This is a question I get constantly. I have been asked this so many times that I felt the need to write out my response so I can just send people here for my answer.
In grade 12, my closest friends all told me to come play rugby with them. Rugby seemed to be the sport for all the misfits of the school. The ‘cool’ girls played volleyball and basketball. The ‘mean’ girls played soccer and lacrosse. I already played Badminton, field hockey, baseball and power cheer leading. I had planned to just run track, but when I started thinking about playing rugby everyone’s quick response was ‘you’re too small, you can’t play rugby’. Well, if anyone knows me they know the one way to get me to do something, is say I can’t. So that’s where it started.
Jacob Hespeler SS – Front far right
Rugby was fast, long, hard, constant, overwhelming, inclusive, challenging, rewarding and everything in between. As someone who had barely reached 5’ there was even a position for me. After 2 years with high school, I went out for senior women with Waterloo County. By that point, I had developed a constant pain in my back. I didn’t really think anything of it; I mean I was only 19. I lived the college life Sept – May and then would head home for the summer to play rugby. I played intermural hockey, but for the most part, I was in terrible shape coming home.
My back pain increased, and I found many movements at practice too painful to do. By my 2nd year with County I could barely walk off the field after games. The pain would come and go, but sometimes it was unbearable. I shrugged it off, like every ‘all knowing’ 21yr old. I remember driving to Montreal to see my boyfriend at the time and barely being able to go to dinner because I was in so much pain. He convinced me to finally see a physio. I remember the words from that first visit. ‘You’re worse than my 80yr old.’ Wait…I was a 22yr old athlete. I’d been playing sports my whole life. In general public, I was pretty fit.
My physio begged me to quit rugby; promising I was never going to get better while I still played. I pushed through for 3 seasons, until I just couldn't handle the pain. Thus started 4 yrs of almost no activity. I worked at a gym, and even got a trainer, but there were just so many things that hurt that I was so limited. Soon I stopped working out all together. Any impact hurt. Running was out of the question. I wore an SI Belt for years to prevent my SI from shifting out and to manage the pain. I was scared to do anything without it. I switched to a retail job, and remember days that I couldn't stand to do my job cause I was in so much pain. Limping became normal. Advil was the only way I could spend a day on my feet. I felt like a 25yr old stuck in a 70yr old body. My quality of life was poor. All I knew was constant pain. And for those who have never experienced this chronic, constant, long term pain….it’s exhausting. It affects your mood, your social life, your motivation, everything.
I decided to become a trainer in 2007. I had no real experience so I dove into learning as much as I could. I went to every conference, seminar and certification I could. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I started realizing all the things wrong with me, and what potentially had caused a cascade of adjustments in my biomechanics over the years to contribute to all my dysfunction and pain. I have to admit, that my motivation to become a good trainer at the beginning was purely selfish. I sought out professionals and jumped from physios and chiros to try to get proper treatment. It wasn’t just 1 simple thing wrong, like a torn ligament. It was what happens when you ignore your body’s signals for years and ‘push through the pain’. Finally getting an MRI, I found out there was an edema(swelling) and arthritis on the left side of my SI joint (tail bone) with bursitis, tendonitis and IT Band syndrome. I won’t bore you with the pathology of how this happens, but I had a ton of work to do if I was going to regain my function and reduce the damage caused by ignoring the problem for nearly 10 yrs.
In 2009, after 2 years of training myself hard and seeking out every treatment option I could find, I decided to go back. I always missed rugby, and never really felt like I actually got to play to my potential. The pain always kept me from really pushing myself. I was randomly suggested Markham Irish and I thought, ya I’ll go back 1 year and play hard now that I can run properly without constant pain. I wanted to walk away on my own terms, not be forced out due to injury.
Tomorrow I will suit up for my 7th year with the Markham Irish senior women. Every year I challenge myself to be stronger, faster, smarter. Every season I make personal goals to reach during the season. As anyone knows with arthritis, there are always bad days. Sometimes the pain is so bad that it keeps me from training, but some days I have no pain, which to me is a miracle. The big thing is that I know what I need to do to manage it. I know it takes twice as much work for me to perform at the same level as my teammates. But every day I step on the field, every lap I run, every burpee I do, every tackle I make, I remember what it was like to wish I could do that 1 more time.
It’s often said you don’t truly appreciate something till it’s gone. I lost my health and had to fight to regain it. Something you take for granted when you’re young. (Side Note: As a trainer and youth rugby coach, my top priority is ensuring safe and proper form. Kids need to be taught how to train and use their bodies to maintain their athleticism and prevent injury.) Rugby is about fighting for control and possession. Fighting through pain to feel the victory at the end. I have worked harder to be back on the field than anything else, and I’m not about to go out before I’m ready this time.