A knee injury is the latest mountain to climb for Isaac Kaay, the Canadian rugby sevens stalwart who is chasing Olympic dreams.
“The best team needs to travel, whether that involves me or it doesn’t,” said Kaay, the 27-year-old Kamloops product who has been with the national team for five years. “Going off pure merit, I don’t believe in that. I want to prove myself and go.”
The postponed 2020 Olympic Summer Games are scheduled to run this year, from July 23 to Aug. 8 in Tokyo.
Team members — some of whom have put their professional lives on hold for nearly a decade while pursuing Olympic caps (Canada failed to qualify for Rio 2016) — have been in limbo since the beginning of the pandemic last March.
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stops in 2020 in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Paris were cancelled, keeping players from earning tournament appearance fees and bonuses. Funding, always scarce in Canadian rugby, has dried up and some players have taken on odd jobs to make ends meet.
“We’ve been given what our organization can give us in terms of resources and that’s just the nature of the landscape of our sport in Canada,” Kaay said. “There’s not a whole lot of backing. To say money was a driving factor in what we do is not true. Playing for your country and having the opportunity to go to the Olympics, guys would be doing it for literally zero dollars.”
The pandemic comes on the heels of a tumultuous period for the men’s rugby sevens squad, which was engaged in a bitter labour dispute with Rugby Canada in 2018 and lost its head coach when Damian McGrath was fired in 2019.
“A lot of the guys on the team have been best friends for 10 years,” said Kaay, who works remotely for a Vancouver-based financial company. “Those friendships grow stronger and that’s what keeps you going, not wanting to be the one who walks away.”
Nobody has walked and, while uncertainty still lingers over whether the Olympics will proceed, the team has enjoyed a promising stint of training under head coach Henry Paul, who succeeded McGrath.
But Kaay has been sidelined since tearing his LCL (lateral collateral ligament in his knee) in January, the injury occurring in the gym one day before the Victoria-based team received clearance to hit the pitch.
“There is a group of guys giving it everything for the past six weeks in our version of a pre-season and I’ve been on the sidelines for it,” Kaay said. “It’s my first time being hurt and it sucks. It’s great watching guys improve, but it sucks to not be involved in it.”
Kaay has not missed an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stop since his debut in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2017. He has travelled the world and played in 164 Rugby Sevens Series matches, racking up 23 tries, 115 points and seven yellow cards.
The team normally travels with 13 players, 12 of whom dress for matches. There are 17 players on the training roster, not all of whom will make the cut to travel to Japan.
Kaay received positive news from a surgeon on Monday (March 1) and is aiming to resume team training within the next two or three weeks. Proving form and fitness is the next task, a challenging one considering COVID-19 restrictions do not allow for exhibition games at this point, although there has been talk of a tournament in Dubai.
“You go about every day as if the Games are going to happen and just work your butt off until something else has changes,” Kaay said. “Guys go in training three, four, five hours a day, five days a week, to go to the Olympics and it’s not even a certain thing. This is 100 per cent for the love of the game.”