Rugby star facing new battles

Karley Heyman adapting to lifestyle change after career-ending concussion

Karley Heyman (middle) was an OUA All-Star and Rookie of the Year during her time as a member of the women’s rugby team prior to her first concussion.
Karley Heyman (middle) was an OUA All-Star and Rookie of the Year during her time as a member of the women’s rugby team prior to her first concussion.
Credit: 
Supplied by Steve Judges

Once an integral part of the women’s roster, Karley Heyman has been forced to the sideline.

Last year, Heyman suffered a severe concussion during the OUA playoffs and has yet to fully recover.

Her mix of power and speed down the wing propelled the women’s rugby program to new heights, as they finished the2013-14 season undefeated and won the OUA championship for the first time in the team’s history. 

That season, they also ended up bronze medalists at the CIS championships, another first in the school’s history.

Heyman finished second in rookie scoring during both the OUA regular season and playoffs. 

For her efforts, she was named an OUA All-Star, the Rookie of the Year for the women’s rugby team, and was awarded the Alfie Pierce Trophy for top female rookie at Queen’s. All in her first year.

To prepare for her second year, Heyman spent her summer away from home, and decided to live in the University District. Early morning practices were complemented by workouts during the day. Juggling rugby with school and a job on campus seemed like a lot for a second-year student, but Heyman said she was up for the challenge.

“I was very excited,” said Heyman. “I finally felt truly comfortable in the winger position. We had almost the exact same team, only a few players left from my first year, so we were all excited to come back and get playing.”

While the team was unable to replicate their form from a year before, they finished 4-1 during the regular season. For all her efforts, Heyman played a major role in the team’s success, finishing with three tries and two conversions.

It was during the team’s OUA quarterfinal match-up against the Guelph Gryphons that Heyman’s career as a student athlete would change forever.

During this tight matchup, Heyman was awkwardly brought to the turf. In this moment of vulnerability, Heyman was hit in the back of the head.

“I played the whole game,” Heyman said. “I didn’t think much of it. I’ve never pulled myself out of a game due to injury.”

Unfortunately for the rugby team, the game ended in defeat. They would end the year fourth in the OUA, and Heyman felt no symptoms.

It wasn’t until two days later that things took a turn for the worse.

“I went to class not really feeling well, thinking I had the stomach flu,” Heyman said. “I was sitting there and when they turned on the projector I couldn’t focus on what was on the screen. All of a sudden I couldn’t see.”

After class, Heyman headed to the ARC, where she was examined and told that she had a concussion, which was the first of her life.

Concussions have different recovery times depending on the person. For Heyman, the process is still ongoing.

“I went several weeks where I had no idea what was happening,” Heyman said. “I’ve slowly gotten my memory back. For a while, I couldn’t even form a sentence. Even with school, I just finished all of my second-year classes this week.”

Heyman still can’t remember most of her final season due to the concussion. 

“From what I do remember, and now looking back on results, things were going pretty good.”

Prior to the concussion, Heyman only wore glasses for reading far screens. Now, she can’t see clearly without them in any situation.

When attempting to make a comeback, Heyman kept one group of people in mind — the Queen’s rugby team.

“They are like my family,” Heyman said. “It is hard to separate yourself from that — knowing that I won’t get to spend every moment with my best friends kept me motivated.”

It wasn’t until May that Heyman truly realized that playing rugby for Queen’s was no longer a reality. After discussing things over with her family, Heyman decided to retire from rugby.

“The first person that really told me that I might never play again was my grandmother,” Heyman said. “She was very upset with me. My parents knew how much I cared about rugby, so they didn’t really say anything, but you could even tell with them that they wanted me to be safe.”

After spending five years with women’s rugby head coach Beth Barz at Sydenham High School (Barz also works as a teacher and coach there), Heyman knew that Queen’s was the place for her to pursue her dream as a student athlete.

“From the first time I played [rugby] I loved it, so I ended up playing all through high school.”

Due to being so far behind in class, Heyman decided to change her four-year degree into a three-year bachelor of arts program. 

“I’m still behind in my classes, so it might take me three-and-a-half or four years to finish the three-year program.”

While her life changed drastically, Heyman has carved out a new role on the rugby team. 

Just prior to the school year, coach Barz and her coaching staff reached out to Heyman and offered her a position on staff.

“The coaches asked if I would still want to be involved, and there was no way I could say no,” Heyman said. “I can’t imagine not being a part of this team.”

The coaches offered Heyman a mentor position, a new role that’s brought her into the thick of things for the rugby team. 

In a team split almost in half with upper years and newcomers, her job as mentor means helping first-year players transition onto the team, providing feedback to her teammates and being present at both practices and games.

For Heyman, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“Some days it’s a struggle, because you begin to think ‘I have to go to practice all the time and I can’t play’, but my teammates and coaches are supportive in making the process easier.”

 

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