By: Mark Janzen
I had coffee with Ben LeSage on a Thursday in early December.
We met at a café on the campus of the world-renowned University of British Columbia.
He cycled to the local establishment – as he does most places around UBC, where he lives, plays rugby, and goes to school. It’s efficient. And in LeSage’s world – one I feebly attempted to comprehend over the course of our conversation – efficiency is imperative.
The next day, LeSage will take the third and final exam of the fall semester. This one pertains to software engineering. The Canadian rugby star, who hails from Calgary and is just one semester away from finishing a degree in mechatronics engineering, says it’ll be the “easiest” of his three exams.
Just nineteen days earlier and an ocean away, LeSage was in the starting lineup for one of the most important games in Canadian rugby history. Representing Canada in the last-chance Rugby World Cup 2019 repechage, LeSage helped lead his country to a 27-10 victory over Hong Kong, capping a three for three tournament that secured Canada the final spot in the quadrennial championship tournament. The UBC product started each of the three repechage games at outside centre, playing all but 23 minutes of the tournament. In a year that saw the now 23-year-old – his birthday was exactly one day after the tournament-ending win over Hong Kong – solidify his role as a key cog within Canada’s senior men’s setup, LeSage’s repechage performance put a stamp on his status amongst Canada’s rugby-playing elite.
And if wasn’t clear already, he did all this – all the travelling, the training and the performing – while taking a full course load at UBC and staying on track to finish his degree this spring. And, let’s not forget, he’s not skating through his final year on basket weaving and dance classes. It bears repeating – because it’s completely freakin’ ridiculous – he’s finishing up a degree in engineering.
Sitting in another Vancouver coffee shop just a week earlier, Theo Sauder (both a teammate of LeSage’s with Canada during the repechage and a former teammate at UBC) seemed utterly perplexed at LeSage’s ability to tour with the senior national team – something LeSage has done in four of his last five semesters – and remain in school.
“I don’t know how Ben LeSage does these tours,” he says. Like, actually, Sauder seemed befuddled as to the very avenue in which LeSage would even take to juggle it all while maintaining an impressive level of consistency both on the field and in the classroom. But, let’s be honest, Sauder’s confusion is understandable. Few can do what LeSage does.
Perhaps UBC coach Curry Hitchborn, who has witnessed the rise of LeSage firsthand, describes the multi-talented star best.
“He’s insane,” Hitchborn says. “He’s one of the most disciplined people I have ever met.
“Ben is one of those people who, when he decides to do something, he’s not just going to do it, but he’s going to do it to the best of his abilities and he just happens to be a highly capable person.”
Okay, it’s at this point where you’ll have to forgive me for what’s to come. In return, I will grant you grace.
The next 1,224 words may come off fanboyish (perhaps, the last 534 already did), but dammit, the kid is impressive. You might have picked up on that. But there’s more.
And, if you’re reading this and sensing a bubbling up feeling of inadequacy, that’s okay. That’s the grace piece I’m happy to grant. Again, the kid is special. Few of us can equate.
In the fall of 2016, LeSage had something of a coming out party at the Americas Pacific Challenge, tallying four tries in three games for the Canada ‘A’ side. That fall, he earned his first senior cap as a starter against Romania. A year later, in Canada’s November tour in 2017, it was a 40-minute second-half shift from LeSage against Fiji that seemed to catch the eye of Canadian coach Kingsley Jones.
Since then, LeSage has started in all seven of the games he’s played with Canada, including both Rugby World Cup qualifying matches against Uruguay, two international tests this past summer and, as mentioned, all three contests in the repechage.
Just over a year after arriving on the Canadian scene, Jones has seen enough to dish LeSage the highest of praise.
“Ben is a student, but he’s probably the most professional player we have – his preparation, his diet and his work ethic is second to none,” Jones says. “He’s tremendously disciplined and he’s very focused on what he’s doing. He shows maturity beyond his years.”
And, of course, the on-field success and accolades have all arrived while LeSage targets a degree that combines mechanical, electrical and software engineering.
“It’s put a lot on my plate, but I’ve definitely enjoyed it,” LeSage says. “I find that when you do it, things kind of go on autopilot and things get done because they have to and you don’t have a choice.”
On his most recent month-long classroom hiatus in England and France for the repechage, he spent his “down time” completing a couple of lab reports and one large software engineering assignment. He had to encode and model the inner workings of a gas station. It was a group project, so he also had to navigate the nine-hour time difference between Marseille and Vancouver. The project was due a few days after Canada beat Kenya, with Germany and Hong Kong still on the horizon.
“It’s nice,” LeSage says. “The first day after a game is a recovery day, so you can spend the whole day getting to work.”
Well, at least that’s what LeSage does.
While most of the guy play cards, grab coffees or, thanks to the persistence of Evan Olmstead, play Mafia, LeSage retreats to his school work.
“It’s just part of what I signed up for.” It should be noted that LeSage’s study sessions were joined by fellow on-tour students Guiseppe du Toit, who is studying through the University of Victoria, and Pat Parfrey, who is a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. However, neither du Toit nor Parfrey played in the all-important repechage games.
“I do enjoy it,” LeSage says. “When you’re going through the grind and completely overwhelmed, it can be pretty tough. But when you emerge from the other side, you appreciate that you’ve been able to do it.”
On LeSage’s LinkedIn page, there’s one previous job that stands out.
Beneath his recent work with RBC Investor and Treasury Services as a “Process Improvement Analyst” or his student co-ops with Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Stantec, is the title of “Founder/Landscaper” for Lawn to Lawn Mowing. He held the position from April 2008 to August 2013.
I’ll do the math for you. He was 12 years old when he started his own landscaping company with a neighbour. According to his description, the business “eventually serviced up to 17 clients.” Of course it did.
Yeah, turns out he’s been doing his thing for a while.
“When Ben showed up it was plain to see from the word ‘go’ he was willing to do whatever it took, both athletically and academically,” says Hitchborn, who might as well have also been talking about his preteen business acumen.
“Ben is possessing of great intelligence. It’s obvious in the way he solves problems, the way he deals with conflict – both physical and mental – and the way he quietly puts himself into a position to know when he’s needed and where he’s needed. He’s unreal.”
Rising to prominence in Alberta while playing rugby with Henry Wise Wood High School (Dr. E. P. Scarlett didn’t participate in rugby, so he suited up for the nearby Warriors), the Calgary Canucks and the Prairie Wolf Pack, LeSage arrived at UBC in the fall of 2013 with promise. Within eight months of arriving at the Vancouver-based school, he represented Canada at both the U18 level, in a two-match fall tour against Romania (2013), and with the U20 side, at the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Hong Kong (2014).
“(Early on) I was playing behind James Thompson (now coaching the UBC Old Boys Ravens) and Nate Rees (who had a 44-match career with Cardiff RFC and previously represented Wales U20) in the centre,” LeSage says. “It was such a great learning opportunity. Our practices were very physical and intense and you tend to rise with them as a group. The quality of players that we had in the program was as important as anything to my development.”
Taking lessons from both Thompson and Rees, LeSage developed into a model of consistency. As a hard-nosed tackler, the 6-foot, 205-pound centre became a defensive stalwart with a flair for thundering offensive runs that more often than not set the table for his try-scoring wingers. He became one of the Thunderbirds poster boys for excellence while working his way into Canada’s starting lineup through not-so-simple consistency.
Yet, with all his success, LeSage has remained focused on his engineering degree, while also adding a minor in commerce.
“It’s important to me to keep sticking to what I’m committed to and getting things done,” LeSage says, with an honest humility. “So, I don’t consider it a choice. I have to be fit for rugby. My assignments have to be handed in by a certain date. However it ends up happening, it all happens in the end.”
Don’t worry, we’re all feeling the same way. Cheers to inadequacy.
“Getting the degree was important to me,” says LeSage, who suffered a torn ACL while living and playing in New Zealand following his first year at UBC. “I’ve had enough serious injuries to know that one fluke incident and you could be on the sideline for a while and needing something to do.”
LeSage is also happy to chat. Highly personable, he’s in no rush.
Grilled with questions and giving a thorough answer to every query, his cappuccino is cold by the time he gets a chance to finish it. He’s good at this too.
On the pitch, his rugby goal for 2019 is obvious, with his target squarely set on the World Cup, where Canada will play in Pool B against New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia. But that’s still nine months away.
Right now, he has one semester left at UBC.
After that, for the first time in his life, he will have a chance to focus strictly on rugby. He can train as a full-time athlete. He can just rest on those recovery days (although he’ll probably have something else on the go). He can just play.
From this seat, that’s the craziest part. It could be that we have barely scratched the surface of LeSage’s playing potential. Let that soak in.
After he answers every question thrown his way, LeSage leaves a just barely empty cup. He walks away from the café and hops back on his bicycle.
This was his break.
It’s time to get back to studying.