In the wake of a silver medal win at the 2023 Pan American Games, Tseshaht member Shalaya Valenzuela and the rest of the Canadian women’s rugby sevens team is gearing up for another elite competition in Dubai and Cape Town this December.
Valenzuela, who grew up in Abbotsford and has family in Port Alberni, said that although her team didn’t take top spot at the Pan Am games, held in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 3 and 4, they were more than happy with making the podium with a second-place win.
“Going in we knew our biggest rivals would be U.S.,” Valenzuela said. “We finally did play U.S. in the final and basically our whole game was pretty back and forth. Then it was two minutes left and we were up by two points, and unfortunately things just didn’t go our way in the last couple minutes of the game. [U.S.] ended up winning the gold but overall getting silver was exactly what we wanted, we wanted to be on the podium.”
According to Rugby Canada, rugby sevens is a stripped-down version of the sport with just seven players, instead of 15, on each team playing on a full-sized pitch.
The Canadian women’s team opened the tournament with a 36-0 win over Chile on Nov. 3 and then another win against Mexico 69-0 later that day. They finished the first day with a 29-21 win over Brazil.
Valenzuela and her Canadian teammates were then advanced to the final four. They beat Columbia 45-14 in the semifinal on Nov. 4 which sent them to the gold medal match against the U.S., which they lost 19-12.
“It wasn’t the outcome that we desired, but I thought that the performance throughout the weekend was excellent,” said head coach Jack Hanratty in a Rugby Canada article. “We had a lot of control and possession throughout the entire game, but a score [against] in the last play of the second half and last play of the first half, that was 12 points of the 19 that we conceded. We’re disappointed, but we’re a group that’s building for Paris and with that we want to be in these gold medal games.”
The Canadian women’s sevens team have qualified for the 2024 summer Olympics to be held in Paris next July. Valenzuela hopes to be selected to go to Paris with her team.
Leading up to the Pan Am games, Valenzuela said the Canadian team had quite a grueling training schedule. The women would train six days a week with some days having double sessions, conditioning, weight training and combat fitness.
“This team going in was basically a new team, half of our team went off to do a tour of 15’s so we were kind of playing with a whole new side, mixing positions…so the fact that we ended up on the podium was just a huge accomplishment in itself,” Valenzuela said.
Canada’s sevens women’s and men’s teams return to action Dec. 2-3 for Dubai SVNS. The 2024 HSBC SVNS is the first of eight stops between December and May, with both teams competing on home soil at Vancouver SVNS over Feb. 23-25, 2024.
“Dubai and Cape Town will be our first series competition, so the beginning of our season,” Valenzuela said. “We will get to rematch USA in a couple weeks in Dubai and Cape Town and hopefully beat them and secure the win against them.”
This is Valenzuela’s second season with the Canadian women’s sevens. Before becoming a member of the national team in 2022, the 24 year old played with the Abbotsford Rugby Football Club, Victoria Vikes and she spent two years in the Rugby Canada Maple Leaf Academy.
Being an Indigenous rugby player at a national level is not something Valenzuela see’s often, or at all. She said that although her team acknowledges the First Nation’s land they play on, there’s very little Indigenous representation among the players.
“I’ve been here for a couple years on team Canada and there isn’t anyone else that identifies as being Indigenous,” she said. “If there’s a tournament or event going on there’s always someone from a band from whatever area it is… someone will always come in and do a welcoming song.”
Valenzuela said she didn’t grow up having a deep understanding of her Nuu-chah-nulth roots and only visited other members of the Tseshaht First Nation when her dad would bring her to Port Alberni for “fish days”.
“It was so new to me but it was so cool. When I went there I didn’t know who anyone was but my dad had so many friends and family who knew me when I was a baby,” Valenzuela said. “It was super welcoming… a whole side of my identity that I didn’t know.”
Valenzuela didn’t always have it easy growing up. She spent time in foster care as a youth and her mother was struggling with substance use issues. Turning to sports was a way for Valenzuela to feel equal to her peers.
“Growing up I didn’t want to be judged by my parents’ decisions…I didn’t want to be defined by certain things,” Valenzuela said. “I always looked to school and sports and I always thought that if I did good in school and sports that people would look at me as equal.”
Now, Valenzuela wants other Indigenous youth to believe in themselves, follow their dreams and not let their struggles get in the way of what they want to achieve.
“It sounds so cliché to say that anything is possible or follow your dreams, but it literally is. You have to just go for it,” she said. “If I thought when I was younger that I can’t do that because I’m not from a well-off family or I don’t have the same things as other people…I wouldn’t be where I am today.”