“What got you here, won’t get you there.”
When Sara Kaljuvee’s body tells her to stop, she remembers the mantra. When she wants to hit snooze after her 6 a.m. alarm signals the start of another gruelling training regimen with the Canadian women’s sevens rugby team in Langford, she remembers the mantra. When her body is hurting so bad she wants to stop, she remembers her mother, Lynn.
“In Grade 7, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was re-diagnosed with bone cancer when I was in Grade 11 and during my second year of university, she was diagnosed with brain cancer,” an emotional Kaljuvee says.
Lynn’s condition was eventually deemed terminal and a second brain surgery followed in the spring of 2014. It’s been a challenging journey for the entire family, including Sara’s father Gary and siblings Emily and Conner. It has also served as motivation for the nationally carded rugby athlete to follow her dream.
In August of 2014, the award-winning player from Ajax, Ont. showed up at the Canadian Rugby Centre of Excellence. Then 20, she had two suitcases with all her worldly possessions and a goal to represent Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
“My mom is the reason why I want to succeed and one of the reasons why I want to go to the Olympics,” Kaljuvee says. “She would say, ‘don’t worry I am fighting until I see you on that team.’ She is my inspiration. It’s hard being away from her, but she says she is proud of me … that is why I am here.”
One of 22 women based in Greater Victoria who train six days a week, six hours a day, she is battling to be one of 12 players selected to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil next year. The training is gruelling and the competition tough, especially so on a sevens squad considered one of Canada’s few team medal hopefuls for 2016.
“Literally, the Olympics and gold have been my dreams forever,” Kaljuvee says. “This job is basically everything to me; I can’t see myself doing anything but being on this team. It would mean a lot to (my mom as well). When she was still mobile … she came out to watch me play. I just remember hugging her and bawling my eyes out. It was the best moment.”
Her experience with family health challenges has been exacerbated by physical challenges of her own as she competes hard for a 2016 roster spot. She suffered an Achilles tendon injury that left her on the sideline for months last season, and a recent finger injury that cost her an opportunity to play in a tournament in Brazil.
Financial troubles, including a looming $15,000 student loan – she’s on deadline to repay it following a decision to leave school mid-program to pursue rugby – has further complicated the most important training year of her life.
Despite Kaljuvee’s off-field challenges, Canada’s women’s rugby sevens head coach John Tait says her determination has been inspiring.
“It is not something she talks too much about,” he says. “We are aware of it because we are a close knit group, (but) you would never guess it by her demeanour. She is a great teammate and great athlete. She has definitely had tough days, way tougher than most, but she never lets that effect her. We call her an energizer, and it speaks volumes to her character and personality.”
Watching the Olympics with her parents as a child, Kaljuvee says she knew she wanted nothing more than to represent Canada on the world stage one day. When she found rugby, a switch flipped, she says, and despite her success so far, she knows the effort to this point will need to be raised to get her to Rio.
“My mom once said, ‘I am so proud of you, you will do so many good things.’ This is one of those good things,” she says. “She is battling everything, literally from head to toe every day. If she can fight in the hospital I can definitely fight on the rugby field.”
How to help out
• National women’s rugby athlete Sara Kaljuvee’s story is told on her gofundme campaign page. If you’d like to help her get through the challenges she’s facing right now with a donation, visit gofundme.com/juvee for more information.