Jen Kish’s plan was to finish the year.
Her body had other plans.
“I love rugby and I had every intention to finish out the year,” she said Monday after announcing to the world that she’d played her last game of rugby sevens in Red and White.
“Sometimes you don’t get what you want.”
Make no mistake: in the world of rugby sevens, the former Canadian captain has been a superstar. There was a time when she was the best forward in the women’s game. And her personality — not to mention her vast collection of tattoos — radiated for all to see.
She led her team to a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, fulfilling what she said was a childhood dream. She led the Canadians to silver at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup. And there was wire-to-wire dominance to win gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
In the end, the woman from Edmonton just wanted to go out on top.
She’d been dealing with the after-effects of a pair of slipped discs suffered months before the Olympics in 2016 and then a torn hip labrum suffered a year ago.
She’d soldiered on into the 2017-18 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series campaign and had already declared this would be her last year on the circuit after having given up the captaincy to her old friend and longtime teammate Ghislaine Landry, but she did hope there would a home-field finish.
But with the Canada Sevens in Langford just a few weeks away, the writing was on the wall and she made the call.
Maybe she could have rehabbed her injuries, recovering in time to play again next year, but in her heart, that wasn’t in the cards.
“I know my body’s limits, I knew I was nearing the end of what my body could take,” she said. “There’s no doubt I could keep playing, but it wouldn’t be playing the best rugby that I could be.
“I didn’t want to leave the game playing poor rugby. I didn’t want to be remembered as a poor rugby player or as a player who should have retired x number of seasons ago.”
No, she went out her way. Her last appearance for Canada was earlier this year, when she helped the squad win bronze.
“I fortunately had a really good tournament for my last appearance.”
The confirmation of her superstar status came from the response she heard all day on Monday. She said she’d received “thousands” of notifications. She sought to respond to as many as she could. Oh, and yeah, she was working all day too.
“It’s crazy,” she said, with thanks. “To have everyone so interested and supportive, not just from Canada, all around the world. To know i’ve made an impact on people’s lives, it’s amazing.”
“A lot of people have contributed to my success, to be able to thank them…it’s the least that I could do.”
“The last time i had this many (messages) was when we won bronze. It’s like I’m reliving that moment. A lot of messages of inspriation and a lot of people thanking me for service.”
Hello, rest of Jen’s life.
She said she woke up Monday and when the announcement went out, reality finally hit.
“It’s real,” she said she thought. “My heart kind of sank a bit…I didn’t know how the world was going to react.”
“I think I’ve let people down because I haven’t finished the season out. But on the other hand people have so clearly understood.
“Life is bigger than a rugby pitch.”
She said when she told her dad Steve that she was going to make it official before the sevens season was over, he said he was surprised.
She’d always carried through to the end of her commitments, he’d pointed out. But he also said she’d already surprised him in another way.
“He told me, ‘I’m shocked you’re still playing…you’ve done everything you could in the sport. Why are you still putting yourself through the stress?’”
“Retiring mid-season that was a little more shocking to him. He knew I finished things. In this point, I fell short of my goal. But then he said: ‘You still went further than I thought you would.’”
She’s long spoken proudly of the role her father has played in her life. A cancer survivor, his story was shared far and wide during the Rio Olympics.
“The bronze medal, it was a childhood dream and it came through,” she said. “And I got to do it with my best friends around me, in front of my dad.”
The thing she’ll most miss about playing is the camaraderie of working with a group towards a goal.
“I’m going to miss watching the girls putting on their jerseys before games,” she said.
She’s now back in Edmonton, working as a personal trainer, coaching rugby, doing public speaking, learning to be a rugby ambassador and spending more time with her fiancee, Nadene Selewich.
The pair met in 2011. They got engaged about a year later.
Marriage may yet happen, but Kish laughed when asked if they’d tied the knot yet.
“Rugby kept getting in the way, we’ve been engaged for like six years,” Kish said. “Rugby has always come first, now that it’s not a thing anymore…maybe.
“We built a house and we have dogs. “We just agreed to put our money towards other things. I want the wedding, but life is expensive, especially as an amateur athlete.”
Selewich has been Kish’s “rock.”
“She’s seen me at my best and at my worst.”
“She’s seen me in a way people outside my life don’t get to see.”
“She had the same reaction as my dad when I said I wasn’t going to see out the season. She was surprised. I’m grateful to have her by my side.”
And while she’s slowing ramping up her new job, she’s also taking care to just take time.
“I’m super passionate about helping other people achieving their fitness goals, but I’m not fully going full time yet. I still need to enjoy doing nothing after 13 years of training.”
Next month she’s going to be speaking at the Edmonton Public Library as part of the Forward Thinking series.
The focus of the talk, she said, will be simple: “it’s about grit.”
“Grit is always going to be the deciding factor on who succeeds between two equally matched people,” she said.
“It’s also about how, unfortunately, you can’t be everything you want in life, that there are certain limits. But at the end of the day everyone has a gift.
“I’ll be talking about some of my teammates who wanted to go to the Olympics and didn’t make it. They took that moment and turned it into something new. They recognized that you have to match your gift to something and that sometimes it’s not what you thought it was at the start.”
“I’m still working on it. You think something is finally tuned and then you have a new thought.”
When it was pointed out to you how apt the title of the speaking series is for a former rugby forward, she replied: “See, now I have something else to think about putting into my speech.”
Rugby, as a career, has been a joy.
“Damn that was worth it,” she said she’d be thinking about her career twenty years hence.
“I’m just going to be bragging about how great of a life I’ve had and how blessed I’ve been. I got to play a sport at the highest level, against and with amazing athletes. To travel around the world and meet new cultures. I have a story for just about every day, because of all the memories I had.”
She said the biggest mover in her career was her long time coach John Tait. A former women’s hockey player, she’d found rugby as a teen and was quickly made the Alberta junior team and was on the national radar.
She was a starter at the 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup and looked set for a career as a key player for the national women’s XV. But then Tait came calling and…here we are, seven years later.
“John has been instrumental in my career, he’s given me opportunities that other coaches have been reluctant to give me,” she said.
“I was cut from sevens in 2007 but he gave me a shot in 2011. I wasn’t fit, I didn’t know sevens, but for some reason I was on a roster for Hong Kong. He saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had. That’s what makes a good coach.
“He made me better, made me a better person. John is a great person. I would not be where I am today without him.”
Tait paid tribute to his longtime captain in reverse.
“I learned a heck of a lot about coaching, communication and the value of developing strong leaders within the team from her. A lot was by trial and error but the fact we shared some common goals and a love of competing meant we always had common ground to work from when we didn’t see eye to eye on something,” he told Rugby.ca.
“She always led by example on-field, either putting her body on the line to win a ball in the air or on the ground, and never backed down from a challenge, the bigger the one the bigger she played. Off-field she was always advocating for her team, the program’s development and women and sport.”
As Kish and Tait and her teammates built the Canadian squad into a world power, one that was a medal contender at the Olympics, in the background, things only got better.
There are more young women playing rugby than ever, and a whole new generation of young players are knocking on the doors of the national women’s sevens and fifteens squads.
Becoming an Olympic sport brought a new spotlight to the game and it also brought a new reality: money.
“Thirteen years ago we were paying to play and we were wearing oversized kit and we weren’t centralized,” Kish said. “Rugby was trying to establish itself and people didn’t know what it was.
“Now we have a high-performance centre and strength coaches and the best coaching staff and you’re getting paid to play.”
“This generation that’s coming in, they won’t see the struggle of my generation.”
She hopes the sea change that’s happened in Canadian women’s rugby spread far and wide.
“I’d like to see more series stops, I’d like to see more countries put up their hands. I’d like to see more TV coverage, putting it in front of people’s faces. Look at Rio…people were in awe of it.”
But for now, it’s time for home. And it’s time to take a break.