The art of rugby: How Nakisa Levale found a new career and her old love for the sport

Abbotsford's Nakisa Levales never thought she would play rugby again after she was cut from the national team. Life had different plans.

By Josh Kozelj | August 3, 2022 |5:00 am

For as long as she can remember, Nakisa Levale has played rugby.

Her siblings would pass the ball around in their backyard. At the beach or the park, she would run with the ball tucked under her arm with her father and mother as spectators. And inside, she would watch professionals sling the ball on television.

Playing rugby was Levale’s way of connecting with her Samoan heritage.

Her father was born in Samoa, where rugby is the country’s most popular sport. Levale was born in Kelowna and spent her childhood in Abbotsford.

Although her father had a passion for rugby, he never forced Levale to play the sport competitively. It wasn’t until Grade 9 when she started to play rugby on a formal team.

“I wanted to do it because it was such a huge part of my culture and where I came from,” Levale said.

She quickly achieved success, leading Abbotsford Senior Secondary School to two provincial titles, and joining Canada at the Youth Commonwealth Games in 2015. One year later, right out of high school, she became a regular on the senior women’s national team.

Five years after her first high school rugby game, Levale was representing her country in international competitions. Rugby consumed her life. She was so focused on improving her game that she lost the childhood joy that had come from from it.

And in 2018, at the ripe age of 21, Levale was cut from the national team.

Having lost the childhood joy the sport had given her, she didn’t plan on playing rugby competitively ever again—until she went back to school, and discovered a passion for something completely different.

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Pivoting to art

After being cut from the national team, Levale had a lot of questions.

“Am I good enough?”

“Why did they cut me?”

“Do I belong here?”

Coping with the sudden disappointment, Levale enrolled in the Pacific Design Academy in Victoria.

But even after being rejected on the pitch, rugby still held a special place in her heart.

After Levale earned her diploma, she got a job with a women’s rugby apparel company, Aptoella, and found a place where she belonged. It was a job where she could still be connected to the sport—her heritage—and help current athletes.

Levale looks at rugby—a sport more commonly known for physicality—like art.

She never considered herself the fastest or strongest player on the pitch. She said it was her vision—what guides her creativity—that allowed her to achieve success in rugby.

“There’s other ways you have to kind of make up for those things [speed and strength],” Levale said. “My strengths aren’t those things, but it’s my ability to read the field and see what’s in front of me.”

In the art studio, she applied that vision to develop designs for everything from athletic wear to rugby pads.

“[Creativity] translated into my fashion design because at Aptoella, it’s still in athletic wear, so you’re able to see designs that would have a positive effect on the game,” Levale said.

Among her projects were shoulder pads with a Samoan design intended to honour her father’s home country. Levale looks at the pads as a tool that makes players feel comfortable, look stylish, and foster belonging.

 

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“What was special for me was that I was able to wear one of those shoulder pads, even though I’m playing for Canada, I’m still able to remember where my family is from,” she said.

But despite a burgeoning career in fashion design, a thought still plagued her mind: she had more to give on the pitch.

The comeback

Coming out of high school and straight to the senior national team, Levale felt like rugby was an all-consuming job. The pressure she placed on herself to be a national-caliber athlete got to her mind and impacted her performance.

“I wasn’t enjoying it, it wasn’t a healthy environment for me and I wasn’t in a good space.”

After not picking up a rugby ball for three years, Levale started to play again in March 2021.

She connected with a former coach who allowed her to practice with the national sevens team. Sevens is a fast-paced, increasingly popular version of rugby with seven players on the field as opposed to the traditional 15.

“I reached out to her and just asked if I could practice and not get paid. Just practice with the team. Not for any particular reason, I just wanted to be there,” Levale said. “Deep down, I knew I wanted to be on the sevens team, but I just wanted to be there and get better.”

Last fall, Rugby Canada hosted an international tournament in Edmonton that featured the United States, Mexico, and Great Britain.

Levale wasn’t initially selected for that tournament. But when a player on the team got hurt, it opened the door for Levale to make an impression.

“I ended up playing well, and that’s kind of how this journey started.”

She joined Canada at the World Rugby Series in Dubai in December. Last week, she represented the country at the Commonwealth Games, helping Canada to a fourth-place finish.

Being away from the sport for three years gave her a new focus. Rather than being worried about her level of play, Levale now plays for the love of the game.

“It’s a gift and a privilege to play at this level,” Levale said. “Being back now and knowing like, ‘Ok, I’m putting myself back in this position; if you’re doing this, just have fun and enjoy the moment.’”

Combining art and rugby

Levale hasn’t forgotten about art. She works part-time at Aptoella and is still passionate about her design career.

In the future, she said she would like to create a brand that celebrates androgynous fashion and design team kits for major tournaments.

“Hopefully after my [rugby] career I can give that 100% of my focus.”

 

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In the meantime, she is striving to make the World Cup team this fall and then the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Regardless of whether those outcomes come to fruition or not, Levale said she doesn’t get worked up about how she’ll perform in a match anymore.

She’s gone back to the basics, and treasures the act of tossing a rugby ball on a field.

Just as she did in her parents’ backyard, so many years ago.


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Josh Kozelj

Intern at Fraser Valley Current

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