TORONTO — After sacrificing her body for Canada for 13 years, Jen Kish called it quits Monday.
The former Canadian rugby sevens skipper had planned to retire in July at the end of the season. But hip and neck injuries forced the 29-year-old from Edmonton to move up that retirement date.
The news drew a flurry of congratulations.
“What a LEGEND,” tweeted Canadian international soccer goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe.
“You truly are extraordinary. World Class, a Legend,” echoed former teammate Mandy Marchak.
“An idol to many young girls out there. You have paved the way!” tweeted former men’s captain John Moonlight, who retired last week to become a firefighter in his native Pickering, Ont.
The accolades stunned Kish.
“I’m at a loss for words,” she said in an interview. “I just see myself as somebody who just played a sport with some of her best friends. And along the way we inspired a couple of people.
“To have people send such nice messages, telling me they’re going to miss seeing me play the sport I love, yeah, it definitely brings emotions to it. I’m just grateful at being able to spend so many years in the Canadian jersey.”
Kish leaves the sport with a gold medal from the 2015 Pan American Games, silver from the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens and bronze from the 2016 Olympics.
A nominee for world sevens player of the year in 2013, she played in 134 matches on the world sevens circuit, scoring 34 tries and 170 points.
“There are very few in the game like her,” said Canada coach John Tait.
Kish’s hard-nosed play took a toll.
Her recent injury woes started prior to Rio in May 2016 when she was slammed into the turf at the Clermont Sevens. She finished the game but was left with a concussion and a neck injury that has since been exacerbated.
Kish has been playing though two bulging discs in her neck, along with some disc degeneration and bone spurs.
Last May, Kish cracked her pelvis on the first day of competition in Langford, B.C. Amazingly she finished the tournament after sitting out the quarter-final because she could hardly walk. A subsequent scan also turned up a hip labral tear that will require surgery.
Kish’s last outing for Canada was at the Sydney stop of the World Series circuit in January. She took part in a camp in San Diego prior to the Commonwealth Games, reaggravating her neck injury.
“Ultimately after speaking to many specialists, the only way that my body is going to start to get better is if I stop playing,” she said. “At the end of the day, I play a contact sport and every hit I take or give, it puts a little but more damage on the body and mentally it’s debilitating because it’s tough to deal with the pain every single day.”
“And I’m not even 30 yet,” she added. “I turn 30 in July.”
Doctors told her she has the neck of a 60-year-old. Her response was to ask whether there was a danger of paralysis. While the answer was no, the question was could she play through the pain or the neck cramps.
“I have no control of when my neck decides to just act up and seize,” she said. “It was like a calf cramp but in your neck. It’s quite painful.”
Surgery is an option down the line but that could limit her neck mobility. The hope is that not playing will reduce the pain.
Her body a canvas of tattoos under a shock of blond hair, Kish is hard to miss. The colourful exterior covers a complex interior.
“She self-admittedly sometimes just overthinks things,” said Tait. “She wears her heart on her sleeve.”
In fact, Kish’s body is an ink-covered canvas that tells its own story.
One arm reads “Dance like no one is watching, Sing like no one is listening.” The other arm reads “Laugh like you’ve never been hurt, Live like it’s heaven on earth.”
Her biceps say “Live true” and “Love life.” Another design reads “What I do today is important.”
No longer part of the daily training group, Kish yielded the captaincy to Ghislaine Landry after Rio. But Tait, whose playing career was also cut short by a neck injury, said she always led by example on the field.
A rare combination of power and agility, Kish has left more than a few opponents in her wake. In a game against the U.S. in Amsterdam, she memorably eluded some four would-be tacklers on her way to the try-line.
Kish was a force at restarts and a master at contesting for the ball.
“She was lightning-fast at getting her hands on a turnover,” said Tait. “As good as anyone I ever coached in that area. It’s a unique skill set, it’s not an easy one to have, and she had it naturally.”
Hard to bring down, Kish drew in defenders which opened up the field for her teammates.
“I guess I should thank you for my stats and give you at least a little bit of credit for them, ” a smiling Karen Paquin said in a tribute video compiled by Rugby Canada.
Kish also became a role model for youth, showing you do not have to come from a cookie-cutter to have success.
“Kish is Kish, She’s a surprise package,” said Tait. “She looks tough but she’s really got a quiet voice and is really kind. What’s impressive with her is she is who she is and she’s really proud of it.”
After Rio, Kish remained with the team but left the centralized program in Victoria for her Edmonton home where she worked out on her own between events.
She plans to take up personal training again, has some speaking engagements and hopes to give back to rugby some way.
“I grew up with noting and now I have a life just filled with lot of great things and it’s because of rugby … It has a spot for everybody and that’s the great thing about the sport.”
Kish’s dream of being an elite athlete started at an early age.
In Grade 2, asked to create a book on what she wanted to do when she grew up, she put down pro athlete. Nine years old, she cried tears for joy as she watched Canada win silver in the debut of women’s hockey at the ‘98 Olympic Games.
“I knew right from there that’s what I wanted to do and that’s where I wanted to be,” she said.
But her family could not afford hockey gear. Eventually she fell into high school rugby, which led to playing for the Edmonton Rockers club and trying out for the Alberta team.
In 2005, she was just 16 when she played for Canada at the under-19 level in the 15-player version of the game. At 18, she was picked by the national team. A flanker and occasional No. 8, she played at the 2010 Rugby World Cup before getting injured.
After the tournament, Tait invited her to a sevens camp, setting her on the memorable rugby journey that ended Monday.