that was her family in Rio for the year when she worked there for the Olympics.
“It was supposed to be a contained thing but then someone alerted the press and it got a bit out of hand, if you will. Because it’s a really personal thing, we didn’t realise it’d be so (popular).
“I knew there were cameras around but – it sounds really cheesy now – I was so focused on her, I didn’t see what was happening. The next day I turned my phone on and it almost exploded because of all the notifications!”
Widely praised and an instant hit online, the pitchside proposal became one of the highlights of the Rio Games. Enya said at the time that the proposal was a smash because “love wins”.
As qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics begins for the men’s and women’s teams on the world circuit, Cerullo – who has been married to Enya for just over a year now – reflects on the legacy of the couple’s viral moment.
Related: Rugby Sevens World Cup Highlights
“We had a moment of realising the impact of what we had done and that it is newsworthy because it’s not a normal occurrence in the modern day. We hope that eventually it won’t be (so out of the ordinary) but while it still is, we’ll keep being political about sharing our love, because love will always win. Eventually the world will be a place where we just say, ‘Aw, two people got engaged.’
“The proposal said a lot about gender politics in sport, not just in Brazil but also coming after the Sochi Winter Olympics. It was a huge turnaround to have a moment that was supported by rugby but also by the Olympic movement.
“It was a huge 180° (turn) after Sochi where it is pretty much criminalised behaviour to be gay or show affection on the street. You could be put in jail… or worse.”
Cerullo then gives us an insight into what it is like being homosexual in modern-day Brazil.
“In Brazil you have your pockets of safe space and São Paulo, where we live, is definitely one of those pockets. But Brazil as a nation has one of the worst rates of murder of transgender people and is a pretty homophobic country. Most Latin American countries are because they’re Catholic-based.
“We feel that dichotomy, that if we’re outside of São Paulo – if we’re walking together in the street or something – we have to be a bit more discreet, which is unfortunate. We do feel pretty safe at home, where we live.”
Cerullo is now a vice-captain with Brazil, which is an impressive rise for an athlete who only saw her first game of rugby in her second year of university.
Whilst studying for degrees in biology and human rights at New York’s Columbia University, the 19-year-old, New Jersey-born Cerullo was taken to see a match. The daughter of Brazilian immigrants, she had excelled at soccer and at one point considered football as a profession. However, her parents pushed her to put academia ahead of all other pursuits. She was at Columbia with the express plan to earn degrees that would help her to go on to study medicine as a postgraduate degree.
Having been bitten by the rugby bug though, Cerullo reached a crossroads upon graduating. While she weighed up her options for going to medical school, someone alerted her to a plea from the land of her parents’ birth for expat athletes to come back to Brazil and try out ahead of the Olympics.
In 2014, Cerullo moved to Brazil, a place she hadn’t been to since she was nine. She began a rugby voyage, honing her craft in a sport she had a limited amount of experience in. It was a fun challenge.
It was at this point that Cerullo met Enya, who was team manager of the women’s side at the time – their discreet tryst would grow into so much more.
The pair have further ambitions in rugby. Cerullo’s drive is to perform on the field, while Enya’s is to work on the sidelines. Their one-year anniversary was disrupted by
Enya working for World Rugby at the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco earlier this year – an event that Cerullo played in for Brazil. The athlete intones: “Hopefully there’s another Olympics in both our futures!”
What of Brazilian rugby? In soccer-mad South America, is being a full-time rugby player as much an ambassadorial role for you as it is an athletic one?
“That’s almost exactly right,” Cerullo says. “Every time we go somewhere in Brazil they’ll open it up to the public and incentivise kids to get active. It gives them access to sports spaces. It’s cool.
“The thing about rugby that goes against sports culture in Brazil is that if you work hard you can be great at it. In Brazil there’s a culture based on the history of amazing footballers, that they’re talented – they wake up and everything they do is beautiful to watch.
“That’s really built into how Brazilians feel about sports. They cheer for a team, they win and it looks easy. So when you tell someone that with rugby you just have to work hard, it puts a knot in people’s brains! ‘How does that work? How can you be good at sport if you’re not super-talented?’
“So when you do convert someone, who says that it’s okay to let their daughters play rugby, you do feel victorious.”
There is a big year ahead. There is of course Olympic qualification, which is a big carrot for the Brazilians, who were there as hosts last time. Then there is the Pan-American Games on the horizon, in 2019.
It is widely believed that the Brazilians are well ahead of their other South American rivals, but that they are a step or two behind the programmes of Canada and USA. This is the season to take those more famous sides down, proposes Cerullo.
This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in October.