by Meredith Dault
December 7, 2010
Melaina Weiss doesn't hesitate when asked why she plays rugby. "It's the best sport ever," she says simply, a smile curling its way onto her face. But Weiss, who is currently pursuing a Master's degree in philosophy, didn't always know that. "I was a volleyball player in high school," she explains, "and I didn't really play varsity sports in undergrad. But I was working with a girl who said ‘I think you'd be really good at rugby." Intrigued, Weiss joined a club team in her hometown of Edmonton and began playing twice a week. "I enjoyed it so much," she laughs.
Though Weiss, 26, admits that juggling the demands of her intensive graduate program with the huge time commitment required to play on a varsity team can be challenging, she says it's more than worth it. "I think it's a real privilege to get to play a sport at a high level," says Weiss. When she decided to make the move across the country to pursue a graduate degree at Queen's, Weiss says she knew she had to try out for the varsity team. "I thought, if I can make this team, then I'm going to do it. Of course, sometimes during the week you think ‘why am I doing this?' But as soon as you get on the pitch and you have that adrenaline rush..."
Weiss, who did her undergraduate degree in Commerce at the University of Alberta -- staying on for what she calls an ‘after degree' in philosophy when she realized it was the path she wanted to pursue. She applied to four graduate school programs, but only got her application in to Queen's a few days before the deadline after a professor suggested the program might be a good fit. As it turns out, Queen's was the first university to get back to her.
"I finished my provincial finals for club rugby on August 28th, and came here on the 29th," Weiss laughs, thinking back on her move from Edmonton to Kingston. The Rugby training camp started immediately. "There was no time to adjust," she recalls, "I didn't have a bed yet, but I was too busy to buy one! Needless to say, the first couple of weeks I was here I didn't sleep very well." Weiss does credit her rugby affiliation for setting her up with an instant social life. "That's the great thing about a team: you don't have to break in anywhere socially, because you have this family right away. We had a really close team this year -- everyone was really supportive of one another."
With an interest in feminist philosophy, Weiss says she came to Queen's because of the university's reputation. "The philosophy program is really good, and the department has some really big names in feminist philosophy. I'd already read a lot of the work of professors here, so it was interesting to come and work with them." Though she hasn't nailed down a thesis topic yet (the first eight months of her 12-month program are devoted to course work, with the last four set aside for thesis-writing), Weiss says she is interested in political philosophy and distributive justice. "I am interested in looking at the barriers to success in academia for young people who come from disadvantaged groups. I want to research why our current distribution systems in Canada don't work, and see what sorts of things we ought to be doing instead. "
During the rugby season, Weiss if often up by 6am in order to squeeze her school work into her busy schedule. "You get very efficient!" she laughs, describing a schedule that has her devoting between ten and twelve hours a week to her sport. She has also done some coaching and hopes to continue that in the spring. Weiss says she is particularly drawn to encouraging girls to get into rugby. "It's such a cool sport," she says, "and there is not one single body type that can play -- there is a position for every body. The young girls I have played rugby with have been able to develop such a different sort of confidence. They realize they can be really successful at something."
Though she hasn't ruled out the possibility of continuing on to a PhD program, Weiss says she'll take some time to "figure things out" once she has her M.A. in-hand. She is, however, drawn to the idea of doing work that combines sport, education and youth. "I just love developing people in ways so that they can have both sport and academics in their lives. I think sometimes people think it's a case of either/or. But you don't have to be an elite athlete to enjoy the kinesthetic enjoyment you can get from playing sports or doing something athletic."
Weiss says her own journey to playing varsity sport took hard work -- but that it was worth the effort. "I am 5'11', and I was definitely very awkward in high school. But I worked hard at playing sports and there has been a good payoff because of it."