As recently as two years ago, Dionte Stephens didn’t know much about rugby, much less that he would be given an opportunity to play at a national level. But transitioning to a new form of competition is nothing new for the 18-year-old. The Vancouver born, Prince Rupert transplant has used different sports to connect with new people wherever he finds himself, and his latest chapter, a 2-day training camp with Team Canada’s rugby team, may open doors to opportunities he didn’t think were possible.
Stephens says the first sport he played was hockey. He remembers watching Alex Burrows — who played forward for the Vancouver Canucks at the time — and wanting to model his game after him.
“I used to try and go to as many hockey games as I could and try to do what he did,” he said.
Stephens’ family moved to Prince Rupert in 2010. While he still enjoyed hockey, Stephens quickly discovered that basketball was the sport a lot of his new friends in the city were playing.
“I’d never touched a basketball before I came to Prince Rupert,” he said. “It was a big transition. I’d played hockey until I was eight, and I thought all I wanted to do was play hockey.”
Basketball did not come easily to Stephens, who said he had terrible shooting form.
“I could barely do a layup,” he said. “I really didn’t like it at first.”
As he practised, however, Stephens said his ability, and love for the game, grew. While he didn’t make the Charles Hays Secondary School basketball team on his first try in grade 9, Stephens returned to play on the team in grades 10, 11 and 12. He says he enjoyed the camaraderie that came along competing alongside teammates in high pressure situations. During the provincial competition in his grade 12 year, Stephens was able to hit a jump shot with just over 3 seconds left in the game to give the Rainmakers the lead. Unfortunately, their opponents won the game after a foul in the dying seconds gave them free throws to re-take the lead. Stephens describes it both as one of the highest and lowest moments for him playing basketball, but said he has missed being in that environment since graduating.
“Just being on the team and being competitive with each other,” he said. “I just miss the competition.”
While he was still at CHSS, Stephens was introduced to rugby by friends and teammates Jason Rioux and Cody Schaeffer, who both played on the school’s team. Stephens said he was nervous about the game at first because he was worried about the heavy contact and possibility of injury, but Rioux and Schaeffer were persistent and he eventually went to a practice.
“Everybody was trying to teach me and show me the rules of how to play,” he said. “I felt really welcomed and really enjoyed it.”
Stephens eventually joined the team, playing on both the sevens and 15s squads in 2016 and 2017. His speed made him an excellent winger as he had the natural ability to run around the opposition to create scoring opportunities.
“My favourite thing to do is to run the ball and try to beat everybody,” he said.
At the end of this summer, the Thunder Rugby program came to Prince Rupert to introduce the game to young aboriginal players in Prince Rupert. Clayton Panga — a Team Canada player who was an instructor in one of the clinics — saw Stephens’ talent and passed his name along to one of the camp’s organizers who invited Stephens to the tryout.
“I jumped on that as fast as I could,” Stephens said.
Stephens made the trip to Vancouver for what he said were some of the most intense sessions of training he’d ever experienced. Over the next two days, he participated in more than five practices against top-level rugby talent from across the province. Stephens said that not one player made it out of the camp without limping.
“We were always moving, always doing something and never standing still, i’ve never been so sore” he said. “They really knew what they were talking about and I was trying to learn as much as I could and soak up as much as possible.”
Stephens survived the camp and has been invited out for a second camp taking place in Jan. 2018. He plans to attend that camp, see where he stacks up against the competition and take his latest sporting love as far as he can.
“I’ll just try to take it as far as I can possibly take it, see where I can go from there and do the best that I possibly can,” he said.