The 28-year-old from Toronto inherited a love of rugby from her English-born father — and dual citizenship through her Brazilian mother.
A winger for the Toronto Saracens, Santilly left Canada for Brazil in early 2014 to find a new rugby home. A second cousin put her up and after contacting the Brazilian Rugby Confederation, Santilly was invited to an evaluation camp. But six weeks into trying to impress the Brazilian coaches, she broke a collarbone.
Restored to health, she was offered a contract to train with the developmental squad. Coach Chris Neill, a New Zealander, promoted her to the senior squad after her performance on an Argentina tour and this weekend Santilly gets her first taste of the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series in Langford, B.C.
"It's been amazing," said a beaming Santilly. "It's such a complete turnaround from where my life was going and where I was."
Santilly acknowledges leaving friends and family to move to Brazil was a leap of faith, especially since her experience in the sevens game was limited. But timing played its part.
She had found out in May 2013 that she was eligible to play for Brazil and decided to give it a shot if something happened in her life or with her job. Santilly worked in animation, primarily for children's TV shows.
As it happened, there were job cuts at her company which closed the door on one career and opened the door on another.
As host of the 2016 Games, Brazil is already part of the inaugural rugby sevens Olympic event. Santilly would be over the moon to become an Olympian but says her immediate concern is showcasing her skills this weekend, with the hope of earning a contract with the elite squad. Another goal is playing in the Pan American Games in Toronto.
"From there, we'll see," she said.
Santilly described her Portuguese as "basic, so basic" when she got to Brazil. Her mother had taught her some of the language as a girl and she had visited the country a couple of times but had a long way to go.
"Luckily I do have some extended family in Brazil and they're awesome."
Communication on the rugby field has been no problem. But she admits it's tougher off the pitch.
Santilly trains five days a week with the national team and also plays club rugby.
Brazil, currently ninth in the series overall standings, is in a pool with No. 2 Australia, No. 4 France and No. 12 China this weekend.
Santilly speaks with awe of the Brazilian women's dedication and passion for the sport.
"It is such an honour to be part of that team," she said.
Rugby is only one ribbon to Santilly's bow. She also competed in roller derby, as a member of Toronto's Death Track Dolls.
A trip to Dallas and the roller derby World Cup seemed in the cards last year after she made the Brazil roller derby team but Santilly was forced to drop out after earning her rugby contract.
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