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Karen Paquin: Powerful Leading By Example

Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt Karen Paquin is a marvel. She is the total package; brains and brawn, fearless and fast, a thinker and a doer. And one heck of a rugby player. Give Karen a code, 7s or 15s, and she will perform perfectly in either. But ask her where her heart lies, and she will tell you it’s the fact that there are several kinds of athletes required all in one team for 15s. There is unfinished business for Paquin. Don’t count her out just because she hasn't seen much action of late. She’s rehabbing an injury, but plans to take to the field again soon. Francois Ratier, Paquin’s former 15s coach, puts it very succinctly when asked what makes his former player so amazing. “I was fortunate to have Karen in the National Team,” Ratier says. “She is a tough, skilled, smart and powerful player on the field, and someone very important for the cause of women’s rugby off the field.” Many up-and-coming athletes would agree whole-heartedly. Quebec City’s own 30 year old Karen Paquin is a fiercely vocal proponent of women in sport. All women, all sports. She is a well-spoken cheerleader who can often be seen hailing the successes of younger athletes on social media. She’s also keen on watching rugby grow in Canada from the grass-roots on up. We are very fortunate to have her as a spokesperson for our game. As Ratier says, Karen Paquin leads by example. She is a coach’s dream because she does what is expected of an elite athlete. She’s on time, never complains, plays for the team, and keeps everyone going when doubts start to creep in. In his own words, Ratier says that Paquin would be his “first choice without a doubt.” 7s Coach John Tait echoes that sentiment when he says Paquin “was a fierce competitor and we could always count on her to give everything she had to the team. She intimidated the opposition with her hard running lines and commitment to winning every physical battle she got into.” From her perspective, Karen isn’t entirely prepared to reflect on a career as if it’s something in the past. Despite all she has achieved during her playing days, she is not ready to call it time just yet. Even though as Paquin says “most athletes try to learn from the last game as quickly as possible, then put it away to focus on the next one,” she has agreed to reflect on her years on the field. “When I take time to pause and look back, I feel very fortunate. I was given the opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf multiple times, playing two codes of the sport I love, with some of the greatest people I know. There are some rugby memories that I share with teammates, coaches, friends and family that are so intense and beautiful that they still give me shivers.” When asked why 15s is where her heart lies, Paquin explains that it’s a team-sport that relies on a group of specialists to work together to get the job done. “15s is the most inclusive sport – you need all kinds of athletes to win. I love the intensity of the contact, and the fact that everyone has to put their body on the line for each other. I love that there are so many different tools available; there is no one perfect way to play – you have to adapt and create with your teammates.” Paquin has also been incredibly successful utilizing her skills and speed on the 7s pitch. She also loves the 7s game but for different reasons. When I suggest that her speed and agility seem best utilized in 7s, she agrees: “Yes, I think my body is suited for the open space of 7s. I love how many opportunities you get in a 7s game to create, and that feeling you get when you unlock the defense. The 7s game also really gets my competitive side. You’re always challenging yourself, and the difference between winning and losing your one-on-one battle is often a try one way or the other.” Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick Karen Paquin is methodical. When you watch her running a play on the field you can see her calculating her every move. It’s amazing watching her cat-and-mouse her way to the try line in either code. It’s not every player that can say they’ve had equal success with either side, but Karen Paquin boasts medals of each colour and is extremely proud to have represented the red and white at tournaments both at home and across the world. The first highlight was the 2014 Women’s World Cup silver with Ratier’s 15s team. This was followed in 2015 with the powerful feeling of winning the Pan American Games gold with Tait’s 7s team at home, and then the Olympic 7s bronze in Rio 2016, to round out three medals in three years. Each of these memories has a different meaning attached to it but they are all immense in a different way. In her own words:

Paris 2014 - Defying the Odds: Our 2014 World Cup performance represents the most intense on-field memory. Winning the semi-final in a stadium packed with 18,000 French supporters and about 150 Canadian fans felt like taking down Goliath. As a team, we achieved something that only a handful of people believed we could do at a time when female players still had to pay to play. This World Cup was also the spark that initiated the blossoming of the women's game worldwide with record-breaking viewership.

Toronto 2015 - Winning at Home: The Pan American Games was a very emotional tournament for me personally. I had made the decision to play despite a not-fully-healed broken hand because it was likely going to be the only time that my dad was going to be able to travel to watch me play in an international 7s tournament. My dad is my number one fan and sharing this perfect moment with him was definitely special.

Rio 2016 - My Passion on Your TV: at the first ever Olympic rugby 7s is something that can never be achieved again. As a team, we expected of ourselves nothing less than that, but the tournament didn't go perfectly. We had some good early performances, but then we had to overcome an extremely hard semi-final loss. Our ultimate dream had been torn apart and we had to recover in less than 3 hours.

The bronze medal is proof of our collective resilience.

It is only in the days and weeks after the tournament that the real value of our Olympic performance . We started to realize that the whole country had fallen in love with our passion. There is no better feeling than the one you get when a kid comes to you and tells you that he or she wants to play rugby because they watched the Canadian women's team play on TV.”

Paquin uses her obvious passion and eloquence as a representative on the Rugby Canada player’s committee, which she was just re-elected to a few months ago for a second term. She plans to use the new term as a platform for her and others to continue to keep working toward improving all aspects of the women’s programs. Paquin says “It is a very exciting time for the women's game worldwide as some countries are taking huge steps towards the professionalization of the sport. We have the chance to be part of the very fast changing landscape of women's rugby. “During my time, the 7s code Olympics and became professional, while the 15s game abandoned the pay-to-play model. I think the next few years are both exciting and crucial for women's rugby in Canada. We made a massive leap forward during the last year as we were preparing for World Cup.” She adds that she feels very supported in her work by Rugby Canada staff and their Board of Directors. That said, Paquin puts a realistic spin on the financial constraints rugby in Canada faces, and in particular, women. “I won’t lie, this year is not what I had hoped for our women's 15s program, but the road to equity, like any success, isn’t a straight line.” However, despite the uphill battle, she has confidence in the decision makers, and feels the right people are in place to ensure that Canada continues to remain a strong nation within women’s rugby. “The actual context is hitting our program very hard because of the financial consequences of our men's team still having to qualify for their World Cup (and the potential hit that the organization as a whole would take if they don't).” A couple of years ago women's rugby was in trouble and there was a huge backlash against women paying to play. I asked Paquin if all the media attention helped the situation. She replied thoughtfully: “I think we can currently take a measure of how efficient the media were at generating awareness about gender equality within the world of rugby. Most stereotypes were destroyed and Canadian rugby fans got behind their women’s teams. “In the last few days, we saw a great deal of comments on social media. The Canadian rugby community is saying that they no longer accept inequality for genders in rugby. They demand equity from Rugby Canada. This is hugely positive for the next generation of girls getting into the game.” Paquin doesn’t mince words. But she believes that Rugby Canada is working toward improvement. A sentiment shared by many supporters of rugby in Canada, but not all of them. With passionate players such as Karen Paquin on the player committee, bringing their integrity to the table, it goes a long way to restoring dented faith in the organization. When asked about the increasing popularity of women’s rugby in Canada, Paquin elaborates to include all women of sport. “I think it is fair to say that in sport in general, Canadian women rock and I’m happy that rugby is no exception.” When pressed, she admits that success in rugby stems from the dedication women athletes have for the sport, and for playing for each other. Paquin reminisces about driving twelve hours to sleep on a teammates sofa (“or in my car,” she adds) to attend Rugby Québec practices and club games. But she’s quick to add that her story is no exception. After sharing examples of the high level of dedication her teammates have shown over the years, Paquin sums it up: “My point is that if you have someone with that kind of commitment, and you give that athlete a bit of support, a high-performance environment and like-minded teammates and coaches, you obtain the recipe behind the success of both women’s programs. We play for each other because we know that everyone is putting maximum effort toward the same goal.” When asked what’s next for this affable rugby-brained athlete who has lived and breathed her sport the last two decades, Paquin’s answer is as positive and forward-facing as you’d expect. The injury Paquin picked up at World Cup in Ireland last fall resulted in a period of self-reflection, where it was determined that the only way forward is to work hard to rehab and try to get back out there, which she admits is not a given. “I am a realistic person, so I am taking advantage of the opportunity to get back into the workforce and start planning for my post-rugby life. I found a more-than-ideal a part-time job in engineering for a company that supports my rugby engagements. I have also been involved as an Ambassador for sportsmanship for the Government of Québec. The program gives me the opportunity to meet with young athletes to promote the values of sport. The program is awesome as it gives me a direct contact with the next generation.” Karen Paquin is all about the future, and all about nurturing the next generation of athletes. “I believe that it is important for all kids to grow up with an understanding of the challenges regarding equity, as they will be the ones shaping the world real soon.” Karen is a champion of girls in sports, but also hopes to be part of the wave of change that sees inequality in sport cease to exist. But first the short-term goal, the one that fans the flames of passion for her sport. “My goal remains to get back on the field, get game-fit, and hopefully wear the maple leaf again ahead of the next World Cup and Olympics. I am well aware that it will be very hard to fight for a spot. But if I wasn’t ready to fight for it, I wouldn’t deserve it.” If there was ever an athlete who deserved it, Karen Paquin is the one.