Former UWGB star, Lukan, shines on rugby field
By Greg Bates
GREEN BAY – Kaili Lukan showed her competitive side for four years on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women’s basketball team.
When Lukan, a scrappy guard who grew up in Ontario, Canada, graduated from college in 2016, her competitive juices were still flowing.
She had the opportunity to extend her athletic playing days, but it wasn’t on the basketball court.
The head coach of the Canadian National Rugby Team called and wanted her to try out.
Lukan’s older sister, Megan – who also played basketball for the Phoenix – was currently on the team.
Five years after Lukan chose to pursue rugby, she got to live out a childhood dream of competing in the Olympics.
Lukan recently returned to Canada from Tokyo following Canada’s women’s sevens rugby squad’s ninth-place finish in the 2020 Olympic Games.
In the 2016 Rio Games, the Canadians won the bronze, so this year’s team was expected to make a run at the gold medal.
“It was a surreal moment,” Lukan said about competing in the Olympics. “I trained for five years to be named to the Olympic team, and fortunately, I was. I was happy and proud to be representing (Canada) with my teammates. I’m proud I made it that far. It wasn’t the outcome we envisioned or wanted, but I couldn’t be more proud of my team for what we endured this past year.”
With COVID-19 pushing the Olympics back one year and the virus still a factor in East Asia, fans weren’t allowed to attend competitions.
The Lukan family had tickets to their daughter’s rugby matches, but they had to stay home.
“Not having family there was a bummer, but you know you have support and everyone’s cheering for you,” Lukan said. “I’m thankful, even in Green Bay, the number of people who reached out. The community behind me there was incredible to see, especially since I’ve been gone for a few years.”
Lukan’s family and friends were able to watch her play in Canada’s games and cheer nearly 6,000 miles away.
“They got up in the middle of the night, early in the morning,” Lukan said. “They were watching and sending me messages throughout the whole tournament, so that was great. I got lots of messages from people in Green Bay, too, before and after the Games.”
One special supporter helped Lukan throughout the games, her sister, Megan.
She played at UWGB from 2010-15 before joining the Rugby Canada Women’s Sevens team.
She was part of the bronze-winning squad in 2016.
“She’s helped me lots,” Lukan said. “In Green Bay, she helped me get accustomed to that team, and the same with rugby. I’d never played sevens before, so she was there for a year or two before I was. She understood how to relate it to basketball or give me pointers that helped her through the transition.”
UWGB women’s basketball coach Kevin Borseth, who coached both Kaili and Megan, said he loved seeing Lukan compete in the Olympics.
Borseth watched some of her games with his current players.
“Kaili has always been committed to being her best at anything she ever did,” Borseth said. “The fact she was in the Olympics and her sister was in the Olympics, is no surprise because their pedal is to the medal the second they stepped on the playing floor. They were great teammates, hard workers, overachievers, tough, hard-nosed, played through pain and played through adversity. Kaili was one of those kids that had the talent, but she had all the other intangibles that made her great.”
Picking up rugby
Lukan got acclimated to rugby in high school, playing four years at Barrie Central in Barrie, Ontario.
After graduating from high school in 2012 to head to Green Bay to play basketball, she put rugby on the backburner.
For the Phoenix, Lukan started 97 of the 110 games she played in.
She became a 1,000-point scorer – one of just 37 in program history – and averaged 9.35 points per game.
It wasn’t long after Lukan’s basketball career wrapped up at UWGB in 2016 she got invited to try out for Canada’s women’s sevens rugby squad.
She moved to Victoria, British Columbia, to train full-time with the team in September 2016.
“It was a great opportunity to at least try it out,” Lukan said. “I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to stick this out until the Olympics.’ It was more like, ‘I’m going to try out and see where I stand, see if I like it and see how I progressed through because I didn’t play sevens at all.’ I didn’t know what it was about or if I could even do it. After my first year, I learned lots. It was a great experience, and I loved it.”
Lukan made her Team Canada debut in 2017 at a tournament in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
In five matches, Lukan scored three tries to help Canada win bronze.
Because there are only 12 members on a rugby roster, Lukan – who plays forward – played lots during Olympic competition.
She started most of the matches but didn’t score in her team’s five matches.
Canada went 1-2 during round-robin play and failed to make the medal round.
The Canadians won their final two matches to finish in ninth place.
Lukan returned to North America Aug. 1 and went to visit her family in Ontario to unwind after the busy stretch in Tokyo.
Lukan said she isn’t quite sure if she’ll resume her rugby career and try to make Team Canada for the 2024 Olympic Games.
“I’m going to see how everything turns out,” she said. “I don’t have a definitive answer for three more years down the line, but I still want to give rugby an opportunity and see where that gets me in the next year or two. It’s not a ‘yes’ and it’s not a ‘no’ at that point. Rugby Canada, we’re also going through a review process right now, so the team doesn’t know what the next few months hold. We will get back together come the new year.”
Lukan will be headed back to Victoria to train while she decides her next steps.
The 27-year-old, who earned her undergraduate degree in environmental policy and planning at UWGB, recently completed her master of arts in interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University in British Columbia.
Because rugby is a full-time job and she is paid to play, Lukan hasn’t had to work a regular day job.
Lukan said she’s planning on playing things by ear for the next couple of months and see what doors open for her.
“I’m fortunate for my Green Bay family and the community that has always supported me through basketball and then my continued endeavors with rugby,” Lukan said. “I’m thankful for them. Green Bay is a place I still call home, and I’ll always have a special place in my heart. I want to give a huge shoutout to everyone in Green Bay.”