Sara Kaljuvee: Battletested Personified
Written and Photos By: Mark Janzen
Sara Kaljuvee takes a phone call from Tofino, B.C. It’s another chance to tell her story.
That same day, she’ll post a photo on Instagram of her jogging down the aptly-named Long Beach – the largest beach in the Pacific Rim National Park, and hot spot for wave-seekers on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Kaljuvee isn’t here to surf. She’s happy to watch others do it. She’s here to relax and recover.
It’s Friday and on the other end of the call, an inquiring mind asks Kaljuvee – a five-year veteran of Canada’s sevens program – to recall the previous weekend.
“Emotionally, it was a lot,” she says.
There was playing a World Rugby Sevens Series event in front of a home crowd in Langford, B.C. There were the highs and lows that accompanied Canada’s fifth place finish. There was her own hair-raising individual effort that Kaljuvee made fans of an entire stadium thanks to one thunderous run... And there was Mother’s Day.
“It was intense,” she adds.
Like it was on the weekend, her hair is still pink.
Kaljuvee’s sister, Emily, who is two years younger than Sara, was in the crowd when Westhills Stadium roared its approval. Shedding Spanish tacklers while dragging others, Sara bullied her way down the middle of the pitch in a seemingly endless and seemingly unstoppable fashion. Bringing the crowd to its feet, Kaljuvee, 25, gave the Canadian supporters the quintessential Canadian thing to be excited about – a hard-working, no-nonsense, blue-collar, just get it done type of performance. It was a classic “third-line grind” that sent the home crowd into delirium. Canada went on to beat Spain 24-10 in the midday pool-play contest, and Kaljuvee’s effort had the place buzzing.
Somewhere, Kaljuvee’s mother, Lynn, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2015 after a 10-year battle with cancer, was smiling.
So too was Emily.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s Sara for you,’ she recalls. “(Sara) never goes down without a fight. I’m surprised the whole team didn’t have to tackle her. They’re lucky she lost her footing.”
It was a moment fans won’t soon forget. Kaljuvee was playing in just her third tournament, including the Commonwealth Games and the mid-April World Series stop in Kitakyushu, since returning to the fold in February following an eight-month rehabilitation from shoulder surgery.
She hopes the moment was one of many small step towards her Olympic dreams.
Hockey was her first option. As a youngster, Kaljuvee, who hails from Ajax, Ontario and graduated from Pickering High School in 2011, had seen Canada’s women’s team compete on the world’s grandest sporting stage. Early on, she made plans to be part of it.
“I had wanted to go to the Olympics basically since I could walk,” she says. “I remember watching hockey in the Olympics and being like, ‘That’s where I want to go.’”
While she made her way onto the university scene within the hockey world, playing two years at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, rugby soon became her thing. Following a national championship-winning second year at St. FX in 2012, Kaljuvee’s rugby career took off in 2013. She went from captaining Canada to a championship at the U20 Nations Cup, to earning her first cap with the senior team in the Nations Cup, to, later that summer, centralizing with the sevens program, and finally to making her World Series debut in Dubai in late-November.
With sevens set to enter the Olympic program in 2016, and her proliferation within the sport quickly becoming apparent, rugby proved to be an enticing second option. However, the road to get there has been anything but easy, taking Kaljuvee through a gauntlet of physical and emotional challenges that continue to sculpt her as both a person and a player.
After her the game against Spain, Kaljuvee stood under the mid-May heat, explaining to a few media members the story behind her pink hair. She was an “honorary chair” for the inaugural Colour Your Hair to Conquer Cancer campaign. During the month of May, participants across Canada coloured their hair as part of a fundraising initiative for cancer research.
When asked by the organizers to be part of the campaign, it was a no-brainer.
Running onto the pitch in Langford this past May, her pink hair was an homage to her mom.
“(My mom’s) fight is so inspirational and I take a lot of that onto the field,” Kaljuvee says. “She was so stubborn, but in the best way. No matter how much chemo she had done and no matter how much pain she had, she was always there for us and always had a smile on her face. She would not go down without a fight.”
Wrapped around her left forearm – the culprit of more than a few shivers – Kaljuvee has a tattoo that reads, “She Flies With Her Own Wings.”
Lynn didn’t like tattoos, but she liked this one.
Kaljuvee got it after the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, where her mom watched Sara help Canada capture a rugby sevens gold medal. Her mom wasn’t going to miss that event no matter the challenges, and Kaljuvee was on the pitch when the final whistle sounded as Canada took the title with a 55-7 win over the USA in the final.
In her rugby career, that was an unforgettable high.
The following year took Kaljuvee down a path that changed her life and her perspective. Not long after the Pan American Games, she suffered an MCL injury that forced her to go through a four-month rehabilitation. Then, as 2015 came to a close, Lynn passed away. Eight months later, in August of 2016, Kaljuvee just missed out on her Olympic dream.
Named as a travelling alternate for the 2016 Olympic Games, she got to travel to Rio, but she didn’t get to play. Instead, she trained with the team in case of an injury, but sat in the crowd come game time. Her team won a bronze medal, but she never touched the field.
“It was a pretty low moment,” she says. “At the same time, I learned a lot about myself that year. It was a huge growing year, especially when it came to dealing with adversity. Not going as a player has definitely been a kick in the butt to keep driving.”
Now, two years on from that, and with the Rugby World Cup Sevens on the horizon this summer in San Francisco (July 20-22), Kaljuvee is healthy, back on form, and once again finding her niche within the Canadian team.
“She’s a good teammate, a strong runner and combative player,” says Canada’s coach John Tait. “She’s a handful when she’s committed to a line and she’s fearless in contact. She’s accepting that role and embracing it.”
Kaljuvee finished the World Series having played in 13 matches while scoring two tries. The second one came in the season-ending tournament in Paris, where Canada capped its campaign with a bronze medal to finish fourth in the overall standings.
Now – for the team and Kaljuvee – it’s back to work, with the World Cup squarely in focus. Her latest challenge lays before her.
The trip to Tofino came at the right time.
While there, she takes it easy. She reads a lot.
She was making her way through Brain on Fire – an autobiography, written by Susannah Cahalan, in which she tells of her struggle with and recovery from a rare autoimmune disease. In a small way, having seen her mom’s battle with cancer, Kaljuvee can relate. She knows the trials of life, and she knows the trials of rugby.
Yet, as a sun-drenched crowd witnessed on a certain Saturday afternoon, Kaljuvee’s not going down without a fight.
“I’m doing a lot of this training for my mom. I’m still doing this because I have a dream.”