"I'm wearing a bronze medal around my neck, but I feel like I've won gold." Jen Kish looks tough. And she is tough. Tough on herself to perform at the highest level of athletics, and more importantly, to provide a positive role model for female athletes anywhere.
As the captain of the Canadian Women's 7 Rugby Team, she is well poised to do just that.
"There's nothing a girl can't do that a boy can do, and maybe even better", she said to me as we sat down to talk at the P&G Family Home in Rio, just days after her team won the first bronze medal awarded in Women's Rugby, as an Olympic sport.
"I am proud to be a female athlete competing in a male dominated sport. And we are doing really well at it." Really well is somewhat of an understatement, considering their success.
But getting the medal wasn't the main driver for Kish, or her teammates. "Our team's mission was to come and perform but mostly to inspire a younger generation." She adds "Being an Olympian is one thing; inspiring a generation is another."
Kish was raised by a single father, and she and her brother were active in many sports, including football, which Jen played throughout high school. On the boys' team. In fact, when she started high school, she was told she couldn't play, because she was a girl. She almost gave it up after they asked "Why do you think you should be here?"
Instead, she switched high schools after her Dad told her she was talented enough, good enough, and confident enough to play somewhere else. "You're going to have to prove yourself", he told her. They played against the other high school, and she won The Hardest Hitter. "Not the hardest girl hitter', she laughed, "just the hardest hitter.
Kish's Dad saw her win the bronze medal against Great Britain, in Rio, and she said she sought him out first. "I hugged him and I thanked him for everything. For being my rock, and for letting me play football, and my brother to play with Barbies, if he wanted to. He's proud of who I am today."
"Playing like a girl" is something she's heard her whole life, and not in a complimentary way. But she's determined to change that, and to inspire the many girls who give up sports when they're teenagers (up to 50% according to a poll done by Always) to carry on. "I'm glad that we're (she and her teammates) all here and we're role models and we're leading the way. I love the "Like a Girl" campaign for what is says."
And there's no doubt that girls all over Canada, maybe across the globe, will start picking up a rugby ball and trying it out. My daughter plays high school rugby, and she (actually me) is concerned that she is one of the smallest on the team.
"Rugby is a sport for all ages, and all sizes", Kish assures me. While she insists the medal is secondary to being an inspiration she does admit that the medal has let rugby rise to a new level, and that it will no longer be sport's best kept secret. "It has the culture of family", she says, and "it empowers women."
So what's next for Kish? "I want to stick around as much as I can to inspire a new generation", she says, but for the next few months she's going to go into recovery, while she plans on visiting high schools and giving back to the community that has supported her. Being identified as an athlete in high school can key be to a girl's sporting success. "When you're young you don't always know your own potential", she says "sometimes you need someone else to tell you." I think she'd like to be that person.
As she got up to leave our interview, she turned and smiled and said "I'm going to go and spark some dreams."
There is no doubt, she, and her teammates, will.
Kathy Buckworth is in Rio for the 2016 Olympics. You can follow her @KathyBuckworth on Twitter and Instagram, for more inside scoops on inspiring Canadian athletes. You can follow Jen Kish @Jen_Kish
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