One may think that being a perennial national contender like the Gee-Gees women's rugby team would require an outstanding amount of time spent focused solely on the game. In fact, for the Gee-Gees, it is actually quite the opposite.
Head coach Jen Boyd has set out to create and execute a leadership development and character education program for her team, one that at its core has little do with rugby. Recently, the program has taken its largest leaps forward in welcoming an injection of alumnae leadership to help execute it.
Tori Wyman, Dria Bennett, and Natasha Watcham-Roy are the three newest alumnae additions to the program, all joining Emma Sandström, who returns following the past two seasons on staff.
"We talk about legacy all of the time and how you want to be remembered, and just look at these four women in Natasha, Dria, Emma, and Tori," said Boyd.
"There's a reason they're back, not only because I want them back, but because of the character they have. There's been a huge focus this year on character education, and the best way for us to teach it is to get high-character people who model it and have that reputation and legacy."
Through the addition of these four leaders, the program is also placing value on creating, celebrating, and raising up young women as leaders and preparing them to take on life after university, and life after sport.
"What this team offers is a sense of empowerment," said Bennett. "I think we're really lucky, because I don't think a lot of women have these kinds of groups where you're lifting one another up and supporting one another. We're talking about leadership and about women in leadership roles, having those conversations is important. This team allows that space for not only the players, but for us alumni too."
Over the course of the last few years, as the team's status grew, so did their commitment to non-rugby matters, which ended up having a reciprocal payoff both on the field and off.
"The more emphasis there's been on character, leadership development, academic success, and focusing on being good people, the success of the rugby team itself has been amplified," said Sandström, who will now serve as the team's Leadership and Development Coordinator going forward as the program continues to expand.
"I've seen a lot of growth over the past five years," said Wyman. "When I first started, it was very much about the rugby and showing up and working hard, mostly focused on the rugby. As the years have gone by, we've shifted our focus to developing who the athletes are and doing more on the mental performance side of things. We've done a lot more connecting as a team and with coaches and support staff while working to grow our rugby IQ as well. This focus helps us create better people, which is what we're all about."
For Boyd and the team, the goal is always to build champions, an effort not exclusive to just success in play. Seeing the value in this effort, the four alumnae have stepped up to guide the team through virtual sessions, book clubs, leadership exercises, among other activities. The program strives to provide strong role models that have been in the shoes of their student-athletes.
"I always hope that I can be a positive female role model," said Sandström. "We've been so lucky to have our own support system within the rugby community. One of the coolest things for me personally is that I'm getting to play this female role model role with the team."
"Now, I have my captain from my first year on the team (Watcham-Roy), who I looked up to and learned so much from, and also my captain from my last year on the team (Bennett), who of course I learned the world from. For me it's pretty cool to be able to work alongside them, it's just something special that this team offers."
An essential piece of expanding and the program is that it is mutually beneficial for the alumnae taking part, as they are able to grow their skills in leading the younger generation of players.
"Leadership is embedded in one's personal beliefs and values," said Watcham-Roy. "Being open and willing to share my story and experiences to the current players, is a small part of what the Gee-Gees program did for me."
The work that Boyd has done establishing leadership groups throughout the years is now coming back to benefit the program in guiding the team's current and future leadership groups.
"There's a ripple effect," says Bennett. "This is impacting our future alumni as they develop into their career. This is where this character development is going to pay off. You will have all of these women going into the world and entering the workforce with incredible character."
Since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of off-season prep and training, the team pivoted and maximized the work they have been doing in these other areas. The results of this effort have been staggering says Boyd.
"It's hard not to be humbled. The depth of conversation and the growth that's happening is unbelievable," she said.
"I've got incredible people supporting me now, I don't have to do it all. It allows me to have more balance, and as a result the team will be able to continue to grow. I'm super humbled to have them helping and talking the way that they are, it's just amazing."
Even as the team navigates uncertain times, the leadership and character program will only continue to grow and benefit the athletes willing to put the work in. Despite not being able to be on the field during the pandemic, the team has seen staggering levels of participation in the program.
ABOUT THE STAFF:
Tori Wyman is fresh from her five-year career with the Gee-Gees and has been accepted to return to the University of Ottawa for a Master's degree in Human Kinetics. In Wyman's time with the Gee-Gees, she was a First Team RSEQ All-Star and a U SPORTS Second Team All-Canadian in 2018. Earning U SPORTS Academic All-Canadian honours throughout her career, Wyman was an essential behind-the-scenes leader on the team, particularly focusing on the academic success of the team.
Wyman was a part of five consecutive RSEQ Championships and five U SPORTS medals during her career. At the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, she was the second-ever recipient of the Gee-Gees Career Achievement Award, for her accomplishments in all aspects of the student-athlete experience.
"I still wanted to be part of the team," said Wyman, who will also contribute as a set-piece coach on the field. "Even though I've used my five years of eligibility, now I'm able to come back in more of a coaching role and still be there for the girls that I played with and the rookies coming in."
Dria Bennett played four seasons for the Gee-Gees between 2011 and 2017 and in her final year she was team captain on the team's run to winning their first U SPORTS National Championship. That season, Bennett racked up significant honours as she was awarded Championship MVP, RSEQ First Team All-Star, and was named uOttawa Female Athlete of the Year.
Bennett has represented Canada multiple times on an international stage but recently she has stepped away from playing to focus on her career off of the field. Graduating with a Master's degree in Epidemiology from the Faculty of Medicine, Bennett now works as a medical researcher.
Natasha Watcham-Roy played for the Gee-Gees from 2009-13. In her final season, Watcham-Roy was named an RSEQ First Team All-Star and a First Team All-Canadian.
Upon graduation, Watcham-Roy embarked on a career in professional rugby, culminating in 2016, when she was selected to go Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games with Canada's rugby sevens team, which was making its Olympic debut. Watcham-Roy and Canada returned home as Olympic Bronze Medalists. In 2018, Watcham-Roy announced her retirement from play, and is now pursuing a Master's degree in Leadership from Royal Roads University.
Emma Sandström played from 2013-2017, becoming an RSEQ Second Team All-Star in 2017 en route to winning a National Championship. Following her university career, she transitioned to a role on the team's staff both coaching and continuing to coordinate the team's academic support. Sandström will now serve as the team's Leadership and Development Coordinator going forward as the program continues to expand.