With a gold medal around her neck, rugby captain Jen Kish was feeling pretty pleased that she took the advice of her high school football coach to take up rugby instead.
“I don’t think I would have had a long career in that,” Kish said, grinning.
Now, she and her teammates are the first ever women’s rugby sevens champions of the Pan Am Games and they’ve already booked their trip to the Olympic debut of the sport next summer in Rio.
The Canadian women’s rugby team became one of the best in the world at this fast-growing and fast-paced version of rugby while, mostly, flying under the radar here at home.
Sunday night, before a crowd of some 18,000 people – the largest for a sevens rugby match in Canada – they crushed the Americans 55-7 to win gold. Argentina won bronze.
They gave their fans a little scare early on when they conceded a try — the first time they’ve ever been behind in the weekend tournament — but they came back quickly and by the end of the 10-minute half were leading 26-7.
Ranked second in the world behind rugby powerhouse New Zealand, the Canadians were expected to be in the gold medal at the Pan Am Games.
What wasn’t expected was how thoroughly dominating their performance would be. They were undefeated in six matches and, but for their two matches with the U.S., blanked every other opponent.
“This is probably the best performance of our year,” head coach John Tait said, after the final.
“We were clinical after that first try with the US, settled down took a deep breath, Kish, I know, pulled them in and told them to relax and they really started to fire from there. For 18, 19 minutes that probably the best rugby we played all year,” he said.
That’s saying something given this team has already won a women’s rugby series title this year, and qualified for the Rio Olympics.
“We had three goals this year,” Tait said. “Qualify for Rio, win a world series event, and the last goal we had this season was to come here and win a gold medal.”
“Setting goals and achieving them is a big part of this program’s success and it’s all building to the biggest step, which is gold in Rio.”
The crowd was thunderous in its cheers for the Canadians and spectators were on their feet for every moment of the action, which in a rugby sevens match is constantly. But it was all “white noise” to the players, Kish said
“The girls did a great job they tuned out the crowd, as much as we could feel the crowd behind us but as for noise we were very tuned into each other and that’s why we played so well today.”
That was an important Olympic stepping stone for this team.
In April, at a heavily promoted tournament in the Victoria suburb of Langford, B.C. — the home of Canadian rugby — the squad got caught up in the pressure of playing before family and friends and finished a disappointing sixth, their worst result of the world series season.
This time they had only eyes and ears for each other on the pitch. Right afterwards, it was a different story. Their family, friends and fans were all they could think about.
“We got to do a lap around the field and share our win the crowd, the Canadian fans,” Kish said.
“There are many more great days for this team. You can expect many more trophies from us and building towards Rio.”
- This story has been updated from an earlier version