In late November of 2019, Emmanuela Jada was in a seemingly familiar place, and it wasn’t easy.

The oft-injured rugby-playing star with the University of Guelph Gryphons was told she was likely destined for a return to the sidelines with torn ligaments in her knee. Surgery and a long recovery – one she had only experienced in the previous year – seemed in the offing.

Yet, as an inquiring mind walked through snippets of her past, present, and future – one littered with excitement yet fraught with challenges, including what seemed like yet another injury – Jada’s rugby dreams remained steadfast. Jada, who has been capped by both Canada’s Sevens and 15s teams, reiterated her plans to recover, rally, and play in the World Cup in 2021.

All things considered – and we’ll get to those – her ‘never quit’ mindset was inspiring.

That was going to be the story – her well-honed resilience and how she was determined to tackle her next challenge. In a sense, it still is, but with a twist.

Not long after her cross-county phone call, Jada, who lives in Guelph, Ontario, had her knee reassessed.

Soon after, an email arrived from Jada.

My knee is doing well. All my ligaments are intact. So, I was just misdiagnosed!

(My) World Cup dreams still live on!

Of course they do. They would have regardless of the diagnosis. That’s Jada. But, now her path can include a lot more rugby and a lot less rehab.

“It was a really big sigh of relief,” Jada, 24, says in an early-February conversation.

Her resilience remains – like it has since before she took her first steps. Her next challenge – the latest in a litany of hurdles she has overcome – is just a bit different.

Amidst the Second Sudanese Civil War, Emmanuela’s mom, Katerina Lonyik, escaped from South Sudan to the northern part of Sudan, where, in 1995, Emmanuela was born.

Before she was a year old, she suffered from serious health concerns.

“She was very sick,” Katerina recalls.

Precise details are scant, but her health was a constant concern until she started to get better when she was two and half years old. After Katerina and Emmanuela moved to Egypt in 1999, she overcame her ailment and quickly developed into a kid bursting with energy and, of course, speed.

“She liked to run a lot,” Katerina says. “Yeah, she was very fast.”

Emmanuela remembers little snippets of Egypt. She recalls riding on a bike with her uncle. She recollects a time when her hand was accidentally slammed in door (“I don’t know why,” she says). She remembers hanging out with friends on the roof of their homes – something common in her neighbourhood.

She’ll also never forget the time she was denied bread because of the colour of her skin.

After standing in line to buy bread, a seven-year-old Jada and her friend had finally made it to the front of the queue. They were told the shop was out of bread “at the moment.” Oblivious to what was really going on, the youngsters returned to the back of the line assuming they’d just wait for the bread to be re-stocked. Customers came and went. Upon arriving at the front of the line for the second time, the merchant denied them again. She remembers this happening multiple times over the next hour before her mom quietly brought them home. They didn’t get bread.

“I was oblivious to what was going on. But, yeah, it was a racial thing.”

But Jada was resilient.

After four years in Egypt, in 2003, Jada and her mom moved from Cairo to Canada, settling in Guelph as refugees.

Growing up in a low-income area, Jada was always keen for sports, but she never participated in anything outside of elementary school.

“It was never really an option for me growing up,” she says.

Then came rugby.

“I was watching rugby on TV,” Jada says. “I was like, ‘that’s what I want to try.’ For some odd reason, I was attracted to the sport. I think rugby was also a cheaper sport and I could afford it.”

She tried out in high school and she had near-instant success.

While finances kept her from joining provincial sides during the summer months in Ontario, she became a high school superstar.

“She’s an exceptional talent so it wasn’t difficult to recognize that she was a step above almost anyone she was playing with or against,” says Guelph head coach Colette McAuley, who first saw her play when Jada was 17 years old.

“She has the ability to make people miss. Her acceleration over 10 metres is exceptional. It’s something, as coaches, we’re constantly working on with athletes – to get that power transfer – and she just had it. She was exceptional at acceleration. She was tenacious in her tackles, and she put her body on the line all the time.”

When she took to the pitch, rugby provided freedom from the day-to-day of life.

As the oldest of four children – she has three younger brothers – a teenaged Jada played an instrumental role in helping her mom raise the family.

“With any emotions that weighed on me at the time, rugby was a way to release them,” she says. “It was kind of my outlet in some sense and I happened to be decent at it.

“Without rugby, I probably would have chosen a different path. Whenever I went out to play rugby, it helped me forget about the problems that were going on at the time.”

She wasn’t just “decent” at the sport.

“Every time she had the ball in hand, she attacked with courage and then, defensively, she went after people and they very rarely got away from her,” McAuley says. “Originally, it wasn’t very technical, but she’d throw herself into tackles with such bravery. And her explosive speed set her apart from everyone.”

In the summer after high school, she got an opportunity to be involved in a short-term rugby academy. She worked at McDonald’s to pay for the fees.

After the camp, she received a written evaluation. At the bottom, one of the coaches, Dr. Karen Chrobak, who is now a renowned chiropractor in Toronto, wrote a sentence that changed Jada.

I could see you playing for Canada.

At that moment I realized ‘I’m good,’” Jada says. “Playing for Canada became my goal. If someone can see me playing for Canada, then I should be able to see myself playing for Canada.”

Soon after, in the fall of 2013, Jada joined York University’s women’s rugby team. While with York, Sandro Fiorino, who was an assistant coach with Canada’s women’s Sevens team and is now the head coach of Canada’s women’s 15s side, spotted Jada.

“I was validated when he too said that he could see me in a Canada jersey.”

Less than a year later, the speedy star with an unparalleled tenacity indeed wore the Maple Leaf.

In August 2014, Jada represented Canada at the 2014 FISU Women’s Rugby Sevens Championship in Brazil. Playing alongside the likes of current Sevens stars Bianca Farella, Breanne Nicholas, and Sara Kaljuvee, Jada helped Canada capture gold.

“It was really cool to watch some of them play (on the World Series) and then to actually play next to them.”

It was also the first time she wore the Canadian jersey and, before the Cup Final, the first time she heard O Canada while donning the Red and White.

“Anytime you sing the national anthem, it’s a source of pride,” Jada says. “Anytime I hear the anthem, I’m so honoured and I can’t wait to make Canada proud or inspire someone. I’m so happy because I know I’m in a much better place than I could have been.”

For her mom, seeing Jada with Canada was an emotional moment.

“I cried because when I remember what she was like back home (in Sudan) and now she’s become a different person,” Katerina says. “I said ‘Thank you God’ and ‘Thank you Canada.’ If she was back home, she wouldn’t have had these opportunities.”

That tournament started a whirlwind of experiences, both high and low, for Jada.

After returning home, she joined Canada’s U20 team less than two weeks later for the 2014 Can-Am Championship in Ontario. Then, a year later, in the fall of 2015, after transferring to the University of Guelph, Jada was selected to go on tour to England with the Canadian Maple Leafs 15s side. As she landed in Toronto upon the team’s return, she was asked to join Canada’s Sevens program. In April 2016, Jada made her debut on the World Series circuit in Atlanta.

But that’s when injuries began to plague Jada.

An MCL injury hindered the opportunity for her to make Canada’s Olympic team, but she battled hard to get back on the pitch, only to pick up a hamstring injury in a pre-tournament event that ultimately dashed her Olympic hopes.

Not long after returning to the pitch in January 2017, on the same play, she tore the abductor muscle in the inside of her thigh and dislocated her shoulder, which tore her labrum. She required surgery in April of that year and returned to Ontario for the repair. At that point, she altered her rugby-playing trajectory.

“I came home and I realized I really wasn’t doing okay in a variety of ways,” Jada says. “It was really hard to be away across the country and not to have a strong support system.”

That’s when she decided to go to the University of Guelph.

She played the better part of two seasons with the Gryphons before tearing her ACL in the U SPORTS quarter-finals in 2018.

A year later, she had returned to the pitch to play one final season with the Gryphons. Late in the year, this past Fall, she found herself learning (incorrectly) about yet another serious injury.

This is all why it’s so crazy that Jada remained so positive about her career and her World Cup dreams.

It’s why her “sigh of relief” may have been an understatement.

“I just want to be the best version of myself,” says Jada, who is pursuing a Masters’ degree in rural planning and development, while holding down three jobs, and training for the national team on top of that. “Rugby helps me do that. I’m striving to reach my potential as an international athlete.”

Her next phase will see her targeting Canada and, as part of her preparation, she is set to join Tokyo Sankyu Phoenix RC this spring.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe people like Emmanuela Jada exist.

The things she’s been through. The things she’s going through. The places she’s come from. The things she’s done. The accomplishments she’s achieved. The lives she’s impacted. The challenges she’s overcome. The worlds she’s experienced.

Yet, indeed, Jada really exists and Canada is so much better for it.

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