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Three’s Company: The Svoboda Sisters look to add to their Family Legacy

Written By: Adam McQueen

The game of rugby and the Svoboda family are inextricably linked; one simply does not go without the other. The Svoboda sisters – Katie, Sara, and Tia – are well aware of this fact. Their father and uncle are both former Canadian internationals; the latter represented Canada for the better part of a decade and appeared in the first three World Cups. Their cousin, Matt Mullins, is a current member of the Canadian 7s team. Nowadays, twins Katie and Sara, as well as their younger sibling Tia, are carving their respective names in the Canadian rugby landscape.

Katie received her first international cap during the 2016 Super Series as a backrow replacement, and Sara started at openside flanker for all three of Canada’s matchups against England last Fall. Meanwhile, Tia spent her first year out of high school centralized with the Canadian Women’s Sevens Program in Langford, British Columbia.

The Svoboda’s competitive rugby careers didn’t take shape until high school, a common case for many Canadian rugby players. The sisters' initial exploits revolved around the North American-centric sports of basketball, hockey, and soccer. However, as they slowly dipped their toes into the rugby waters, by playing in a touch league with the Belleville Bulldogs, it was clear that a new love would soon emerge. Despite some early trepidation, the sport quickly became the focal point of their athletic careers.

“I remember my first couple of games being terrified!” Katie admits. “I slowly took it on as I realized that it was the combination that I liked: the aggression from hockey and the skills from soccer. It drew on my favourite aspects of both sports and put it into one.”

At first glance, the family’s rugby legacy would seem to make the girl’s future in rugby a foregone conclusion, yet Katie contests this notion. While there was a natural gravitation towards the sport, her father’s presence was merely a support system that helped foster a passion for the game. It wasn’t until she had fully invested herself into rugby that her family’s achievements began to truly resonate.

“A lot of people thought that because of my uncle and dad it was intuitive that we would play too,” Katie says. “Our Dad never pressured us into it but he slowly taught us the rules of the game. As I got further into rugby and I looked into my uncle’s history and how my Dad has played it all of his life, it kind of inspired me to keep going.”

This inspiration led to Katie, Tia, and Sara’s meteoric rise as they dominated at the high school and provincial level. Both Sara and Katie aim to build upon their early successes by earning a regular spot in the Canadian National Team. Luckily, they have the ideal training partner in each other to pursue these goals.

“The days where I’m lacking, she pulls me up. We do a really good job of competing and pushing each other, it is great to have someone like that around,” says Katie. “Especially because we play the same position and have similar fitness levels.”

Spectators notice the unspoken connection the twins share on the field. They will often be the first player supporting one another on line breaks and provide opportune appearances to supply a timely offload.

Do they ever get mistaken for each other? Of course! Both sisters acknowledge that it can become a little frustrating.

“Sometimes it is annoying when you want independence and people constantly lump you together, but there are so many advantages that you really cannot be mad at it.” Katie acknowledges.

With Tia still in high school, the next step for Sara and Katie was deciding which university program to choose to continue their athletic and academic careers. Both sisters admitted that the process was wrought with nervousness and indecision. Eventually, they followed in their mother’s footsteps, committing to the McMaster Marauders program.

Listening to Katie and Sara explain the allure of the university, as well as their four year journey through the program, it is evident that McMaster played an integral role in elevating their play towards the international level. Both emphasize the professionalism of the coaching, medical staff, and facilities to bridge the gap between youth competition and women’s rugby. As Canadian rugby remains at the amateur level, the women’s sport must utilize the quality of these university programs to develop players like Sara and Katie, who are not nationally centralized athletes but maintain international aspirations.

“Mac has one of the top ranked Strength & Conditioning programs in the country,” Sara notes. “The resources we have here with the coaches and facilities really make me feel confident.”

Katie echoes these sentiments, crediting the university’s wholistic approach to aid her recovery from a knee injury suffered last year.

“I’ve never been a part of a program that is so integrative, and everyone works together with such great cooperation. I especially noticed it with my ACL injury, there was such great communication between all three levels that I never felt left in the dark during my rehab process. Every team is set up so well for success with all of the professionals we are surrounded with.”

With the comfort of such a rigorous support system, the girls have been able to adopt a singular mindset to ensure success at the international level. The coaching staff, led by Shaun Allen, has instilled a “one percent mentality” predicated on focus and adaptability. This attention to the tiniest of details will pay dividends in the long run, Sara notes.

“That [mentality] has kind of stuck with me. It has been ingrained in me to never waste a moment, there is always time to hammer home a skill," Sara says of her coaches’ influence. “ You have twenty minutes before practice? Work on your passing. You have fifteen minutes in the morning? Look at your kick placement.”

Katie urges other talented up and coming players to visit all university programs to get a first-hand perspective on how they can contribute to their rugby development.

“Any young person I talk to I advise them to go on as many recruitment trips as possible so you can get a real sense as to what they have to offer,” Katie explains. “On February 3rd we are having a recruitment day for any girls who are interested in the McMaster program. It is really advantageous to get out here and see the facilities in person.”

The culmination of winning a national championship often serves as the pinnacle of any player’s rugby memory. When McMaster earned their inaugural Monilex Trophy in 2015, the win had differing effects on each sister. While Sara experienced the on-field joy of national success, Katie was forced into the unfamiliar role of spectator as she nursed a serious knee injury. Tia, still in high school, saw the victory as the ultimate recruitment tool as she planned out her future playing career. Three years later, all three sisters are seeking to win a championship together.

“I was going through the decision-making process but it was pretty much Mac or nothing in my head. How can you not want to go to a university after a major win like that?” Tia explains. “Next year we are going to win a USport title, that is the goal for sure. I think everyone is on board.”

The impact Katie and Sara have had since entering McMaster has been undeniable. While it presents a tough act to follow for Tia, who just completed her first year at the university, her sisters’ presence fuels her drive for success.

"It is fun! They present a lot of challenges for me, in a good way,” says Tia. “Their work ethic is through the roof whether it is in the weight room or on the field. They are always giving 100% so that motivates everyone on our team to do the exact same thing. Seeing my sisters push their bodies to their limits really makes me want to do the same.”

Spending one year in Canada’s Sevens Development Program training alongside stalwarts such as Bianca Farella and Ghislaine Landry on a daily basis offered Tia a glimpse into what it takes to succeed at the highest level. As a youngster arriving fresh out of high school, her first moments of practice are still etched into her memory.

“At first I was like ‘woah I got a pass from Jen Kish!’ ” Tia laughs. “That was super fun and surreal, knowing you are with the highest level athletes of your sport. What better way to expand your knowledge, skills, and abilities?"

The older siblings are also quick to note Tia’s talent. Stepping into a university team with national championship aspirations is no easy task, let alone for a teenager. When asked about her sister’s unique skill-set, Sara exudes excitement in her response.

"Tia brings such an essential component to our team. Having the opportunity to play out west has improved her decision-making skills, her vision, and her passing is one of the best at this level. I think she definitely has that vision on the field that Katie and I may not have as wild flankers. If we didn't have her, I believe we really would've struggled this year.”

Although many rugby players migrate west to further their rugby careers, Tia doesn’t feel that her return to Ontario will stunt her development. McMaster’s setup offered her the opportunity to compete without sacrificing the academics and social elements of university rugby.

“In terms of effort, both teams really put a lot of energy into it,” Tia says, comparing both experiences. “That is why it was a seamless transition as I didn't feel like I was losing any training by coming here [to McMaster] or lowering any levels. I just felt like here there is a lot of team bonding and everyone is very close so we have a nice social aspect to this rugby team."

Each sister exudes a humble confidence. They have clear goals laid out for their rugby careers, yet consistently acknowledge the work ethic and dedication required to get them to their final destination.

When asked to describe her older siblings in three words, Tia simultaneously emphasizes their similarities and uniqueness.

“For Sara I would have to say determined, competitive, and inspirational. As for Katie I would say hard-working, resilient, and committed.”

Any combination of these six traits are a definite recipe for success. As the Svoboda sisters continue to grow as individuals and as players, their continued success on the National and International stage seems assured.