Sandro Fiorino has just finished breakfast. He relaxes in his chair. He’s among the last of Canada’s contingent still in the dining hall. Amidst a whirlwind week at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, where he’s coaching Canada’s women’s 15s side in a two-match series against the USA, he embraces a few moments of relative quiet. He has things to do, but when it comes to Tausani Levale, he has time to talk.
“There are two worlds of Sani,” says Fiorino, who has coached Levale within both the context of Canada’s Sevens and 15s teams. “There’s Sani on the field and there’s Sani off the field and they’re totally different. Off the field, she’s very laid back and very creative and she’s a musician. But when she steps on the field, you see the other side of Sani – someone who is highly skilled and highly physical and who’s brave on both sides of the ball.”
A few minutes earlier, he witnessed off-field Sani (appropriately pronounced “sunny”), kibitzing with teammates over a meal.
Less than 24 hours before that, on a rain-soaked field, he saw on-field Sani thumping Eagles when she didn’t have the ball, and running through them when she did. Levale, 20, helped Canada win 19-0.
Fiorino chatted with a few of the American coaches after the game.
“They thought she was our best player,” he says.
It’s because she was having fun.
The 5-foot-6 inside centre was born in Tofino, B.C., and spent the first two years of her life living in nearby Ahousat on Flores Island (where her parents were doing missionary work) before moving to Abbotsford, B.C., where she went on to spend the majority of her life. Yet, her Samoan heritage, which comes through her dad Poi, is most prevalent on the pitch. Sure, there’s the fancy feet, the creativity, and those Pacific Island-inspired offloads, but more importantly, Levale is at her very best when she’s playing with a smile.
“When she’s on the field and she’s playing free…it’s like watching art,” says her older sister Nakisa Levale.
Such was the case in Chula Vista.
In Canada’s second match with the USA, the Canadians won again, 52-27. Levale scored a 65th-minute try.
“Rugby wise, it was a really exciting tour,” Levale says. “We know the system, so we were able to start to be creative with it and start making magic happen. We thrive off enjoying the sport, which frees our body to express ourselves.”
In short, this – the love of the purest form of the sport and, of course, the accompanying community – is Levale.
It’s what drew “Sunshine,” as she is known to some, to rugby in the first place.
Following in the footsteps of her dad and Nakisa into the sport, the younger Sani started playing rugby in Grade 8, joining a senior girls team with the Abbotsford Rugby Club that featured players all the way up to Grade 12.
“I was so terrified, but just the way people treated me – I immediately felt at home in the community of rugby,” says Levale, who had grown up largely playing soccer to that point. “I had never felt like a team was a family before, but this rugby program actually lives it. That’s what kept me coming back.”
In her Grade 10 year, a rugby trip to Japan solidified her connection with the sport.
“That’s when I had this moment – it’s not just about rugby. There’s more to it. I started to think about a missionary aspect to rugby.”
Flying home after representing Canada at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas, Levale had a silver medal in her bag. Upon landing in Vancouver, it did nothing to console her.
She had just graduated from Abbotsford Senior Secondary and, with her pleasantly distracting trip to the Bahamas now behind her, the chaos of after high school decision-making become a reality. She was really good at rugby, but was that what she wanted to pursue? Or should she go after a post-secondary education? Or should she do missionary work?
“I was really upset,” she recalls. “I had no clue what I wanted to do in life. I didn’t want to do anything that God didn’t want me to do. I wanted to fulfill his plan.”
So, she decided to trust that she would receive a sign from God. If she received an email from Canada Women’s Sevens coach John Tait, she would pursue rugby and join the national team. However, if she received any sort of email from Fiorino, who was her coach at the Commonwealth Youth Games, she would embark on missionary work.
Two days later, she opened her computer in the kitchen of her family home in Abbotsford. In her inbox was an email from Tait, inviting her to come be part of Canada’s Sevens program.
“It was a weird moment,” says Sani, who would join her sister Nakisa, who was already with the national team. “I was like ‘Okay. This is what God wants me to do.’ I better prepare myself. I was ready for battle in a sense. I knew this is going to be a tough ride.”
Thus began a two-year stint with Canada’s Sevens program – one that included ups and downs, made tours and missed tours, and injuries.
She made her debut on the World Rugby Sevens Series in the fall of 2017 in Dubai. She scored her first-ever World Series try against Ireland in just her second game on the circuit and she did so in fine fashion, making three would-be tacklers miss before running what would amount to an 80-metre score.
The next stop on the series was in Sydney and, as an 18-year-old, she made that team too. But that would prove to be her final World Series tournament.
Over the subsequent year, she played in a variety of other events for Canada, including with both Canada’s Sevens development team, the Maple Leafs, and the senior 15s side. But, in the spring of 2019, after being with Canada for the better part of two seasons, she was presented another life-altering decision.
Trinity Western University coach Andrew Evans called.
The Spartans, who are based in Langley, B.C., were starting a women’s Rugby Sevens varsity team and he wanted to see if Levale would have interest in joining the fledgling program.
With the Olympics just over a year away and Levale in a position to potentially wear the Maple Leaf in Tokyo in 2020, the timing to go to TWU didn’t seem right. “I kind of shut him down quickly,” Levale says.
However, in a moment, things changed.
Evans was sitting on his balcony at home when he said the words that stuck with Levale. Their conversation over the phone was coming to an end.
“This sounds like God’s at work at this place, but the timing just doesn’t seem right for me,” Levale said. “I’m trying to go to the Olympics. That’s my goal.”
“Yea, that makes sense,” Evans replied. “That makes a lot of logical sense.”
They said goodbye and hung up.
“I was like, ‘He’s right, that does make a lot of logical sense,’ Levale says. “But in my life, if it makes logical sense, it’s probably my thinking and not God’s thinking. From there, I decided to take this opportunity seriously.
“Eventually, I started to realize that I think I’m actually supposed to leave. I think God is saying it’s time for me to go. ”
Evans also distinctly remembers that conversation.
“It makes logical sense to stick around for a year to have a crack at the Olympics. But faith doesn’t work in logical ways often. Obviously that struck a cord with Sani. I think it’s a statement with how strong she is as a leader and a person to know herself. The easy thing would have been to stay at Rugby Canada. The hard thing was to step outside of that pathway and to go into something that doesn’t make logical sense.
“Eternal things are not logical in many ways. I think Sani’s decision to come to TWU is a good example of how passionate she is about things greater than rugby.”
Levale says: “Andy is a man of God. I could tell he had a heart for rugby and he had a heart for women’s rugby and you could tell that his intentions were pure.”
Later that summer, she got one more opportunity to play for Canada’s Sevens team at the Pan American Games in Peru. She went out in style, running the locker-room music like a DJ on variety night and winning a gold medal.
Upon leaving the national sevens program, she made a point of saying a proper goodbye to every one of her teammates, either in person or over the phone. She wrote down a list of things she wanted to say to each of them.
“I thought this was just a normal thing to do when you leave, but everyone was super surprised by my phone call.”
Canadian Sevens teammate Kaili Lukan, who was become a World Series regular for Canada, shed light on their surprise.
“Yea, you know why?” she told Sani. “It’s because there probably isn’t anyone else on this team who actually really knows everyone on the team enough to say a personal goodbye.”
That brought Levale a sense of peace.
“If my work here is some sort of missionary work and I’m with these girls for a while, I just wanted to build relationship with the girls. But a lot of times I felt like I was failing because there was nothing drastic that ever happened.
“When Kaili said that, I was like, ‘Okay, I made a relationship with everyone on the team, so that’s God’s work right there.”
Nakisa sums it up.
“She’s loving and accepting of everyone. She wants to get to know people. It doesn’t matter their walk of life – she genuinely wants to get to know them. She’s a great listener and that’s what makes her such a great leader and teammate.”
In the end, her Canadian teammates were all supportive. For most of them, the response was, “This is something only Sani would do.”
Two years before arriving at TWU, Levale had recently arrived in Langford to begin her time with the national team. In late October, the team travelled to Australia for the 2017 Central Coast Sevens tournament. Having brought more players to what was also a training camp than the tournament’s roster limit, Canada had three of its players, including Sani, Nakisa and Pam Buisa, play for a US-based but internationally eclectic Stars Rugby 7s team within the same event.
Levale is quick to recall the opportunity as one of her fondest rugby memories.
“The coach (Australian Pete Hammond) just let us play freely,” says Levale, whose side finished fourth in the tournament, with her scoring five tries, including one against Canada in the semifinals. “Our game plan was just to support each other. That was the way that me and Nakisa play with each other. We don’t talk when we play. When we run together, I would just read her body language and I knew what line to run off her. If you know your team well enough, you can do it with everyone.
“We were all in the mindset to support each other. That was the moment where I realized this is what I want to take and create on a team some day.
“That’s what I want to do at TWU.”
A little more than two months into her time at TWU this past fall, the Spartans hosted the University of the Fraser Valley in the team’s first-ever scrimmage.
One didn’t need be a rugby connoisseur to see, or more specifically, hear Levale’s contribution. The collisions she created just sounded different.
“When you watch Sani play, she makes everyone smile,” Evans says. “She has special plays and then she has bone-crunching tackles. She makes her teammates smile because they’re thankful that she’s on their team.”
On a TWU team featuring a variety of cross-over athletes and players who are relatively new to rugby, she’s also become a teacher.
“I’m loving it and I love our team so much,” Levale says. “They’re just awesome to work with and the culture that has been created is amazing.What I love teaching the game one-on-one. It’s been a joy.
“I’ve never played with a team that played with so much heart before. They weren’t the best team, but the way they were playing, they were ride or die. I could see that in each individual.”
In the front entrance of Levale’s Abbotsford home is a bulletin board littered with photos of family, friends and, of course, friends who are basically family.
With her extended family in either Samoa or Manitoba, where her mom, Nettie, is from, the communities she has built in B.C. – through rugby, church and lifelong friends – have been her everything.
“I think it’s natural that people want family,” she says. “It’s so much more natural to love and be positive, rather than negative. It’s engrained in humans. If you give them the key to unlock that part, they’ll take it every single time. Then, I think it’s possible to create that unique team bond.”
At TWU, she has found yet another unique community.
“I’ve never really felt connected to a church body,” says the ukulele-playing Levale, who is studying worship arts. “When I came to Trinity Western, this is the first time I’ve ever really felt closely connected to a church of sorts. I’ve never met so many people who genuinely have a faith in Christ and are amazing people and they care for me.
“I’ve finally found my people in a sense. I love it.”
Sitting in a cozy coffee shop in downtown Abbotsford, Levale has barely touched her latte. She’s been excitedly explaining her journey to Langley.
One obvious question remains.
Was it hard to walk away from your Olympic dream? (At least for now!)
“Surprisingly, no. I love sports, but for me, sports is a means of getting me to other places in life.
“Making the Olympics wasn’t a childhood dream or anything like that. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by not pursuing that dream. My dream has always been more with people.”
In TWU’s first-ever Canada West Rugby 7s tournament in Edmonton, she helped the Spartans finish sixth in the eight-team event, including a win over Fraser Valley. Levale scored one try and was five for six on conversions.
This is just the start.
“Eventually, I want us to be a top team in Canada. I know it takes a long time to build a program, but I think it’s possible. I’m willing to put in the work to help make this happen.”
She has a dream to help build a culture, a style and, most importantly, a rugby-playing family.
Sunshine can’t help but smile when she thinks about what’s to come.
Note: Along with his work with Ædelhard, Mark Janzen is also the Manager of Marketing and Media at Trinity Western Univeristy.