Kevin Swiryn ’08 retired from playing competitive rugby earlier this year after an outstanding career that saw him play in one of the world’s premier professional rugby leagues in France and represent the U.S. as a member of the national team in World Cup competition. It’s a career that never would have happened if Saint Mary’s hadn’t discontinued its football program.
Swiryn came to Saint Mary’s on a football scholarship in 2003 and worked his way into the Gaels’ starting lineup as a wide receiver early in his freshman season. Then the College dropped football in March 2004.
“At the time, it was devastating,” Swiryn said. “I’d worked so hard to play Division I college football, and now everything was just crumbling. I thought it was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”
Dozens of his football teammates transferred immediately, but Swiryn decided to stay through his sophomore year to accumulate enough credits to transfer to UC Davis and try to resume his football career there. It was during his sophomore year that he found rugby — or, rather, rugby found him.
“A couple of rugby guys came to me and said, ‘Dude, just come out for rugby, it’s fun,’” Swiryn recalled. “I was thinking I would just use it to stay in shape to go back to football eventually. But I just fell in love with rugby. By March of my sophomore year I decided to stay at Saint Mary’s. Academics were more important to me by then. I figured sports comes and goes but academics is for life. I really enjoyed the academics at Saint Mary’s, and I decided rugby could fill the athletic void. Even though I love football and wished I could have played longer, it ended up being a really good thing for me.”
Swiryn had seen only a couple of rugby matches before he went out for the team and didn’t know the rules. But by the time he graduated in 2008 with a degree in kinesiology he was a three-time All-American, had led the Gaels to college rugby’s Final Four and had earned a prestigious United States Rugby Football Foundation grant to take part in a three-week international training academy in New Zealand. “It wasn’t until my last season at Saint Mary’s that I started realizing my potential as a rugby player,” Swiryn said. “Before that I wasn’t dreaming of being a national team member. I didn’t think that was possible, but Tim and Johnny (SMC head rugby coach Tim O’Brien and assistant Johnny Everett) kind of forced that belief onto me. Tim applied for me to go to New Zealand, and when I went down there and did really well, that was kind of the catalyst for me to say, I can do this.”
After earning most valuable player honors at the academy, Swiryn was invited to try out for the national 7’s team and made the squad, eventually becoming the captain. He also earned a spot on the national 15’s team the following summer. (Rugby is played in two versions, using the same field and rules, one with seven players on a side and the other with 15 on a side.)
Then after a good performance during his first season on the national 15’s team, Swiryn took the next step and in 2010 signed a two-year contract with a professional team in the French “Top 14” league. There he faced two disadvantages: he was an American in a sport that few Americans are able to play at the highest professional level, and he didn’t speak French.
“I had a choice between going to France and England, and that was a big reason why I went to France was to get to learn a second language,” Swiryn said. “I knew no French. None. Zero. My team was in Agen, which is a smaller town. It’s not like Paris where everyone speaks English. In Agen no one speaks English. The coaches spoke no English. We had translators, but that’s tough.
“By my second season I didn’t need a translator with the coaches. I can speak French now. I’m not fluent by any means but I can hold a conversation and get around town.”
Swiryn’s second season in France, which began last fall, was marred by injuries: a broken collarbone, a broken nose, then a strained calf that was traced to herniation in his back. “I’d also been playing with a torn labrum in my hip that was going to need surgery, and I was looking at either surgery on my back or a long period of rest,” he said. “I had to decide what’s worth more, a couple more years of rugby after heavy rehab just to get back, or having a better quality of life after.”
Swiryn decided on the better quality of life, so he was bought out of the remainder of his contract in France and returned to the U.S. this spring. He and his fiancée, Lauren Shaughnessy '08, have settled in a suburb of Seattle, her hometown. Shaughnessy played point guard for the Gaels basketball team and also played rugby while at Saint Mary’s; she went on to play for the national women’s 7’s team and now works as a financial adviser. Swiryn proposed to her on the field at the end of one of his national team’s matches and they will be married at Saint Mary’s on June 30.
Looking back, Swiryn realized he learned a valuable lesson from how he dealt with the end of football at Saint Mary’s. “I don’t feel it was fate that led me to rugby; it’s just my life turned, drastically, and I tried to do what I could with it. What I realized was, if you stay positive, most people will make good of any situation. My life wasn’t what I had dreamt it to be, but I’m still really happy with it. I have no regrets.”