The women of Canada's bronze-medal-winning rugby sevens team had a small celebration when they finally reached the athletes' village on Monday night – there was some beer, admits Ghislaine Landry, who scored 18 points in the 33-10 defeat of Great Britain for the medal.
"But, I mean mostly, after a sevens tournament – six games in three days – you're kinda done," Landry said a bit apologetically, a fresh-formed scab on a gouge across the bridge of her nose.
While the players broke out at least a little beer, the staff of Rugby Canada got to work. Their sport, which in Canada suffers from a chronic obscurity – eclipsed by hockey, soccer, even competitive Frisbee – now has a brief, precious moment of visibility, and they are determined not to squander it.
The organization had a new website ready to go – TryRugby.ca – that allows curious young women (or men) to enter their addresses and register directly with their nearest club. There are "rookie rugby" programs with the non-tackle game, aimed at all the kids who saw their first-ever match on Monday and said to their parents, "I want to do that." The organization has plans to put the shiny, articulate, beaming new medal-winners in front of as many cameras as possible in the coming days.
"We are going to let these girls go out and tell the story, that will help us generate more revenue and invest it in the game," said Tim Powers, chair of the board of Rugby Canada.
Powers said the organization chose its new CEO earlier this year precisely because he understood what it was like to mess up a moment like this. Allen Vansen was on the board of Triathalon Canada when Simon Whitfield won his surprise gold medal at the Sydney Games in 2000 – and the national organization had no plan in place to capitalize.
"A game like [Monday's], with these ladies, that story is much like Simon's. All of a sudden people are going to know Jen Kish – there's huge opportunities," Vansen said as team captain Kish gave her 50th gracious postmedal interview behind him at the Olympic Park. "We have spent the last three or four months being very diligent about doing what we have to do to take advantage of this opportunity. With the great coverage that we're getting, people are looking at rugby – so now what?"
Kish, walking as though she's still getting used to the medal around her neck, said the new visibility for the sport is her major reward."Our nation has fallen in love with our sport, and that's what we wanted," she said.
Kish was a steely presence on the field through the tournament, but when the final whistle blew, she sank to her knees on the grass in sobs, hands over her face. "I don't normally cry at all," she said Tuesday, still sounding a bit dazed, "but I did and the whole world saw it, and these girls cried too – it was pure happiness and joy. Even though we won bronze, it feels like we won gold."
This is the first Olympics for rugby sevens, and the broadcast success of the tournament makes clear why it appealed to the International Olympic Committee. Mr. Powers noted dryly that it's made for TV – "two seven-minute halves, two 11-minute segments and you're done," while the swift play and volume of tackling means a spectator doesn't need an intimate acquaintance with rugby's complex rulebook to enjoy it.
But this creates a challenge for Rugby Canada: People with new interest in the game are going to come looking for sevens, when the traditional 15-player game is still the backbone of most club systems and international competition. Rugby Canada (which currently has an annual budget of just under $15-million) needs to be able to fund both programs, and have infrastructure for new players to try both sevens and the traditional game.
There is also the issue of gender parity. The women's sevens team just won a medal, while the Canadian men didn't quality for Rio. But Mr. Powers said this year is the first time the women on the 15s team won't have to "pay to play" but will be funded to travel to competition. And Rugby Canada "hopes to achieve" parity this year in what the two national sevens teams are paid.
The road to Rio came with a high price: The women on the medal-winning team have been training together in Langford, B.C., for, in most cases, the past five years, as amateur athletes, earning $18,000 a year from Sport Canada as carded athletes. Ashley Steacy has lived apart from her husband for the past two-and-a-half years. Karen Paquin is a chemical engineer who left her career, her family and friends in Quebec to join the squad, living in English for the first time. Among the five players who spoke to the press on Tuesday, only Kish said she committed to staying with the squad past the next World Cup, as long as she can.
Their coach looked underwhelmed to hear them say it – but he understands. "It's a real challenge. These ladies train like professionals but they're amateur, government-funded athletes who train six days a week and have been for quite some time now," said coach John Tait. Australia, which defeated Canada in the semi-final and went on to win gold, and New Zealand, which took silver, treat their players significantly differently, he added: "The Australian and New Zealand girls are full-time and well-paid athletes … Those girls are not planning on leaving, they're in their careers right now, they're making a good living, paying their mortgages doing what they're doing."
Tait hopes to keep this squad together through the 2017 World Cup, and perhaps beyond, but long-term he has what he called a "top heavy" program, and needs a pipeline to bring more young women up into the game. "We're competing with rugby powerhouses, and to stay competitive with them we have to design a sevens-specific pathway that's going to feed this program for years."
Powers said they have one key asset to do it: "We have a team of heroes right now, and Canadians love heroes."