Boarding

Laura Russell

"When I was growing up, we used to go and watch my dad play rugby. I pretty much grew up on the sidelines of the rugby pitch, playing with my dolls and tossing around the rugby ball with my two sisters and our friends. I always remember at the end of each of my dad’s games we would happily pull off his gross, sweaty and smelly tape that he had on because we thought it was so cool! Everything about the sport was so exciting to us and we would always say that we, too, were going to play rugby just like our dad when we grew up.
I grew up with my parents and my sisters in Toronto. Eventually, we moved to Bolton. Even though we moved, we would still commute to play at the Toronto Nomads Rugby Club, which was almost two hours away.
 
Women’s rugby was growing while I was going through high school. I was lucky to have a group of girls that I grew up playing with all through my junior years and into university, and I feel very lucky to call some of them my best friends today. I played my first senior game when I was in grade 9 against a Scottish Tour side—they chucked me out on the wing and that’s where it all began!
 
The support that the Nomads gave my family growing up, especially my sister Kelly and I, as we embarked from Club level to Provincial level to eventually the National level, has been unbelievable. They have been our biggest supporters and I am so grateful to all the people at the club for all they have done. Without that community I would not be where I am today.
 
I was very fortunate to have had some incredible coaches over the years. Natasha Wesch, who was my Provincial coach and who later became my coach at Western University, was one of those amazing coaches. Not only was she an incredible coach, but she was also an inspiring leader. She helped shape me as an athlete and instilled the dedication and drive that I needed to play at the next level. She was tough and made us work hard, but that’s exactly what I was drawn to and wanted from a coach. So many of the girls that she coached not only went on to have successful rugby careers, but also went on to do great things and, more importantly, became amazing people—this stemmed from what Tash taught us.
 
My sister Kelly ended up choosing Western because of Tash. I quickly followed when it was my turn to choose a university, since we were inseparable especially when it came to sport. Soon, my other sister, Jenn, came as well. It was so special to share that experience together and it definitely made our bond as sisters become even stronger.
 
Growing up, my sisters and I were very competitive and driven, and wanted to always be the best we could be in whatever sport we were playing. Since they were older, I had to work hard to play with them, but that motivation to play alongside my sisters was definitely pivotal in my success in rugby.
 
My oldest sister, Jenn, has been my biggest cheerleader. She has always told me that I could do anything that I put my mind to. Her support, encouragement and advice instilled the confidence that I needed in order to be successful. My other sister, Kelly, and I played many years of rugby together representing Canada at the 15s level. Kelly also played sevens, and ended her career representing Canada at the Olympics where she won a bronze medal. Kelly is an unbelievable athlete, leader and person. I am so grateful that I get to call both of these strong, incredible and inspiring women my sisters.
Our poor parents—I don’t know how they did it! My parents have been the most amazing, loving and supportive people. They were our biggest fans, driving us countless hours to and from practices, taking down stats, and cheering proudly at all of our games from the sidelines all over the world. No matter what we wanted to do, our parents were always willing to support us in our goals and for that I am eternally grateful. My parents made and still make a lot of sacrifices for us and we wouldn’t be where we are today without their support.
 
My first cap for Rugby Canada was in 2011. Since then, I have represented Canada in 48 caps, played in two World Cups and I now have the honour of captaining the Women’s National Team. Our program was built by all the women that came before us, and we hear from a lot of them who come back to visit or coach and it’s inspiring. It is challenging now, but it was even more challenging back then, and their strength and determination then is what pushes us now to carry on their legacy—to fight to keep making it better for women in rugby and in all sport.
 
When I started playing back in 2011, I was part of that era of “Pay to Play.” When we had to pay to wear the Canadian jersey. It didn’t matter though—we did whatever it would take, because everyone was so passionate about the sport and wanted to represent Canada. The energy of the team, along with the passion and drive that everyone had for rugby, just drew you in. You knew you would do whatever it took to be a part of the team. I believe it is important to remind people about the history of women’s rugby, to remember where we came from to where we are today. Even the free clothes we now get and the tours we go on weren’t even a possibility too long ago. It is still not easy, but we are working on making things better.
 
We are lucky to have some awesome supporters of women’s rugby. The Monty Heald Fund has been instrumental to our women’s program. Because of this fund, launched as we were preparing to head into the 2014 World Cup, for the first time we didn’t have to pay out of our own pockets to go on tour. Donations to this fund are what allow us to go on tour and have the things we need in order to be successful—we would not be able to do what we do without it. Thank you so much to the Monty Heald Fund and everyone who donates—you are helping women in sport reach their potential.
 
Even though playing on the National Team is a full time job, it’s just one of my jobs, which is the case for most of the women. Most everyone on the team is either a full time student or has a full time job, not to mention some who are mothers as well. All of the women work incredibly hard, and take time off from their jobs in order to go on tour and to attend the World Cup. It takes a village to support us and we are all very lucky to have incredible people supporting us—the sacrifices that those around us have made to represent our country have been amazing.
 
I came to Shawnigan because of my coach, and current staff member, Gary Dukelow, who is like another father figure to me. Shawnigan had always had an internship for Men’s Rugby National team members and, in 2013, they opened it up for the women as well. Thanks to Gary, I got the internship and was so excited to have the opportunity to live and work at Shawnigan while I continued to train and play.
 
The community at Shawnigan has been incredible and I am very grateful for everyone who helped me and cheered me on over the past couple of years. Even though I am still currently playing, the School continues to support me and has never held me back from going off to represent my country.
 
After my internship, I ended up getting a full-time job working in the transportation office, which was amazing. I also got the opportunity to become the coach of the girls’ rugby team. Coaching at Shawnigan has been the most incredible opportunity and has had a huge impact on me as a both a player and a person.
 
When I started with the program there were about 15 girls on the team, but now there are 35-40 signed up to play. We now have the potential to have two teams which is unreal! Watching the change rugby has had on the girls who choose to play has been incredible. Not only is it great to see so many girls out playing the game, but also for them to become proud of being strong and powerful young women. It is inspiring to watch our girls find their potential and to become stronger people, both inside and out, in the process.
 
There’s a place for everyone in rugby at Shawnigan. No matter your size, shape, skill or experience level, you will always be welcomed in. If you go in and work hard, you will find yourself an immediate family.
 
The Shawnigan women who came before us—the “Iron Women” from the 90s—have played an important role in shaping our current team. Many of them have come to speak to the team, and learning the history of these women who had to fight to just start a rugby program, is inspiring and helps to push our girls to make their own impact during their time at Shawnigan.
 
The skills and lessons we teach our students in sport at Shawnigan, such as working hard, being a team player, and leading by example, are all things we hope they will take with them into the real world after they graduate.
 
Our students are lucky to have strong female role models amongst the staff who live the School’s values and, therefore, inspire young girls to live them as well. These amazing women are not only good at their jobs, but are equally amazing people. I think it’s such a great example for the girls at Shawnigan to be surrounded by people like this.
 
I met my fiancé, Ray, while working at the School. He has been so supportive, especially since he understands what it’s like to live the life of a rugby player as he was also on the national team. It has been incredible to create this life together, but to also have his support in all that I do has been immeasurable. He has always pushed me to be my best and vice versa. We have a crazy life. Although we both played rugby, our experience and obstacles in the sport (male vs. female) have been different. But he has been so supportive and is always pushing for my best interest and those of my teammates, sometimes more than me! It is because he knows that it is important to raise awareness of the inequalities that still exist (he was raised by a strong mother and he has sisters), and he understands what we go through as women.
 
Strong men support strong women, and I am very grateful for men like my dad, Gary, and Ray who helped me every step of my journey.
 
No matter what your thing is at Shawnigan, keep looking for inspiration, and surround yourself with people who are looking to share in the experience and who will support you along the way.
 
Anything is possible and, at Shawnigan, we empower our students (especially our girls) by giving them opportunities to lead and to be successful. They can try anything they want and are encouraged to learn, work hard and lead, and I think that’s just another way that Shawnigan is making a positive impact on the world."
 
- From an interview with Laura Russell - Transportation Department, Coach, Women's National Rugby team
 
Make a donation to the Monty Heald Fund in support of Rugby Canada’s Women’s XV program here: https://canadianrugbyfoundation.ca/.../monty-heald.../
Back
Shawnigan Lake School is an independent boarding school for Grades 8-12 on Canada's West Coast. Our diverse and innovative programming helps shape the next generation of global leaders.