When Mackenzie Lee was approached about giving rugby a try, she initially resisted.
Lee was a Grade 10 student at Walnut Grove Secondary, and her PE class was conducting fitness testing.
“Coach (Jon Fast) saw that I was quite quick and he thought I would do really well if I was running down the field with a rugby ball (in my arms),” recalled Mackenzie Lee.
“I told him ‘no, I am a soccer player.’”
Up until that point, Lee was a high-level soccer player, playing at the Metro level.
But a few months later, Lee realized she was bored with the sport.
“I just got tired off it,” she admitted.
“I had been playing it for nine years and I think at that age, I had gone as far as I wanted.”
Plus, two of her best friends had also joined the Walnut Grove rugby team.
“There was also that pull — I wanted to spend more time with them too — so it seemed like a good idea.”
And from the moment Lee stepped onto the rugby pitch, she was hooked.
“I loved it right away. I was obsessed,” she said.
Part of it was she felt more at ease with the rugby culture.
“It fit me more. It is not scary to hit people.
“I am quite strong and it was nice to feel like you fit in somewhere,” Lee said.
“I think I just had the mentality that this is where I fit in.
“It makes me sound crazy, but I guess the contact just makes it a little more fun.”
Her plan was to play through high school, but after graduating from Walnut Grove Secondary in 2013, she joined the UBC Thunderbirds women’s team. She also plays for the Burnaby Lake Rugby Club.
“In all honesty, I was going to stop playing after high school, but (continuing) is probably the best decision I ever made,” she said.
The 21-one-year-old was in Markham, Ont. last week, competing with the BC Rugby senior women’s team at the Canadian women’s national championships.
The team went 3-1 and finished in a three-way tie for top spot with Equipe Quebec and the Ontario Storm.
But the Quebec team — whose only loss was to B.C. — won the tiebreaker among the three and took top spot. B.C. was relegated to third.
Lee, who plays inside centre, finished tied for the team lead with three tries in the four games and her 15 points were tied for second.
“It was so amazing, so great,” she said of the experience, her first taste of provincial team action.
“It was an incredible experience (and) I learned so much about myself.
(This) solidified that I want to try and play for Canada and I learned it is a possibility for me to play for Canada, and not such an outlandish idea.”
“Mackenzie has a bright future,” said Maria Gallo, the head coach at UBC.
“I usually have her playing multiple roles on the team, either as a front rower or I have her in the back, so she is a huge contributor to the Thunderbird program.
“She is very coachable — just one of those kids who never gives up.”
Lee has started for UBC since her rookie season and is a big part of the team’s leadership core.
“I think if she keeps up with how she is going, dedicating some time in the gym — which has definitely been a priority of hers in the last year — she will definitely have a bright future,” Gallo said.
Lee is entering her fourth year at UBC — she still has two years of CIS eligibility remaining — and is set to graduate in 2017. She is studying speech science.
One of the biggest adjustments has been trying to maintain the student-athlete lifestyle, finding time for school, training, a social life and proper rest.
“Going into my grad year, that is the biggest thing, trying to prioritize (my time).
“But I couldn’t imagine my life without rugby,” Lee said.
“I would like to make it to Team Canada at one point, but in all honesty, my schooling is first, getting my masters, and then hopefully (playing for) Canada. That would be pretty cool.”