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Defying the odds: Acadia Axewomen rugby player reflects on miraculous recovery, return to sport

Annie Kennedy, pictured with her Team Canada uniform on, played in the U20 Tri-Nations Cup for Canada.
Annie Kennedy, pictured with her Team Canada uniform on, played in the U20 Tri-Nations Cup for Canada. - Eric Cederberg

WOLFVILLE, NS - Annie Kennedy has not followed the typical pathway of an athlete trying to reach the national level of competition in sport.

The third-year veteran on the Acadia Axewomen rugby squad has had to overcome her share of challenges over the last few years.

Kennedy first wore the maple leaf at age 18, when she made the U18 Canadian women’s team. That summer, she had not been selected for the U18 Ontario provincial team but, thanks to a highlight tape that was viewed by the right coaches, she still managed to get an invite to travel with Team Canada on tour to England.

From Kingston, Ont., Kennedy had always planned to attend Queens University, but had a love for the east coast. After making the national team, she received a message from Matt Durant with an invite to travel to Wolfville to see Acadia University.

“As soon as I stepped foot on campus I was sold. There’s just something about Wolfville that pulls you in,” said Kennedy of her recruitment trip.

The small class sizes were important to Kennedy, who places a high value on school. Kennedy is currently extremely involved in the Kinesiology school as a Student Athletic Therapist in the SIAM program, and says that Acadia was definitely the right choice for her education.

Her first season at Acadia, Kennedy was immediately an impact player on the women’s rugby team. The team was faced with a building year, and saw many young players starting and taking on leadership roles.

Thankfully, it was one of the best recruiting years the team had seen, and they were arguably the best recruit class in the country that year. Kennedy played fullback that season, and kicked the majority of the converts for the team.

“It was definitely a good season,” she said, reflecting on her freshman year.

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Traumatic turn of events

Homecoming weekend was when things changed for Kennedy that year.

She was feeling sick a couple nights before the Axewomen’s homecoming game, and things quickly got worse. She reached out to her teammates, and veteran players on the team took her to the hospital.

Kennedy said that the last thing she remembers after arriving at the hospital was doctors telling her they needed to cut her sports bra off. She woke up three days later to learn she had been medically induced into a coma and was on life support.

She had a breathing tube and could not speak or walk.

There was no official diagnosis speaking to the exact root cause of the sudden upheaval in her life.

“The amount of support I had is how I got through it. That’s why I was able to make it through the semester,” said Kennedy.  

Everyone from her teammates, to her coaches, and Acadia leaders like Ray Ivany and Kevin Dickie visited her daily while she was in the hospital. When her parents received the call that she was in the hospital, it was Krista Robertson from the Acadia Athletic department who picked them up in the hospital in the middle of the night.

While in the coma, a nerve got severed in Kennedy’s calf, resulting in an inability to walk. After being taken off life support, she was able to slowly begin working with physiotherapists and rehabilitation staff to begin the progression back to walking. Learning how to use a wheelchair and a walker was devastating to the 18-year-old varsity athlete whose season was abruptly ended.

Amongst all of these challenges, Kennedy was recognized as the Acadia Women’s Rugby Back of the Year, an AUS All-Star winger and made Second Team All-Canadian for U Sports.

These awards motivated her to not lose focus on a comeback season, and they are what kept her working so hard.  

An inspiration to the team

With Kennedy in the hospital, the Axewomen still had a season to continue without their starting fullback.

The remainder of that season was played for Kennedy. The team wore yellow tape on their cleats because it was her favorite color. They knew that while she was not able to be on the field with them, Kennedy was watching every minute of every game from her hospital bed, and they could not disappoint her.

Being faced with something as scary as having a teammate on life support forced the rugby team to put aside their differences that season and made the girls closer than ever.

“It was definitely a tough journey, but there are so many positives that came out of it. My family is so close with Kevin Dickie, Ray Ivany and Jim MacLeod because of all this. We still meet up with them whenever they [Annie’s family] come to visit every year,” said Kennedy.

Doctors had originally told Kennedy not to get her hopes up because it was unlikely that she would ever play rugby again.

She proved them all wrong only eight months after getting out of the hospital when she sported a Keltics’ jersey and played for the Nova Scotia U20 women’s provincial team at Eastern nationals. While she immediately noticed that she was not the same payer she was before, she got sick, she was determined to get back to where she had been.

Defying the odds

Not even two years after being in the coma, Kennedy has returned to once again wear the maple leaf and represent Canada.

She spent countless hours working with the Acadia Student Athletic Therapists, the Acadia Strength and Conditioning staff and her doctors to overcome the results of her time in the hospital.

All of her hard work has most definitely paid off. She was selected this past summer for the U20 national team, alongside Acadia teammates Harley Tucker and Valerie Wideski.

She was able to represent Canada in matches played at Acadia University, and in Halifax against USA and England.

Kennedy recognizes that she got lucky, and things could have gone the other way just as easily. “I realized that life is too short to take for granted. This whole experience has really helped me to grow up,” she said.

When asked of where she sees herself playing rugby next, Kennedy immediately mentions the senior women’s national team and Acadia.

“Once you’re at that national level, the next goal is to play for Canada in a World Cup one day. But for this year, the focus is on Acadia and winning an AUS championship” said Kennedy.

As the team captain of the Axewomen this season, she hopes to lead the squad to an AUS championship, and also mentioned that a “medal at nationals on the home turf would be a pretty remarkable feeling and totally doable for this team”.

- Story by Sara Baxter, Acadia Athletics

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