Madison Grant and her Rediscovered Love for Rugby
There is a pause on the other side of the phone. It’s short, but just long enough to know something emphatic is about to arrive from the other side.
In a declarative moment, Jen Boyd, the University of Ottawa Women’s Rugby coach, doesn’t waste words.
“If she stays healthy, Madison Grant will be the best rugby player to ever come out of Canada – male or female, sevens or 15s.”
Now the questioner becomes guilty of allowing a silent suspension of conversation. Boyd continues.
“I make that statement boldly and I’ll say it in front of anyone.”
Then Boyd, who had led the Gee-Gees for the last seven years, earning six straight RSEQ (Réseau du Sport Étudiant du Québec) championships, five U SPORTS (Canada’s national governing body for university sport) medals, and an .860 overall winning percentage, brings out the name of a New Zealand legend.
“As far as I’m concerned, she’s at the same level as Portia Woodman.”
There it is.
Boyd spins in her office chair. She drops the mic. Or a pen. Or whatever is at her home office desk.
No she doesn’t. Or, maybe she does.
For Boyd, it’s not some crazy statement she’s rolling with for the likes and the retweets. Nah, she’s all about Grant because the 19-year-old product of Cornwall, Ontario has a toolbox – check that, let’s call it a treasure chest – that very few players can boast.
Now it’s time for Canada Women’s 15s head coach Sandro Fiorino to chime in.
“She has speed, size, strength, skill, and smarts.”
It’s lofty praise indeed, but it comes with a heap of evidence.
Before the age of 20, Grant has already spent two years training with Canada’s national Sevens side in Langford, B.C., represented Canada in various far-flung locales, including both Japan for the Hokkaido 7s (2018) and Argentina for the Summer Youth Olympics (2018). In her return to Ontario in the Fall of 2019, she helped the Gee-Gees win an RSEQ title, and a U SPORTS bronze medal – all while being named the RSEQ Rookie of the Year.
Then, on the heels of her success in the 15s game with Ottawa, she earned her first-ever cap with Canada’s senior team (and her second cap a few days later) in the Can-Am Series in the fall of 2019.
She’s already a star. The proof is abundant. Yet, it’s likely Canadian rugby fans have only witnessed a modicum of what’s to come.
There’s this funny story that rugby players in North America regurgitate almost on demand. The story is the same. It’s been written in this space before. How did you get your start in rugby? “My friend really wanted to try it. She asked me to go with her. I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ and I instantly fell in love with the sport.” The friend is rarely playing the game anymore.
That’s Grant’s story.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, recalling that first practice in the spring of 2015 when she 14 years old. “I didn’t even know the ball had to go backwards. It was very nerve-wracking. But I really liked hitting people. When I played basketball, I would always foul out. Then in rugby, I’m like ‘you mean I can just hit her full-on and it’s fine?” That’s correct.
Within two years, Grant went from her first practice to making international noise, as she wore the Maple Leaf with a Fiorino-led U18 Canadian side that competed at the Tropical 7s in the spring of 2017 in Orlando, Florida.
It was in Florida where Fiorino saw why Grant could be special.
Walking off the field after one of Canada’s contests, Grant caught up with Fiorino.
“Do you know who took pictures of the game?”
“Uhh…I think one of the parents was taking some.”
“Did they get me fending that girl?”
The conversation wasn’t long, but it elicited a newfound understanding of Grant.
“A lot of girls aren’t looking for contact photos. They like the swan dive photos,” says Fiorino, who had first seen Grant play when she was just 16 years old. “At that point, I kind of knew we had someone there who was really engaged in the contact aspect of the sport.”
A few months later, Grant was carded to join Canada’s national women’s sevens program, moving across the country to join the team in the fall of 2017.
In a one-on-one conversation with Grant that spring, Canada 7s coach John Tait, who had seen her play in a starring role with Rugby Ontario at the 2017 Canadian Rugby Championship, summed up her potential.
“You have a serious shot to be one of the best players in the world”
She was Cornwall’s champ – leaving home to do big things around the globe. Athletically, she was inspired by basketball star and Olympic gold medalist Elena Delle Donne. “She’s been my inspiration since I was a little kid. She is just an insane athlete. Listening to her story and her family situation and her adversities and pushing through – I look up to her a lot.” Relationally, her sister, Emma Grant, was her familial inspiration. “My sister definitely pushed me to do things and play sports and get out there. I look up to my sister the most.”
She left Ontario and was going to become an Olympian. At least that’s what the newspapers and the supporters on the sidelines espoused.
But it didn’t quite happen that way. It might yet. She might be an Olympian one day. She will likely play in a World Cup (or two or three) someday (likely sooner than later), but her two years on Vancouver Island didn’t quite work out as planned.
There were moments of success, but between battling through concussions and, as she honestly describes now, working through mental health struggles, that original fanfare didn’t materialize.
“I kind of put my mental health on the back burner because I so badly wanted to be on the (World Series),” Grant says.
“The stress that was put on my 17-year-old self – I was a kid and it became too much in the end. There was a point where I wasn’t playing for myself anymore and I really lost the joy of playing the sport. I think I was honestly just burnt out.”
For Grant, the constant grind was mentally blistering.
“If we were doing conditioning or a really intense training session, I would have to talk myself out of having a panic attack. There was just so much association with the anxiety of training. I’ve been talking to counsellors and I’m working through it. It’s a slow process though.”
A year away from what was meant to be the 2020 Olympics, Grant walked away from the Sevens program and returned to Ontario to join the University of Ottawa.
Oozing with potential, she joined the squad Jen Boyd had built and, in short order, her love for the game began to resurface.
Grant remembers her first game with the Gee-Gees. She can laugh now.
“I watch our first game against Sherbrooke – who allowed me to play?” Grant says with a laugh. “I was awful. But Jen trusted that I would eventually get the hang of it.”
Grant probably wasn’t as bad as she suggests, but either way, Boyd was right. She figured out the 15s game – something Grant had previously only played sparingly in her career – in short order. Helping lead her team at No. 8 while also participating in the squad’s six-person leadership team, Grant quickly became a known quantity across campus – if not for her play, then for her personality.
“She’s a tremendous athlete, who has a really good rugby sense,” Boyd says. “She has a physical prowess that’s like a 30-year-old. Madison Grant moves in a way I have never seen a young woman move.
“Beyond that, honestly, everyone knows Madison and everyone likes Madison. She’s just so fun. You talk to her and you just laugh. She’s just such a great human being. She’s so engaging.”
That season-opening game against Université de Sherbrooke ended in a 22-22 tie. Grant didn’t score a try.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 21 against the very same Sherbrooke side, Grant scored four tries in a 44-10 victory.
The following week, her team lost to the Laval Rouge et Or 32-0.
Less than a month later, Ottawa beat the eventual national champion Université Laval 25-15 to capture the conference title. Grant was named her team’s game MVP.
“I love rugby again,” Grant says. “This past year was the most fun I’ve ever had playing rugby.”
Her success also helped book her a ticket to join Canada – the No. 3-ranked side in World Rugby – in Chula Vista, California for the Can-Am Series.
It was here where she made another statement.
Shortly after arriving at the camp, Fiorino told her she’d be moving from the back row to outside centre.
“At that point, I didn’t think I was going to get much playing time because it was a totally new position.”
Then, the Canadian staff decided to put her on the wing instead.
“I’m thinking perfect – now I’m not going to get any playing time.”
Then they announced the roster for the first game of the two-match series. Grant was in the starting lineup.
“I was so shocked. It was crazy.”
Four days later, she started again.
“I was definitely out of my comfort zone in that camp. But everyone was super welcoming. It’s competitive as hell, but it was enjoyable.”
A few months removed from Canada’s back-to-back wins over the USA, Fiorino has different plans for Grant.
“We want to give her a go in the back row and hopefully over the next 12 to 16 months, she can work hard and put her hand up to earn a spot on the World Cup team.”
Grant is back in Ottawa now. She lives with three of her Gee-Gees teammates trying to figure out ways to keep fit during COVID-19 using items around the house. Amidst the lockdown, she did have one recent realization – she says she doesn’t really have hobbies.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do if I’m not going to school and playing rugby.”
You see, rugby itself has returned to “fun” status and has become, perhaps, her hobby again. She just happens to be really, really good at it and could make a career out of it.
Now, Boyd looks forward to seeing Grant in in the fall (assuming rugby can be played).
She can’t wait to witness her “wildcard.”
Anytime Grant has the ball, she will basically have a blank canvas in which to create.
“I want her to express herself,” Boyd says. “Why would I put her in a box? I don’t know what she’s going to do – left or right, run or pass, but she’s usually right. She’ll put herself in the right space. She understands space – how to contain it, how to use it, and how to communicate it. It’s unbelievable.”
There’s an ever-so slight pause.
“She is a generational player.”