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Denise Roy – A Return to Rugby, Playing for Herself

It’s okay. You can call it a comeback.

Denise Roy hasn’t played a single minute of rugby in more than three years.

The last time Roy walked off a rugby pitch was in The Bahamas in the summer of 2017, having helped Canada capture a silver medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games.

The product of Duncan, BC, has barely even touched a rugby ball since.

This Fall, in a few short weeks, Roy will return to rugby, joining the Trinity Western University Spartans.

“I just want to enjoy the sport again,” Roy says. “I always love a good opportunity for a new adventure. I’m excited to reconnect with some of the rugby people out there and see where it takes me.”

Roy is sitting at an outdoor café on Water Street within Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood.

She describes her journey in detail. These days, her mental well-being is better.

“I feel I am mentally stronger now. Still to this day, it’s not like I don’t have anxiety or panic attacks, but I’m just so much more aware of when they’re going to happen and how to control them and I can potentially work through it.”

Three years ago it was different.

In the fall of 2016, a 16-year-old Roy was an up-and-coming rugby star. She was a carded athlete with Rugby Canada’s women’s Sevens program and was going to the Canadian Sport School while also attending Belmont Secondary in Langford, BC. She teemed with potential, and her international resume was quickly building.

After first picking up the sport in Grade 9 – in the Fall of 2013 at Cowichan Secondary School and, soon after, joining the Cowichan Rugby Club – Roy was a star-in-the-making. She had speed in her genes – her Dad had played football at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec – and she was already a bit of a track star.

From a distance, it didn’t take long for the Brentwood College girls’ rugby coach Marius Felix to see rugby talent in Roy, suggesting she join the side in Mill Bay, BC after less than a year since she’d picked up the game. At first she declined. But shortly after an early-season contest in the fall of 2014 between Cowichan Secondary, for which Roy was playing, and Brentwood, she took up Felix’s offer, transferring to the rugby-centric school down the road. As a Grade 10 student-athlete, Roy made an immediate impact with her new team, helping Brentwood capture provincial titles in both Sevens and 15s in 2015. Her success begat a string of international opportunities.

Following Brentwood’s provincial championship in 15s, Roy, who had by then been scouted by Rugby Canada Women’s Sevens assistant coach Sandro Fiorino, was invited to play with the Maple Leafs in the Canadian University 7s National Championships. She was 15 years old playing against university-aged players – while also playing alongside future Sevens stars Charity Williams (who was 18 at the time) and Caroline Crossley (17). Roy scored three tries in the tournament.

Pause for a second.

Think about the crazy fast track Roy was riding.

The following year, in 2016, she represented Team BC for the second straight year at the Las Vegas Invitational before donning the provincial shirt for the U18 national championship. There, she helped Team BC win it all, alongside future Trinity Western teammate Tausani Levale, who would also play with Roy at the Youth Commonwealth Games.

Soon after the national championship tournament, Canada coach John Tait offered Roy an opportunity to come to Victoria for her Grade 12 year and join Rugby Canada’s senior program. She thought she was realizing “the dream.”

She was doing it all. Except she wasn’t.

That Fall, Roy was balancing regular school with sport school on top of national team training and an international travel schedule, which featured an early-September trip to France, where she represented Canada at the 2016 European U18 Sevens Championships.

This is when Roy started to struggle with her mental health. She was 16 years old and living away from home. She was balancing both a taxing schedule and the pressures of “potential.”

Midway through the Fall semester, she planned to resolve her challenges by stepping out of the classroom and moving to online schooling.

“I just thought there’s no way I can balance this rugby and school thing,” Roy recalls. “At one point, my mental health got worse and worse. At first, I thought if I just focused on rugby, that’d solve my problems. But it just got worse and worse. I tried seeing a psychiatrist and going on medication, but it didn’t help. Being so young, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

“Why am I crying every day and why am I having panic attacks before going to practice?”

While she remained a burgeoning talent on the pitch and was part of Canada’s roster that won gold at the Rugby Americas North Sevens in Trinidad in November 2016, she wasn’t getting better.

Two months later, she walked away from the program.

“At one point, I just realized I needed to step away and I really needed to focus on myself and understand, mentally, what was going on. People would ask me, ‘Why are you so upset?’ and kind of say things like ‘this is literally some people’s dream.’

“Sometimes it’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s definitely a competitive environment but at a young age, it was hard to find my place.

“I had anxiety around going to practice or just going to watch video with the team. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

She played in two more international age-grade tournaments before hanging up her cleats – Fiorino selected Roy to represent Canada at the Tropical 7s tournament and then again at the Youth Commonwealth Games. Then, that was it.

“After the Youth Commonwealth Games, I felt like I had made the right decision. For me, the biggest thing was just my mental health. Nothing was getting better. I really had to take myself out of the entire situation and start fresh.”

Now, this here isn’t a story about quitting. It’s a story about resilience.

Roy was always an athlete. Suddenly she wasn’t, as she moved home and got away from it all.

“I just started from square one.

“I tried to focus on not crying every day and not being so anxiety-filled. I just tried to take it day-by-day.”

In a sense, she disappeared from the rugby community – laying low on social media while finding her way down various paths and many serving positions that took her from Squamish to Victoria to Turks and Caicos (a random job posting made way for her work in a restaurant in the Caribbean for six months) to Haida Gwaii to Tofino to – most recently – Vancouver.

“It was a huge learning curve for me,” Roy says, reflecting back on her last three years. “I didn’t really know much about anything surrounding mental health, anxiety or depression. It’s just an overwhelming emotional feeling that I can’t shake.

“Accepting it is the first step, for sure. Then, you need to surround yourself with good people. Having that support system is what is going to help you get through everything.”

A year ago, when Roy decided to move to Tofino, she did so with plans to return to school this fall. Rugby wasn’t necessarily going to be part of the equation. But maybe.

At the same time, she continued to grapple with finding an identity outside of sports.

“It was hard because I was always known as the athlete. Now, knowing myself without that label was huge for me.”

Upon seeking her educational opportunities, Roy felt like Trinity Western, which is based in Langley, BC, was a perfect fit and the upstart rugby program – one that competes in Sevens within the Canada West conference – was just right for her return.

“I decided I’m ready to dip my foot back into rugby,” says Roy, who plans to study kinesiology at TWU. “I’m a competitive person. I definitely miss it. Now I’m ready for it.

“I wanted to be at a smaller and well-connected school. After talking to Andy , I was sold. The support and the community that is being built within the team was really important for me. There’s always a family dynamic with sports and I’m hoping to find that close-knit group of people at Trinity.”

Evans, who launched TWU’s men’s and women’s rugby programs in the fall of 2019, is confident she’s found a place where she will flourish.

“I think she’s going to be a really good fit with us. She’s about more than rugby and her identity isn’t wrapped up solely in sports. I like that.

“On the pitch, she’s really fast, but she’s also agile, which is sometimes rare from a track and field athlete. And she’s also able to smash people, which is awesome. She’s really athletic and physical and I can’t wait to see her with us.”

Former Team Canada teammate Madison Grant, who walked a similar path as Roy – leaving the women’s sevens program amidst struggles with mental health before joining the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in the fall of 2019 – sees a deep inspiration within Roy’s return.

“Her coming back speaks a lot more volume than people can comprehend,” says Grant. “It’s hard to understand how much of a jump this is for her. I nearly completely stopped playing rugby. So, for Denise, coming back is huge. I think it’s inspiring for people who have gone through similar experiences but maybe have never returned. She’s listening to what she wants and she’s playing rugby for herself and no one else. She’s making it her choice.”

Finally, of course, there was the Sani effect.

The Spartans captain, Tausani Levale, who is capped with both Canada’s Sevens and 15s teams, is helping to define the culture within TWU’s rugby program. A conversation with Levale inspired Roy and cemented her decision.

In short, Roy wants to fall in love with rugby again and she wants to be with a family.

“…and I just thought if your team is even half of what Sani is like, that’s where I want to be.”