ANTIGONISH, NS - Her eyes widen and a smile crosses Claudia Fulton's face when she's asked what she loves the most about rugby.
“Making a big hit – it pumps everyone up,” said the sophomore flanker with the perennial powerhouse St. F.X. X-Women after a recent practice.
“Going on a run is fun, but making a big hit," she says, her smile getting even bigger, "gets everyone fired up and makes everyone work harder."
Make no mistake - Fulton “loves the contact.”
“I try to get wherever I can – I always want to be part of the action,” she said.
The Aylesford, N.S. native tackles academics with equal ferocity. She is an Academic All-Canadian who sports a 91 per cent average in her program.
“I asked my friends, and they said I should go into engineering,” Fulton said, noting they knew she was “really strong in school, especially math and science.”
That peer advice came during a class at West Kings District High School in Auburn, Kings County while she was filling out an admission application for a recruiter from neighbouring Acadia University in Wolfville.
“It has been the right one, so far,” Fulton said of her post-secondary field of study.
The only drawback is that she will have to leave St. F.X. – a place she adores – after next year, in order to complete her engineering degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“That’s the sad part,” Fulton said.
To help accommodate her busy schedule, she decided to take three years to complete the traditionally two-year St. F.X. program.
Fulton excels on the field and in the classroom while living with progressive central neural hearing loss.
“It is already getting worse,” she said.
Because of the hereditary condition – her mother, grandfather, aunt and cousin also have it – Fulton has worn hearing aids since she was five.
“You have got to deal with it,” she said, noting that making jokes is one of her approaches.
“I focus on making it something that doesn’t affect me that much.”
When she started playing, Fulton tried to wear her hearing aids, but they were too easily potentially damaged because of the physicality of the sport. But she can't hear without them, which has led to some interesting moments on the field.
“There’s a lot of yelling involved,” Fulton said, with a laugh.
At times, because she cannot hear anything, she has continued to play after the whistle has blown.
“My teammates are like ‘chill out, she can’t hear,’” Fulton said of how they deal with upset opponents.
Once they know, her opponents have been great, making note of her jersey number in case it happened again.
The ‘pinky promise’
Growing up in the Annapolis Valley, the eldest of Sheila and Dan Fulton’s three children, she has always had a “passion” for all sports - “everything that I could (play)." Fulton rattles off a list of the sports she's tried, including rugby, of course, along with baseball, soccer, track and field, softball, volleyball and basketball.
“It is funny because my parents were not really involved in sports, growing up, but all three of us (are),” she added.
Fulton, along with her siblings Emma and Riley, who are in Grade 11 and 9, respectively, were on a combined five provincial teams this summer.
“They have definitely become sports fans because of us,” she said of her parents.
They don’t miss her games – whether it is in-person or via webcast – unless it is unavailable, which doesn’t sit well with them.
“They want to be at everything,” Fulton said, noting the couple often makes the six-hour round trip to Antigonish.
Her path to the home turf at Oland Stadium began in the fourth or fifth grade, when a group of friends on the school bus, as Fulton put it, “pinky promised” to play rugby in high school.
“I was the only one who did and I loved it,” she added, noting one other girl played in her senior season.
After sitting on the bench for the first four matches of her Grade 9 season, Fulton got her chance.
“The coach realized I was good – he had never seen me actually play,” she said, with a laugh.
After that, Fulton started every game during four high school seasons.
Off to Antigonish
When it was time to select a university, her “first choice” was UNB, but that changed after her visit to the St. F.X. campus.
“I just really loved it – and here I am. I wouldn’t change it – it is the best decision that I have ever made,” she added.
The student-athlete also took advice from her provincial coach and tried out for the X-Women.
Fulton not only made the cut with rugby X-Women, but she also suited up for the St. F.X. basketball team in the second half of her freshman season.
“I was going to try to do it this year. I would have loved to keep playing,” she said.
Fulton started training camp with the basketball team, but the new X-Women coaching staff thought she “might be too far behind” once she tried to make the transition after the rugby season.
“She is so quiet and humble – such a great young lady,” X-Women rugby coach Mike Cavanagh said of his second-year player.
Noting Fulton is “fairly new” to the sport, he added, she is “only going to get better and better.”
Cavanagh said her mental and physical approach is impeccable.
“She thinks of every detail and asks some great questions,” he added of her approach to the game.
Cavanagh said she will be “pushing for a starting spot” and has the potential to be “an amazing player.”
Fulton described being part of the X-Women program as “really great.”
“Everyone just helps each other – it is such a tremendous learning experience, which makes it so easy to get better every day,” she said.
Practising and playing with such high-calibre players – and learning from them and her coaches – has greatly improved her game.
“It is an incredible experience,” she said.
Fulton noted the X-Women spend a lot of time together, both on and off the field.
“We are a big family. We are really close,” she said.
‘The right balance’
In her spare time – as little as there is – Fulton relaxes by watching TV and playing games with her teammates and friends.
“We just like to have fun,” she said.
When it comes to juggling academics and athletics, and finding some time to unwind, “you have to find the right balance,” she says, while making sure you plan.
“Obviously, school is first – that’s why we are here."
Before Fulton started university, she remembered she was cautioned to expect lower grades.
Her response? “I am not going to have that."
She's “determined and motivated," attributes that certainly surfaced this summer while playing for Nova Scotia Keltics U-20 squad, when she dealt with injuries, including a hyperextended elbow.
“It still doesn’t really straighten all the way, but it is OK – it doesn’t hurt anymore,” she said, with a laugh, while stretching both arms in front of her to illustrate the difference.
There was also a broken nose on the day before the Keltics flew to Saskatoon for nationals.
“I was at the hospital, until midnight, getting it fixed, and then got on a plane and went to play in nationals,” she said matter-of-factly.
When she heads to Halifax to continue her studies, Fulton will focus on mechanical engineering at Dal.
“Sometimes, I think I know exactly what I am going to do and then I think of something else and say ‘maybe I want to do that,’” Fulton said when asked about her career aspirations after graduation.
Specializing in biomedical engineering may be the eventual focus.
“And just see what I can do with my ears,” Fulton said, describing it as a “big goal.”
“I want to try to fix them – I guess.”
As for developing technology “to try to fix (her hearing loss),” she added, with a smile, “I might as well try.”
Noting there is current technology, such as cochlear implants, Fulton said her target is creating “something smaller.”
“Something that is not as noticeable,” she added.
Before that happens, Fulton’s more immediate focus is helping the X-Women capture the fifth national championship in program history.
“That’s the big goal, and we can do it. We just have to do the work,” she said.
Fulton described having the opportunity to win the crown in her backyard, with Acadia set to host the U Sports championship tournament in early November, as “pretty cool.”
“I would have a lot of family and friends there, so it definitely would be something special,” she said.
“Hopefully, it will happen.”