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Carly MacKinnon: A Fire Within

Carly MacKinnon: A Fire Within

Sport management grad overcomes great odds

By C. Brandon Chapman

Go ahead, make a snide remark about rugby. Carly MacKinnon will then knock your teeth in!

That may be an exaggeration. Or not. She’s pretty friendly and down-to-earth. But at the same time, she’s pretty darned serious about rugby; crazy about it.

Yes, you may recognize Carly from an advertisement just inside the front cover of the Spring 2014 Washington State Magazine. Through that, you’ve seen part of her story.

Here’s a little more. Both the good and the bad.

As a young child, Carly lived in Bellevue in what you might call the wrong side of the tracks. Dirt poor. Section 8 housing. DSHS health insurance. Her dad, Tim, was medically retired throughout her childhood, and medical bills bankrupted the family when she was 10.

Not that she didn’t realize what was going on, but Carly was fairly shielded from the financial issues.

“My dad always made sure my brother and I had a good Christmas,” she says. “And I even got an iPod when I graduated 7th grade. As a child, I never felt the financial pressure and stress they were actually under, which I’d amount to some good parenting.”

Tim grew up hunting, fishing, and playing hockey. He liked the Dallas Cowboys, and believed that if he watched the Mariners, the team would lose. But Carly was the one who was really into sports, and her father’s biggest love of sports was not in hockey or suffering through Mariners losses – it was supporting Carly in her athletic endeavors.

But then, when she was only 13, her world changed. Her dad died.

A new start

Carly remembers the event well. She remembers it was a Tuesday. She remembers it was about 7 o’clock at night. And she still remembers the fallout. She remembers how tough it was for her mom and her older brother. She remembers how she was also sad, but how it wasn’t quite as hard for her.

“The only plus to him being sick for so long was that it wasn’t a shock when he finally died,” Carly says. “It wasn’t that devastating phone call that someone had just a heart attack out of the blue, or a fatal car crash. We all knew it was going to happen; it was just a matter of time. He had already surpassed the doctor’s expectations and timelines. He was supposed to die before I was even born so I felt lucky I had him for the 13 years.”

So she did what any 13 year old would not have done: she went to school the next day.

“I slept in a few hours and showed up late, and everyone knew by the time I got to school, it seemed,” she says. “But I just wanted to do what I knew my dad would want me to do: carry on. So I did. I’m not a very religious person, and Dad wasn’t really either, but I do believe in everything happening for a reason.”

Matters at home got really tough for Carly. And while others handled their grief in what you might call a normal fashion, Carly simply moved forward. That included a new living arrangement in Issaquah, with family friends – the Hayes family.

It also included a new sport.

And so began a rugby-loving life

Carly is athletic. But up until her senior year at Liberty High School, the only team sport she had played was soccer.

“I had always wanted to play football, but, well, I’m a girl,” she says.

However, a high school girl’s rugby club team recruited her. It was the Kent Crusaders, the first high school girls’ team in the nation; a team that had won multiple state championships. Although it was already a month into their season, Carly decided to give it a go.

“After one practice, I was hooked.”

And thus began the love affair Carly’s had with rugby – which she says is the perfect sport.

“Rugby has the best aspects of the different sports: the physicality of football; the flow, spacing, pace, and kicking of soccer; and the passing and close quarters decision-making of basketball,” she says. “Everyone on the field has a job but at the end of the day, everyone is expected to be able to catch, pass, run, tackle, ruck, and make team oriented decisions. It truly is the ultimate team sport in my opinion.”

Carly also loves the fact that rugby isn’t just a sport women can play. It’s also a sport played the same way equally for women as it is for men.

“The rules are the exact same for boys and girls, while every other contact sport girls are allowed to play include different rules and equipment for the girls,” she says. “Girl’s lacrosse has no helmet, no pads, a skirt instead of shorts, and you cannot whack each other with the lacrosse stick itself. Women’s hockey has different checking rules than men’s hockey. Women’s basketball even uses a smaller ball. And don’t even bring up football, a sport practically forbidden for women.”

There are, of course, those who still maintain it’s not a sport meant for women. Carly would vehemently disagree.

“With the Olympics reintroducing both male and female formats, it will be hard for them to argue otherwise if it wasn’t difficult already.”

Success with the Kent Crusaders cemented Carly’s love for her new sport. She worked her way into a starting spot, and in 2010, the team once again won the state championship. The team then went to regionals, placed second, and got a bid to nationals.

“It was the first time I really got to compete at a high level in any sport,” she says. “Soccer was so competitive and expensive, and I never really made it to state or regional tournaments. Yet, here I was, in my rookie season, starting in a national tournament in a new sport.

“I knew I wanted to keep going.”

Faced with college possibility

She never thought she’d go to college. Neither of her parents went to college. Neither did her older brother. None of her parents’ siblings did, either.

To be fair, Carly said her dad had taught her the importance of school before he passed away. But realistically, it was a slim chance. Because, for her, it wasn’t so much an issue of if she should go to college, but if she could.

“I never thought I would be able to afford it,” she said.

But she did. With the help of six scholarships Carly graduated with honor cords, but not a single student loan. One of those scholarships was the college’s long-time Virginia Shaw Alumnae Scholarship. As it turns out, Carly became the 50th recipient of the yearly award.

“It really is just a remarkable story of adversity, tenacity, and then success,” said Chris Lebens, one of the many sport management professors for whom Carly shares appreciation. “It’s hard enough for most people to get through college when they’ve had everything go their way. For Carly, it was much harder. But she didn’t let things keep her down.”

And not only was she able to go to college, and become a first-generation graduate, but she was able to participate in her first love, rugby.

“I chose WSU because of the sport management program,” Carly said. “I researched that WSU had the only master’s program in the Pacific Northwest, so I was sold. I was set on WSU before I even knew about rugby.”

But after her experience with the Crusaders, she was more than just excited to play at WSU.

“I was hell bent on continuing my rugby career.”

College success

The WSU women’s rugby team is a club team. It reports to University Recreation, who offers administrative and financial support.

In 2010, just before Carly came to WSU, the team won the Division II national championship.

During 2011, which was Carly’s first year on board, funding issues stymied the Cougars’ desire to go to nationals. In 2012, they were back, finishing third.

2013 became the year, though, that Carly became a national champion. And it happened in resounding fashion. The Cougs won their four matches by a combined score of 244-25. The final was a 60-5 crushing against Winona State, who had cruised through their opponents.

“My dad’s side of the family is very Scottish, so I’m sure he would be thrilled I’m playing rugby, and am involved with it,” Carly said.

Even more so, though, Tim would be pleased that Carly graduated a semester early, with honors, with so many scholarships, and with so much hope for the future.

“My family always tells me how proud he would be of me, but I don’t think I can really fathom just how proud.”

Carly wasn’t just an athlete, though. She was a student first, graduating a semester early. She also took part in a sport management faculty hiring committee.

“Carly really impressed me with the way she handled her responsibilities with the committee,” says Cathy Claussen, director of the sport management program. “In her role of representing the undergraduate majors, she did an outstanding job of voicing the student perspective. Her comments on the qualifications of the candidates and how they might fit within our program were extremely thoughtful, and contained a level of insight that definitely helped shape our deliberations in a positive way.”

The next steps

Carly currently works for Serevi Rugby, a company that started in Seattle in 2010. The company’s mission is to grow the game in North America. It designs progression-based curriculum for youth, high school, college, and elite rugby athletes and coaches. It is an investment made by Waisale Tikoisolomoni Serevi, the first Fijian and Pacific Islander professional rugby player contracted to play in Europe.

Carly works as both a youth coach, and as a marketing developer, the latter being a position she began as an intern during her last semester at WSU.

But just like the idea of a MacKinnon graduating college once was, Carly continues to dream big. Currently, she would like to combine her love of rugby, her experience with Serevi, and her sport management degree, into the Olympics.

“My hope is to one day be in charge of promoting and managing one of the U.S. Olympics rugby teams,” she said. “As a sports management major, I don’t know what could top working in the Olympics!”

Lebens says it will happen.

“Carly is an extremely motivated learner,” he says. “She is eager to learn many things and then master each individual item. I expect big things from her, nothing short of becoming a household name.”

A retrospective denouement

Even though Carly looks to the future, and achieving her goals, she’s also OK with looking back – always appreciatively.

“Carly knows she has the drive that allows her to do anything she sets her mind to,” Lebens says. “But what makes her an even more impressive person is that recognizes the help that comes from other people; the help she’s received in realizing those goals.”

“I feel very blessed for all who supported me up to this point,” Carly says. “I am a strong believer of the quote “Life is a team sport.” I am definitely a product of others.”

She consistently thanks the College of Education – especially her sport management professors – for the role they have played in her life.

“These teachers taught me many different things about myself, personally and professionally,” she says.

But, to put words into action, when Serevi gave its employees a $300 Christmas gift card to use toward apparel, Carly spent all of it on the sport management staff. One person, in particular, that she focused on, was her adviser, Veronica Mendez-Liaina, who once played rugby for WSU. Carly bought her a Serevi jersey, which now hangs on Mendez-Liaina’s office wall.

“They were pretty surprised, but it was seriously the least I could do for them,” she says “It’s easy to see my whole life has been supported by a group of awesome people, and this was just a token of gratitude for their guidance and support throughout my collegiate career.

“Again, ‘Life is a team sport.’ “

Carly on…


“The number 13 has been a prominent reoccurring number in my life. My dad passed on Sept. 13. I was 13. My dad had 13 total kids in his family. MacKinnon starts with an M, the 13th letter in the alphabet. I graduated in the 2013 class, and we won the DII women’s rugby national championship in 2013.”

What I love about WSU

“The camaraderie. No matter where I am, I frequently get that friendly and proud “Go Cougs!” from strangers. It reminds me that even though I am not on campus, my commitment and time invested at WSU does not go unrecognized by my fellow Cougars. The guy who originally hired me, Josh Young, is a Coug, and he graduated from the College of Education, as a teacher. That sense of family is one that makes me proud.”

Carly’s favorites…

Movie: Bridesmaids

Book: The Hunger Games series

Band: I like all music, but top would be Drake, Taylor Swift, and One Republic

Song: “Feel Again” by One Republic

Rugby player: Sonny B. Williams

Sports team: Seattle Seahawks

From her photoshoot…