Last October, as she packed her rugby bags pre-flight for what was to be an extended overseas professional residency in the birthplace of her sport, Sophie de Goede made sure to leave a little room for the other half of her athletic alter-ego.
“I brought my basketball shoes over, hoping that I would be able to get on a court somewhere, but with the lockdown here, there have been no gyms open,” the Victoria native explained one evening last week over the long-distance line from London, fresh off a training session that day with Saracens, who as the the two-time defending Allianz Premier 15s champions hold the distinction of being the best club team in England.
Alas, the blanket of snow which fell last week across the city and rendered the club’s training field unusable for a day would give her the excuse to coax that other side of her dual-sport persona out for her new British teammates see.
“They moved us into a gym, so for our warm-up, I got to shoot around and play basketball,” de Goede explains with delight. “It was nice because I hadn’t touched a ball in months.”
At the age of 21, Sophie de Goede is tabbed by many as one of the globe’s rising young rugby talents… a player to watch this September when she joins No. 3 Canada’s back row on the grand stage of the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
Yet that prior mention of her basketball shoes is far from an exercise in verbal puffery.
It is, in fact, the kind of revelatory example which insists, in the face of more traditional origin stories, that a blank athletic canvas filled over time with the broadest of brushstrokes, eventually tells the truest story.
As her star continues to rise, you may already have read the well-documented stories about her parents — Hans de Goede and Stephanie White — each former Canadian rugby internationals and each deeply-rooted within eras of the game so important to the development of Canadian rugby.
With roots so firmly planted in one sport, you can be excused for imagining a young girl’s introduction to the family sport as being somewhat mechanized, yet before that narrative can even be considered, you are jolted aback by what can only be described as the absolute counter-narrative.
Over her life as a student-athlete at Victoria’s Oak Bay Secondary School, de Goede played seven different sports: Soccer, cross-country, volleyball, rowing, track and field, basketball and rugby.
“Anything I wanted to do, they were there to support me,” she says of her parents. “I couldn’t have asked for a better hand to have been dealt.”
And thus at a time when most blue-chip athletes are already deeply entrenched in the process of specialization, a 10th-grade de Goede was continuing to diversify, putting basketball on near-equal footing with rugby, despite her absolute neophyte status on the hardcourt.
“She would be in the gym every morning at 7 a.m. getting up her shots, even though this wasn’t even her main sport,” remembers Rob Kinnear, her Oak Bay basketball coach.
Yet if her case of the Basketball Jones seems an absolute outlier in face of such substantive rugby DNA, there is, in fact, a very plausible explanation found on her family tree.
Her uncle John De Goede played three seasons in the Canada West (1980-83) with the Saskatchewan Huskies.
“We have a family cabin over in Lake Cowichan, and we put a hoop in the driveway and when I was younger, I would play three-on-three with my uncle John and my cousins,” says de Goede. “We’ve chatted about basketball and he remembers his playing days fondly.”
Those days were hardly a master class for her current career in the OUA with the Gaels.
Yet when she rediscovered the sport, in the midst of her prime rugby development years of Grades 10-12, she was doing so with the full support of her family, even if it meant what was in fact a re-defining of her athletic identity.
In fact by the time she gave the valedictory address for Oak Bay’s graduating Class of 2017, her rare double identity as a rugby-basketball standout proved so uniquely enticing that the schools which offered both sports had lined up to make their dual pitches.
All of which brings us to today, where some four seasons into her journey as a student-athlete at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., de Goede’s instincts to choose the institution which she felt would best allow her to pursue two varsity sports, in addition to a degree in Commerce, seems beyond reproach.
Last month, U SPORTS named de Goede one of its coveted Top 8 Academic All-Canadians, an octet selected from the 4,900-plus student-athletes who achieved Academic All-Canadian status for the 2019-20 season.
And while the crushing disappointment of a cancelled 2020-21 season across all sports resonated from coast to coast, de Goede remained ever pro-active, following up on a contact she had made with Saracens’ head coach Alex Austerberry ever since he first saw her play on tour during her Under-18 days.
“I had looked at coming out here after I finished with university,” de Goede says of Saracens. “But after our schooling went on-line and the U SPORTS seasons got cancelled, I wanted to keep playing in the lead-up to the World Cup. So when the opportunity presented itself to come over, I decided to take a leap of faith. I just said to myself ‘Why not now?’”
It’s safe to say her intuition has yet to let her down.
Since her mid-October arrival, all de Goede has done is continue to establish her presence at flanker and No. 8 within the line-up of a team filled with world-class quality, including flanker Marlie Packer and hooker Vicki Fleetwood, both members of England’s 2014 World Cup championship side.
And now, despite the fluid nature of a pandemic which can sink well-laid plans at the tip of a hat, the Vancouver Island import casts an optimistic eye to her future.
“Our playoff championships here will end mid-May,” she begins of Saracens, which on Saturday won for the eighth time in nine matches with a 73-3 win over last-place Durham Sharks. “After that I will come back to Canada, but I am not sure if it will be Kingston or Victoria. It depends on where the camp for the rugby national team will be.
“Hopefully we’ll have some fixtures to play, then head over the New Zealand to partake in the World Cup,” she continues. “And hopefully we’ll be playing in the championship on Oct. 16.”
From there, de Goede returns to Queen’s for a hopeful 2021-22 season, one which to her seems drenched in serendipity.
“Coming home to two national championships? That’s insane,” admits de Goede of the fact that Queen’s will not only play host to the U SPORTS national rugby sevens championships Nov. 3-7, but as well the U SPORTS women’s basketball championships in March of 2022 where she will get back on the court with her former Oak Bay teammate, forward Natalie Froese.
“Queen’s has been the best decision I’ve ever made,” de Goede says. “I love the school.”
EDEN PARK A DECADE LATER? EVEN SWEETER!
Ask Stephanie White about her daughter’s debut on the rugby pitch and you discover that it was more a matter of practicality than anything else.
“Sophie started playing rugby in Grade 3 because Hans and I were helping with the Grade 4-5 boys rugby team at her elementary school,” begins White. “She couldn’t stay home alone, so she joined in.”
In doing so, she followed in the footsteps of her older brothers Thyssen and Jake, the former having played with Canada’s national senior team and the latter, according to sister Sophie: “The best tackler out of the three of us. He had some nasty injuries so he never gets the shout-outs.”
Sophie de Goede doesn’t remember much about that debut season “except the the jersies were always way too big for me.”
Yet if she didn’t get the fit quite right to start with, she did, in a figurative sense, become more and more comfortable with who she was in the grand scheme of her family’s deep-rooted rugby heritage.
“I just remember being really excited to finally take part in the family tradition,” she says. “And I loved bragging to anyone who would listen that my parents were both capped by their respective national teams and played for those teams for over a decade.
“But at a certain point, when you become more cognizant of it all, it becomes a bit weighty to have that lineage,” she adds. “There is a legacy to follow. But my parents never pushed any of that on me and so I feel fortunate that I have been able to forge my own path. It’s never been a burden, but there were a few years there where I was like ‘These are some big shoes to fill.’”
Eventually, however, her rugby boots would fit just fine, and not just from a literal standpoint, but a figurative one as well.
In the summer of 2019, de Goede earned her first caps with the senior women’s national team during the Rugby Super Series competition held in southern California, scoring a try in her debut, a 35-20 loss to New Zealand.
And speaking of the South Pacific island nation where the game is an ingrained part of life, de Goede remains hopeful that as the world works towards turning the corner on coronavirus over the next seven months that she and the rest of the Canadian National Team will get their chance to go for gold over the month-long Rugby World Cup beginning in September.
If all of that happens, it will be her chance to re-visit the the rugby nation she last saw as a pre-teen one decade ago.
“I’ve yet to play there, but in 2011, my mom, dad and I travelled down there for a month and followed around the Canadian National men’s team at the World Cup,” de Goede recalls.
“We also went to two quarterfinal games at Eden Park, and saw the All-Blacks play in one of them,” she added of not only being a spectator for New Zealand’s 33-10 win over Argentina, but as well, France’s 19-12 win over England. “It’s such a storied venue in Auckland, so I know how crazy it is down there, and knock on wood, if all goes well, we’ll be there.”
Of course, the 60,000-seat Eden Park she first saw as an 11-year-old will be the site of 2021 women’s World Cup’s semi-final matches, as well as the championship final.
…THREE MINUTES TO SAY ‘SHE’S THE ONE’
Dave Wilson has helmed Queen’s Gaels women’s basketball, with the exception of one season, since the 1981-82 campaign, and it’s the depth of that extended resume which makes his first impression of Sophie de Goede such a meaningful one.
“We had Allison McNeill out to Kingston and I asked her if there was anyone out west that we should know about,” remembers Wilson of a discussion he had with the B.C.-based former Canadian senior women’s national team head coach following a basketball clinic. “The first thing she said to me was ‘Have you heard of Sophie de Goede?’”
Wilson took the uber-credentialed McNeill at her word and flew to Regina for the 2016 Canadian U-17 national championships. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It took me about maybe three minutes into my first game before I called my assistant coach James (Bambury) and I told him ‘This is the one,’” chuckles Wilson, who remains thankful Queen’s was the school to win the recruiting battle.
“Sophie was such a bulldog on the boards… just relentless,” continued Wilson of de Goede. “At that point, I loved her just for her rebounding alone, but as the game went along it just got better and better because she had no quit in her whatsoever. She ran as hard as she possibly could at both ends of the floor. She struggled a bit shooting in close but then she shot the three-ball very well. But it was her style of play that was most impressive. There was no lack of energy, effort or intensity. It was there in everything that she did.”
And therein lies the essence of Sophie de Goede.
While rugby is the sport where her world-class skill shakes hands with her relentless inner drive, that motor is still the defining constant, and its enough on its own to set her apart in virtually every other sport she has played.
Oak Bay coach Kinnear, a former Victoria Vikes player, was the first basketball coach to both see it and appreciate just how special it was.
“She was the definition of raw,” remembers Kinnear of the 1.0 version of de Goede which first cracked the roster of the Breakers’ senior varsity as a 10th grader in the fall of 2014.
“She was the classic kid who would miss a lay-up three times but then get every rebound, and eventually get an and-one because the other team got so frustrated.”
Yet she crushed the learning learning curve in such a manner that by the time B.C. AAA Final Four arrived, there was no taking her off the floor.
In fact de Goede, over her rookie senior varsity campaign, took part in one of the most unique games in B.C. girls provincial tournament history.
In a Final Four game in which the Breakers eventually lost 64-50 to the eventual champion Brookswood Bobcats and their superstar guard Aislinn Konig, neither team made a single substitution for the entire 40-minute contest.
Never leaving the floor in a top-tiered provincial senior varsity semifinal game is an accomplishment in and of itself, yet what needs to be considered here is not just how lightly-seasoned a player de Goede was at that point, but the fact that she hung on the court with what would be four future NCAA Div. 1 players that day in Brookswood’s Konig (North Carolina State), Louise Forsyth (Gonzaga) and Tayla Jackson (UC-Irvine, SFU) and her Oak Bay teammate Lauren Yearwood (Oregon, Santa Clara).
“You just quickly realized that she saw sports differently,” adds Kinnear. “She would be the first to tell you that she didn’t come in here as the most skilled basketball player around. But she saw angles, and she understood sports. That IQ just carries over from endeavour to endeavour.”
And then just like Queen’s coach Wilson, Kinnear arrives at the same bottom line.
“It sounds cliche, but she just tries harder than everyone else,” says Kinnear of de Goede, who in 2019-20 averaged 12.5 ppg for the Gaels. “I stream her games from Queen’s and there she is, in the OUA, still trying harder than everyone. That is her greatest skill. Her idea of competing is just different than everyone else’s.”
Sometimes, it seems, the simplest things in life can be the hardest to find.
ANSWERS FROM THE HEART
Earlier, we referenced how those broad brushstrokes, when applied over time, painted the truest picture.
All of that, as it applies to a portrait-in-the-making of Sophie de Goede, seems especially apropos.
“I have never come across that combination of talent from athletics in rugby, to athletics in basketball, to talent in academics, to the character of the person,” states Wilson. “Bar none, I have not seen that in anyone.”
Put all of those qualities together, and it’s no surprise that asking simple questions will, almost without fail, generate thoughtful answers.
Here’s two examples:
Q: Your mom Stephanie captained Canada at the very first Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991. That’s now 30 years ago. You are 21 and a professional in England and you’ve no doubt gleaned an understanding of how far the sport has come for women. Do the two of you find yourselves, as mother and daughter, both comparing and contrasting the yesterday versus the today?
A: One hundred percent. Women’s rugby is still such a young sport. It’s growing rapidly but we look at where we are today and it’s nowhere near where some other women’s professional sports are or obviously where men’s professional sport is. Sometimes that is really frustrating, but if you look at it from the other point of view, I think some of the perspective of my mom’s playing days is really helpful for me. It helps me not to take things for granted and to realize how far we have come from those days. Our national women’s XV team has only been not pay-to-play for three years now, since 2017. And not only pay-to-play but in my mom’s day you had to miss your day job, so you’re missing some salary, too.
“Having that perspective of my mom’s time on the national team starting in 1987, it’s really helpful for me to stay grounded and just be grateful for the opportunities that we do have, while pushing for further development of the game.”
Q: You played those seven different sports at Oak Bay. The narrative these days is clearly pro-multi-sport, but in your mind, what benefits did playing such a varied group of sports give you that endures to this day?
A: You know, there are the classic things, like physical literacy and general body awareness, but to me something that really helped was being in so many different situations in a team. So, there’s being a bench player in volleyball versus being a starter in other sports. That gives you the perspective of what it’s like to be a member of a team from so many different levels. I’ve found now, when I am working in a more high-performance team, you can understand where people are coming from. You can empathize more. So I think that taking part in so many different kinds of sports helped my leadership and my teamwork. And then socially, too. You can never have too many friends. That’s what my mom has always told me. That’s better than just being in your own cocoon.”
HER PLATE IS ALWAYS FULL
Paint a picture of Sophie de Goede’s daily grind.
You know, the one where she hits the books and grades out Top 8 among all U SPORTS student-athletes while concurrently starring in two varsity sports?
Or how about taking three classes on-line at the same time that you re-locate overseas to begin a professional career with England’s most successful club?
And if she navigates a few swipes deep into her daily on-line planner to scan the future, she’s criss-crossing the hemispheres of our globe, from England to Canada to New Zealand and back.
Yet in the meantime, why not keep yourself even more busy?
“I took three courses on-line last semester and I am actually taking this semester off,” de Goede says in anticipation of returning to her dual U SPORTS career next season.
Finally, some actual down time between the practices and games with Saracens?
“I’m actually studying for my LSAT this semester,” she says of the self-guided book-cracking adventure she has embarked upon, ahead of potentially sitting for her Law School Admissions Test.
So a career in law awaits?
“I just want to keep my options open if it ends up being something I am interested in, plus it keeps me busy while I am here,” she adds. “So… training, eating, sleeping… now I have another thing to distract me.”
It’s her way of keeping that figurative plate full at all times.
From a more literal standpoint, London seems to be Victoria’s equal in terms of foodstuff, with perhaps two exceptions.
“I miss Vector,” she says of her favourite breakfast cereal, “and they don’t have Salad Topper here. Have you ever gotten Salad Topper at Costco? It’s a go-to for me.”
All kidding aside, what does she do in those actual rare moments of down time?
“I am a classic LeBron fan,” she begins. “I love Luka Dončić. He and LeBron are my two favourites.
“I like listening to podcasts, like JJ Redick’s podcast, the Bill Simmons podcast. I get lost in the NBA gossip and trade rumours,” says de Goede. “It’s another way to zone out when you’re having breakfast.”
Of course, the thing she has enjoyed most has been meeting the challenges she has proactively put before her, including her immersion in the best that international rugby has to offer her each day as part of Saracens training.
“We have quite a few England internationals on our team and they have been around the block a few times, like multiple World Cups,” she begins.
“It’s the rugby IQ and the experience, it’s picking up on the lines they are running, just reading the game on a different level,” de Goede adds of being around not only Packer and Fleetwood but the likes of No. 8 Poppy Cleall, fly half Zoe Harrison and fullback Sarah McKenna. “It’s been so helpful for me thus far, being able to dissect what they are thinking.”
It’s an extension of the kind of environment de Goede first came to appreciate as she talked with her father Hans abut his experiences as a pro in Cardiff, and captaining Canada in 1987 at the inaugural men’s World Cup.
Wilson, headed to retirement from Queen’s basketball after this very strange 2020-21 season, wears his pride for de Goede on his sleeve.
“Just don’t ask me how she does it,” begins Wilson who next season turns the reigns over to Claire Meadows, one of his former player who has coached at both UBC Okanagan and Saskatchewan.
“Sophie wants to win two national titles in the same academic year,” Wilson adds of the U SPORTS double opportunity which awaits upon her return to native soil. “I think that would be something you wouldn’t see again for a very, very long time.”
None of this is a surprise to Rob Kinnear, who has watched the traits de Goede showed in high school adapt to scale on both the national and international stages.
“I remember one year we were out on the road somewhere at a tournament, and I asked her ‘How do you do it?’” recalls Kinnear, “and she said she just asks herself the same question every day: ‘Did your actions today match your goals for tomorrow?’”
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