The Gleneagle Talons senior girls' rugby team was two days away from departing for a Spring Break trip to their sport’s birthplace in England when the COVID-19 pandemic grounded their flight and sidelined them from competitive matches for more than a year.
Still, four of its senior players will be headed to post-secondary programs in the fall.
Landing those offers has taken resilience, fortitude and a large measure of commitment said Talons’ head coach Simon Quinto.
After a year of so much disruption and uncertainty, the step to the next level — from high school to university — may feel bigger and more daunting than it would otherwise.
But the very same physical and mental challenges of continuing to develop as rugby players who couldn’t actually play should help them meet them head on, said Natalie Hill, who’s off to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in September.
“If we can handle COVID, we can handle anything,” she said.
Not that it was easy, said another future Thunderbird, Sarah Fong. Limited to socially-distanced non-contact practices and individual workout regimes because of public health restrictions deprived them of one of rugby’s fundamental aspects, dishing out and taking big hits.
“Everything was taken away from us,” said Gabriela Cross, who will be on the rugby and wrestling teams at the University of Calgary.
“Without it, it’s just sad,” Fong said.
So the players had to dig deep to find the motivation to keep going, to capture the fun and camaraderie that attracted them to the sport in the first place even as they all had to stay apart.
“You want to practice, because you know you are going to be going on,” said Rachel Wood, who will be playing at Trinity Western University (TWU).
With Quinto as their guide, providing training plans and setting goals, the players got busy almost as soon as the first lockdowns were imposed in spring 2020.
Most joined gyms so they could work on their strength and conditioning. They did video workouts together then chatted with each other online afterward, cementing their bond as a team. When they trained individually, they shared photos of their efforts over social media.
On the day the team would have been competing for a provincial high school championship, everyone went on a run, then posted their results.
“It gave us an opportunity to compete and celebrate our achievements,” Hill said.
While workouts in the gym and running socially-distanced plays on the pitch helped keep the players physically sharp, honing their mental acuity that comes from making quick decisions in a game under pressure from opponents eager to strip them of the ball or throw them to the ground was another matter.
Quinto gave his charges visualization tasks, talked about various scenarios they might encounter in a game and their appropriate responses.
“They’re always wanting to learn more, always asking questions,” he said.
Even though the players were never able to battle test the lessons their coach taught them, Hill said she knew she was progressing when she could watch videos of rugby matches and determine how she would react as plays unfolded.
But the true measure of the seniors’ year off that was anything but will come as they take the pitch with their new teams, alongside women bigger, stronger, and more experienced.
For some, that means a summer of anxious anticipation.
“Everything will be new again,” Fong said. “We’ll have to learn how to work with new teammates, learn how to communicate with each other.”
Others are more sanguine. After the year they’ve just been through, taking the next step is just another thing to take in stride.
“Once I get into it, it will all come back,” Hill said.
Their coach offers reassurance; nobody at any level has been able to play rugby for more than a year.
“Everyone is in the same boat,” Quinto said. “Everyone will have the same concerns.”