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Giving life a try

Barb Mervin finds success on and off the pitch

by Angie Wiseman | October 13, 2017

For Mustangs rugby legend Barb Mervin, BA’06 (Art History), a simple but powerful conversation with her coaches changed the trajectory of her education – and her life.

Dealing with a learning disability, she never thought university was an option. Mervin credits coaches Natascha Wesch and Mike Hopper for encouraging her to attend university after coaching her in the Under-19 Ontario division of women’s rugby. The pair later coached her at Western, as well.

“They asked me if I was interested in coming to Western, which might sound silly, but it was really a powerful moment in my life. I thought, ‘You actually want me? You want me to come your school?’” said Mervin, born in St. John’s, N.L., and raised in Peterborough, Ont.

“(Wesch) got a lot of negative feedback for recruiting me. Someone said how awful it was and asked me how I felt about it. I was so grateful because had she not approached me and said, ‘You should come to this university. You can have a future here.’ I might not have gone. In fact, I wouldn’t have.”

Today, Mervin has used her lengthy, successful career within the Canadian rugby union to springboard into a career as an entrepreneur and fashion designer helping her fellow athletes in a new way.

Inspired to pursue rugby and university deeper, Mervin was determined to succeed at both. She returned to high school to upgrade her courses so she could apply to Western. “I didn’t apply to any other university. I knew I wanted to go there. Thankfully, I was able to get in.”

Once here, her education continued both inside and outside the classroom.

She was a standout on the pitch, winning the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Rookie of the Year Award, CIS National Player of the Year honour, as well as a pair of national titles. She also credits her time as an Arts & Humanities student for giving her an appreciation for design, a skillset that laid the foundation for the next iteration of her life.

“I learned so much at Western. Most of my education came from being part of the Mustangs program and Mustangs family. Natasha and Mike really instilled the skills in me that I needed to take rugby to the next level. They didn’t just do that for me; they did that for so many athletes,” she said.

After university, Mervin moved to Victoria to pursue rugby and join the Women’s National Rugby team, a squad she has been a part of for more than a decade.

In 2010, Mervin made the World Cup team after being placed on the reserve list for the 2006 squad. In 2013, she joined the Sevens Program, an elite program where athletes train for five to six hours a day, six days a week. While grateful for the opportunity, she saw the grind taking its toll on her body. She was cut from the team.

She decided to retire from rugby for a year and focus on her career. “At the time, I thought, if rugby isn’t my future, I need to build my future. It was a bit like a punch in the gut realizing that rugby wasn’t going to last forever,” she said.

She poured herself into a company she had started years earlier, but never dedicated herself to full time Aptoella Design House specializes in clothing for female athletes. Mervin came up with the clothing line as a result of a need she saw on tour; the women on her team were given men’s rugby clothing that weren’t the right size or fit.

“When you get that red (national team) jersey and you put it on your body, it’s so special. It means so much because of all the sweat and choices you’ve made to make that happen. It should fit you perfectly,” she said.

With her company finally hitting its stride, Mervin realized she was lacking balance in her life. She often worked 14-16 hour days without a break. It was then her friends and former teammates encouraged her to come out with them to do some training.

“I noticed I was singing to the radio on my way to training and it just really made me so happy to be training again, and as odd as it sounds. Training for the national team brought more balance to my life. I’m a bit of an extremist so I can do the training and come back to work and be so much more productive that way,” she said.

Without the pressure, Mervin pushed again for the 2014 World Cup. She made the team, but suffered a broken hand in the first game. “While I didn’t get to perform with those girls, I still felt I was part of the team. And to go on and do so well, it showcased how wonderful women’s rugby is. What a great sport it is. To have the country behind us, it was really the perfect storm,” she said.

Mervin continues to make her mark internationally both as a player and CEO of her clothing company. The now 35-year-old Mervin once again took part in the World Cup in Ireland last summer. She continues to build her brand with success in more than 15 countries across the world.

“The clothing you put on for sports should celebrate the athletic body you have and support that body in a world where you feel powerful,” she said.

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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