Photography by Kevin Light/CBC Licensing
Olympian superstar Jen Kish tells us why Edmonton will always be home.
When Jen Kish was growing up in Edmonton, she rarely spent her time playing video games or going to the movies with friends. Instead, she was busy grocery shopping and getting herself to and from her after-school activities, including basketball and taekwondo.
After her parents' divorce when she was 3 1/2 years old, her dad, Steve, raised Jen and her older brother, Jason, on his own, juggling multiple jobs for much of their childhood. For several years, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no furniture and had to sleep on the floor, but Steve worked hard to help pay for Jen's sports-related fees and equipment. "He didn't want to fail us. His devotion to his kids was his No. 1 priority. He put our needs before his," she says.
Though Jen didn't always get the quality time she yearned for as a kid, the father-daughter moment she'd dreamed of came last summer at age 28, just seconds after the buzzer sounded on the Canada versus Great Britain women's rugby match at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Sweaty and elated after capturing bronze, Jen locked eyes with her dad in the stands, who was beaming with pride. "I wouldn't change my childhood for anything. It helped me become the strong person I am today and the leader I was in the Games."
Jen is easy to spot on the field, with her platinum-blond hair and ink-covered body. She literally wears her heart on her sleeve, and a scan of her tattoos reveals a parade of significant sayings and symbols to mark momentous events. The two halos on the back of her neck are for her brother and her father, who has been battling cancer. And her current favourite piece is the newly inked Olympic flame on her calf to commemorate her medal finish.
Her many accomplishments—and the fact that she's considered one of the best forwards to ever play rugby—make it hard to believe she didn't know much about the sport when she signed up for her high school's team. "Rugby found me. I joined purely because my friends were doing it," she says. And she stuck with it after getting encouragement from older national players, who recognized her talent and pushed her to pursue it. "If it wasn't for those athletes, I probably wouldn't have chased rugby like I did. Basically, my entire career comes from peer pressure."
When she left Rio last summer, she headed home to Edmonton, trading glory on the rugby pitch for pulling out electrical wires and putting up drywall. She and her fiancée, Nadene Selewich, a police officer, were building their new home outside the capital city's core. Yet, inundated with interview requests, Jen made sure she responded to every reporter who called, in between construction duties. "This city has always been behind me and my sporting career," she says.
A member of the Canadian women's rugby sevens team since 2011, Jen had planned to retire after last year's Olympic Games, but her coaches convinced her to stick around—and that can only be good for women's rugby. Her goal is to continue growing the sport and level the playing field, both on and off the pitch. For years, she and her teammates had to wear oversize men's jerseys and weren't offered the same winning bonuses as their male counterparts. Now, their kits are tailored, they're constantly making the finals and the sponsors are calling. "I want to prove that women belong in the sports world just as much as men, and that we play with the same amount of skill and finesse. It's slowly balancing out, but it's always going to be a fight. It needs to change. I'll never accept less."
Jen Kish shares her three favourite things to do in Edmonton.
1. The Rec Room
"This is a fun venue with Ping-Pong tables and video games, which I love. Some evenings are adults-only—I'll go with my friends to hang out and have a beer."
2. Rogers Place
"The atmosphere in the newly opened arena is amazing. The fans in this city really back their athletes and can get quite emotional—especially when the hometown hockey team, the Oilers, are doing well."
3. The Melting Pot
"The four-course fondue menu is served on the centre of the tables and has broth, cheese and chocolate pots for dipping. It's so much fun and so delicious."