When Kelly McCallum walks onto the stage at the Vancouver Convention Centre later this month and is officially inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, it will be a celebration of a rugby career with a rather serendipitous beginning.
In fact, if not for a scheduling error, it may not have started at all.
It was the early 1990s, and McCallum – the daughter of current Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum – was playing soccer for Douglas College, having recently graduated from Earl Marriott Secondary. A friend, who was a member of the Douglas men’s rugby team, had invited her to come watch a game.
“I’d never seen a game before, and I think he wanted me to see it so when he talked about rugby, I’d know what he was talking about,” she laughed.
However, her friend and his teammates were nowhere to be found when McCallum showed up at the Queen’s Park pitch.
“He told me the wrong time, so when I showed up – I’d just come from a soccer game, in all my gear – it was the girls rugby team that was about to start,” she explained.
As it turned out, the rugby team was short one player, and members of the side pressed McCallum into helping out, despite the fact she didn’t know the rules and had never even seen a game in her life.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I passed the ball off and ran into the end zone – that’s how much I knew about how to play,” said McCallum, who now lives in New Zealand.
She received some help from her brother, who had some experience with the sport as a Grade 8 player in North Vancouver, where the family lived before moving to Crescent Beach.
“He really pushed me to play, he was very keen on it. He said, ‘I’ll run up and down the sidelines with you and tell you what to do.’ After that, it just went from there.”
Congratulations to Kelly McCallum – announced as a #2019Inductee to the @bcsportshall – the first women ever to be inducted in the sport of Rugby! @bcrugbyunion @RugbyCanada – a true trailblazing legend who accumulated 30 international caps for #Canada from 2001-06
— Women in Sport BC (@ProMOTION_Plus) November 14, 2018
She continued to play for Douglas, leading the school’s premier side to a pair of provincial titles while also scooping up several ‘outstanding back’ and ‘most valuable player’ awards along the way. After the 2001-02 season, she was named the BC Rugby Union player of the year – the first woman to ever win the award. She also became a standout player and captain of numerous Fraser Valley and provincial sides, representing B.C. for six years. In 1994, she led the province to a national women’s rugby title.
After her first year with Douglas, she also received an invite – “I think it was a blanket invitation to all of us,” she said – to try out for Canada’s women’s seven-a-side team, as Rugby Canada aimed to sent a team to the prestigious Hong Kong Sevens tournament.
Perhaps not surprisingly – due to her lack of experience – McCallum was not picked for the final roster, but took the team up on an invitation to train with the top group in the run-up to the trip.
“They sent out a letter saying, ‘Sorry you didn’t make it, but if you’d like to come out and hold bags and shag balls… you’re more than welcome.’ They were training at Burnaby Lake, so I took them up on the opportunity,” she said.
“I went out every single night.”
In another twist, one of the Canadian squad’s players dislocated her shoulder in training the night before the team was to leave for the tournament. Now searching for a last-minute replacement, national team brass didn’t look beyond the hard-working player who had refused to go away.
“I got a phone call saying, ‘We need you to come with us and play for Canada,’” McCallum said.
Her first taste of international rugby would not be her last. Over the course of her career, she would amass a total 30 caps, and suited up for Canada at two Women’s Rugby World Cups, in 2002 and ‘06.
Though her playing career was impressive enough to earn her a spot in the hall of fame – the ceremony is set for May 23 – McCallum carved out an equally impressive career as a coach and girls-rugby pioneer once her playing days came to an end.
A teacher by trade – after a brief stint teaching in the Lower Mainland, she moved to London, where she played rugby and taught –McCallum is also credited with helping start the girls rugby program at Elgin Park Secondary.
McCallum was only few years into her own playing career when five Grade 8 Elgin girls – whom McCallum had known for years and previously coached in both swimming and water polo at the Crescent Beach Swimming Club – told her they wanted to play rugby, and asked her to coach them.
Despite her relative inexperience, she took them up on the offer. Years later, her coaching career took her across the globe, to jobs in Japan and now in New Zealand.
She currently lectures on sports and recreation at the university level – “Coaching the coaches,” is how she explains it – and is also a physical education officer with the Whangārei, N.Z. police department where she “helps keep them in shape.”
Though McCallum said she is “extremely honoured” to be recognized by the BC Sports Hall of Fame – she will be the first female rugby player among its inductees – she downplays much of the talk of her being an pioneer for girls rugby, though she is happy to see the sport growing both locally and worldwide.
“It was really humbling,” she said of being among the 2019 class, which was announced late last year and also includes World Cup skier Emily Brydon, Vancouver Canucks legends Daniel and Henrik Sedin and former NFL kicker Roy Gerela.
“I think of all the women who started in rugby before me, and I just hope this continues to open up pathways for all the young women coming through in rugby now,” she said. “To be honest, I’d like to take all those women who influenced me, and bring them on stage with me.
“They are the reason that I’m here.”