By Mark Janzen
Alexa Gray shed a tear.
On this day, it was in support of the Stars and Stripes. More specifically, the Canadian international volleyball star was cheering on her USA-playing sister, Jordan Matyas.
The Canadian family members sitting alongside side Gray in Red Deer, Alberta on a certain Canada Day in 2015 were also rooting for Matyas and her American teammates. They were wearing USA t-shirts and, it could be said that as the game progressed, their Maple Leafed socks gradually slunk down their ankles.
This day was different.
On July 1, 2015, with Matyas at No. 8, the USA upset Canada to the tune of 36-28. The win came on the heels of Matyas making her Eagles debut in a Super Series contest against England.
Of all her rugby-playing experiences, of which there are many, including competing in both the 2017 Rugby World Cup and the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, that Canada Day game remains among Matyas’ most memorable moments.
“When the final whistle blew, I looked into the crowd and it was just crazy that we had pulled that off,” Matyas says. “My sister was crying and was so proud of me.”
Born in Las Vegas, but largely raised in Alberta, the dual-citizen was playing for the “rivals,” yet, of course, her family beamed with, on the day, American pride.
“I was born in the U.S., so I was technically an American citizen first,” say Matyas, who married San Diego Legion star Ryan Matyas and changed her last name from Gray. “I made my way through the pathway that USA Rugby had and eventually, once I made it to the top, all the girls became a second family to me and I’d never want to leave.
“When it comes to rugby, I’m USA all the way.”
Four years removed from her Eagles debut, Matyas has become a tour regular with the Eagles Sevens side and this weekend will be one of the trusted leaders in the USA Camp for the World Rugby Sevens Series season-opening stop in Glendale, Colorado. She’ll do so with a uniquely familial dream.
Jordan and Alexa hope to meet in Tokyo next summer.
Here’s the set-up. Gray is a superstar with Canada’s women’s indoor volleyball team. If they qualify for the 2020 Olympics, she would be a hard-swinging star. On the rugby pitch, the Eagles are already Tokyo-bound. Matyas, 26, just needs to ensure she’s on the flight to Japan.
It would likely be an unprecedented sister act.
It would also be a special moment beyond anything the twin-like sisters, who are just 13 months apart, could have ever imagined 11 years ago when their entire world took a devastating turn.
In 2008, Jordan and Alexa were travelling with their mother, Stacey French, late one evening in Alberta when their car hit an elk. Jordan, who was 15, and Alexa, who was 13, survived, but their mother Stacey did not.
French was always Matyas’ basketball coach and, of course, her biggest fan. Her passing marked a crossroads for Matyas and a forever inspiration.
“Right after (she passed away), I was like ‘I don’t even know if I want to play basketball or play sports,’” Matyas recalls. “But my sister was like ‘You need to play sports. That’s who you are. She would be so proud of us.’
“Now, thinking back, my mom has had a huge part in my whole success and she’s my motivator and my ‘why.’ Whenever things are getting really hard or I feel like I want to give up, I remember everything that she did for me to help me become a successful athlete.”
Already close as sisters, Jordan and Alexa became utterly inseparable – so much so that as high schoolers, the older Matyas, who started playing rugby in Grade 9, convinced the volleyball-centric “I don’t ever want to experience contact” Gray to join her on the rugby pitch.
“I think I made rugby into a non-contact sport for myself,” Gray says with a laugh. “Every time someone would get close, I’d pop the ball away. I just liked playing with Jordan and I wanted to be around her as much as I could. But I was terrified.”
The Alexa experiment lasted a year.
But Matyas kept playing and soon enough found her way.
“I liked the contact aspect,” Matyas says. “Once I started to understand rugby, I became really passionate about it because you could mix finesse with physicality.”
Graduating from Centennial High School in Calgary, she joined the women’s rugby program at Brigham Young University (Gray, who was already being recruited by BYU in Grade 11 would arrive a year later).
“I had always wanted to be in the WNBA when I was a kid,” Matyas admits. “I just played rugby because I loved it. Then it started to evolve into something that I could do beyond high school.”
While at BYU, her professional potential began to formulate.
“I feel like she’s been destined to be great at rugby and she’s shown it,” Gray says.
In 2016, Matyas graduated from BYU having earned All-American honours every year.
A calendar year later, her career was in full blossom. Earning a contract with the Eagles Sevens, she made her World Series debut in April of 2017 in Kitakyushu, Japan. Four months later, she switched back to the 15s game and helped the USA to a fourth-place finish at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland. Less than a year after that, she found herself at her second World Cup in as many years, donning the Red, White and Blue at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
“It was so cool to play at that stadium and play on home soil,” Matyas says. “That was really special to be able to represent my country in my country.”
This weekend Glendale, Matyas, who has played in 51 matches and scored six tries all-time on the Sevens series, will once again get to play in the USA.
And, as she does every time she takes the field, she’ll be thinking about her mom and her sister.
“I write my mom’s name on my wrist,” Matyas says. “I always think about my ‘why.’ When I’m in a bad mindset, I look to the sky and I know that’s where she is and she always brings me back to understanding and realizing why I’m doing this and why I love it.”
In Glendale, Matyas will begin the season-long journey to Tokyo.
She’ll look to help lead the Eagles in her ever-so-unique Jordan-like way.
On the pitch, she’s a unique competitor.
“She’s a very kind person and she competes in a different way,” Gray says. “She has a different competitiveness about her. She’s graceful on the field. I think she brings something different than the normal competitiveness you find in such a physical sport.”
Off the field, she’s the consummate teammate.
Matyas doesn’t even drink coffee, but she’s always keen to join with the Eagles ever-caffienated crew on their latest coffee-pursuing endeavours (she says she’ll enjoy avocado toast instead). She has embraced the family and there’s no doubt, the Eagles family has embraced Matyas.
“She enjoys her job and she loves what she does and she knows how cool it is to represent her country in a full-time job,” says Jordan’s husband Ryan.
“She definitely doesn’t take the responsibility of being an Eagle lightly.
“She wears it very proudly.”