Sometimes in sports, certain athletes remain ingrained in your memory. For me, Kayla Mack is one of those athletes.
She’s the girl who was constantly smiling, doing cartwheels on the field and loudly cheering on every member with an unflappable energy. I remember her giving everything 100 per cent, even in running practices. While some of us hid behind the hill, Kayla pushed herself every step of the way, showing an incredible drive for excellence.
That’s why I am not surprised she was the only Saskatchewan representative on the Canadian rugby team that just had its best run in history in the World Cup.
I caught Kayla for a few minutes during her whirlwind return to Saskatoon, just days after finishing with a silver medal. Canada lost the final game against England in Paris.
“It’s still just crazy to be home,” she said. “You’re there for a month. It’s the most intense tour you’ve ever been on, and everybody is at their best. This is it; women retire after this. This is where I want to be.
“I lived, breathed and ate rugby.”
She’s an ear-to-ear smile kind of girl. The same energy that she had as a kid, the same drive I remember from soccer, remains. When I asked her what she contributes to Team Canada, she is honest about her role.
“When I was younger I wasn’t overly skilled or super athletic, but I worked really hard. I guess the reason that I originally got scouted, and the reason I’m still there, is that I’m essentially just a workhorse. I go and go and go until I can’t go anymore. That’s always been my thing.”
Her thing worked. After quitting her job to train full-time, Kayla put all her eggs in one basket, a basket that was called Team Canada. Though the official roster came out July 1, Kayla and her teammates found out around two weeks prior to the release.
“It was so exciting, and also a little bit relieving. I knew if I didn’t make the team, that would have been the last four years of my life working up to this gone,” she said. “That email came, and there was that pit in my stomach. I opened it and it said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected.’ I couldn’t stop smiling for days.”
Kayla travelled with Team Canada to Paris for the beginning of the tour on Aug. 1. Going into the tournament, she had confidence in her team’s ability to produce wins.
“I think we knew that if we performed that we could make it to the top. We knew that we had a team. If we came together and we peaked at the right time, then it was possible.”
She was right. After battling their way through country after country, Canada made it to the final on Aug. 17 against England. Friends and family from around the world watched on television, including Kayla’s baba (grandma), who “probably has no idea what is going on,” she said.
After what Kayla called the most physical match of her life, it came down to the wire in the final minutes.
“Half the time I wasn’t breathing. Once I got on there, it was so quick. It was so physical. Little things would happen. Something wouldn’t fall our way. We wouldn’t catch a pass. A ball would get stolen. I was so confident we were going to get one more and it just didn’t happen.
“I think anyone who has played sports knows that coming off a loss is tough. The moment the whistle blew, we all stopped and looked at each other and we were just like, ‘We were so close.’ ”
I admire Kayla for her honesty and transparency after the tough loss. When I asked her about future plans, she is already thinking about the next World Cup in three years. Rugby is her life now, and she can’t imagine what it would be like without her team, her teammates and her passion.
“I almost didn’t go to my first rugby opportunity, and I am eternally grateful that I did. I’ve seen the world and I’ve met the most amazing people that I probably will ever meet.”
A Saskatchewan girl through and through, Kayla is still thinking of others in her home province. Though most universities in Canada now have a rugby team, the University of Saskatchewan hasn’t put up a roster yet.
“I think Saskatoon is ready for rugby. It’s a growing city. There’s so many young people moving here, and there’s so much opportunity for it to grow. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports in Canada, and it’s going to hit us, hopefully sooner than later. And, when it does, I hope to be a big part of that.”
The next step for Kayla is a move to Victoria in September to train with Canada’s national sevens team. One thing is certain: Wherever this friendly, self-dubbed “workhorse” goes, she will make Saskatchewan proud.