Colby Santana ’23 Playing International Rugby in Central Asia

By Tom Porter

Not many people can say they have played international beach rugby against Russia, but that is just one of Colby Santana 23’s recent experiences as a Fulbright scholar, and rugby player, in Central Asia.

colby santana w cup
Enjoying life, rugby, and winning prizes in Central Asia

Santana, who majored in Russian and captained the Bowdoin men’s rugby team, landed in Kyrgyzstan in September to take up a Fulbright English teaching assistant post—one of fifteen seniors to be awarded the highly competitive fellowship back in May 2023.

This is Santana’s second visit to the mountainous, landlocked, former Soviet republic: He spent the summer of 2022 in Kyrgyzstan brushing up his language skills on a US State Department-funded Critical Language Scholarship (the same body that sponsored Santana on an eight-week trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, this summer, where he worked with Ukrainian refugees—but that’s another story!)

During his 2022 trip to Kyrgyzstan, the powerfully built Santana was able to link up with the country’s national rugby team, where he had the incredible experience of being a player, a trainer, a translator, and even a TV commentator.

Santana was plunged straight back into the world of rugby on his return to Kyrgyzstan. “In my first weekend, I played in the Issyk Kul international beach games against the Russian national beach rugby team. Who knew they had one of those? I played several matches in a round-robin-style tournament and, although we lost big time to the Russians, we had a good time and no one got injured!”

A month later, Santana played for a regional team in the Kyrgyz National Rugby seven-a-side tournament. Not only did his team win the competition but Santana was also named “a champion of Kyrgyz rugby.”

Next stop was Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he represented his adopted country in the “Central Asian Rugby 7s tournament,” playing against the national teams of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

“Our team ended up getting bronze. I got slightly injured in one of the games, but I’m doing all right,” said Santana. Besides, he added, the bumps and bruises are worth it as it’s all in the cause of sporting diplomacy!

“Colby is such an impressive and commendable young man,” said Bowdoin men’s rugby coach Gareth Thomas, who recalls how Santana, in his final year, captained the team to its first silverware in over ten years.

“In his senior year, Colby won the Greg Apraham Award, which is given for displaying teamwork, grit, and mental toughness," said Roberts. "Colby was never one to shirk the hard work that often goes unnoticed on the rugby field, often putting his head in some pretty dark places, never backing down from a challenge. He has always been one to lead by example and from the front, something that he does both on and off the field.”