Determined Neilson hopes to inspire at CIS National Championship
Jess Neilson exudes ambition.
The third-year Fly Half won just about every award there is to win in the world of Canada university women's rugby last season.
Canada West Most Valuable Player, CIS First Team All-Star, Canada West All-Star and CIS Championship All-Star. Those are all awards Neilson was able to add to her trophy case en route to leading the Vikes to their first ever Canada West title.
It isn't just on the field that Neilson's ambition shines through though.
The fourth-year Political Science major recently qualified for the honours program and has big plans for after she finishes her under-graduate degree.
"I'm going to do my thesis next year and then hopefully do my JD and MBA combined," Neilson said.
Neilson's rugby career began as so many others do. When she was eight, the Victoria-born Neilson saw her older stepsister playing rugby and knew instantly that the sport was something she wanted to be involved in.
In what can only be described as the planets aligning, rugby tryouts were being held at her elementary school the very next day. Neilson made the team and hasn't looked back since.
The road to Canada West rugby stardom wasn't without its bumps along the way however. As the only girl on all-boys teams for much of her youth career, Neilson had to work twice as hard as her teammates to earn their acceptance.
"Playing with the guys forces you to try to be faster, to try to be stronger because you are constantly competing for affirmation. You want them to accept you," Neilson said.
"It took a while, the boys at first were like 'go home you're a girl' and I remember going home crying to my Mom and she told me to stick with it. I did stick with it and eventually they accepted me."
Even after gaining the acceptance of her peers, Neilson still had to battle off the field just to be allowed to battle on it.
In grade 7, Neilson and her teammates changed from the elementary school system to a middle school, and she was told that no girls were allowed to play on the team.
"That sent everyone into an outrage and we fought the school board to get the rule changed, so that girls can play with the boys if there's no girls alternative."
Her petition to the board of the Lower Island Middle School Sports Association resulted in a ruling allowing her to play with the boys again.
The ability to be able to draw positives from what could otherwise be negative situations is something that has helped shape Neilson into the person that she is today.
"I think that those experiences have taught me to stick with what you love no matter what," said Neilson
What drew Neilson to the sport of rugby and what continues to fuel her competitive fire is how the sport can be so spirited while also building long lasting relationships.
"Rugby is one of those sports that no matter what body shape or where you come from it's inclusive. The friendships you can create from it are incredible," Neilson said.
"The relationships I have through rugby are life-long. I think that it's so fast and exciting and such a quick growing sport that it's hard not to love."
As with so many other Canadians sitting inside, eyes riveted to the TV during sunny August days, Neilson drew inspiration from the bronze medal performance of the Canadian Women's rugby team at the Rio Olympics.
"I was speechless. I know how much energy they have put in and I know how much heart and commitment they have. All of them sacrificed four years of their life to train for it," Neilson said.
"It was so exciting just to get the validation that women play rugby, I play rugby. They are inspiring and I think that that success is going to travel pretty far for women's rugby in Canada."
With the Vikes women's rugby team hosting the CIS National Championship on November 3-6, Neilson knows that she and her teammates have the opportunity to serve as positive role models for the next generation of rugby players in Victoria.
"We have so much potential to be inspiring for younger girls and to be able to host nationals in Victoria with the way the women's rugby movement is growing is amazing," said Neilson.
"I think we are going to have a huge impact on the growth of the sport. It's pretty cool to be in that position, it's an honour and it's exciting."