How Emily Hsieh's Olympic Dream Led Her To Rugby Refereeing

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(Mike Lee - KLC Photos/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
(Mike Lee - KLC Photos/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

"When I was a kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics when I grew up," Emily Hsieh says. "I remember watching the Olympics and seeing Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi."

Her parents, Pen and Sue Hsieh, say Emily was shy as a kid.

"We encourage her to become strong-minded, self-confident," Pen says. "So we introduce her to all sort of sports."

Soccer. Tennis. Volleyball. Pole vaulting. Skiing.

"I wasn’t a great skier," Emily says. "And this Olympic dream continued to just transform and pivot as I got older."

Discovering Rugby

During Emily Hsieh’s freshman year at Brown University, she signed up for dozens of clubs, including the rugby team.

When Emily’s parents came to watch her, they saw players on crutches on the sideline — women slamming into each other, tackling their teammates to the ground as the teams warmed up.

"First time it was [shocking] to me — not just surprise. I say, ‘Oh, she lied,’ " Sue says with a laugh.

Sue says Emily had made rugby sound less rough than it really was.

"And we said, ‘What this kind of a sport Emily is playing?’ " Pen remembers. "So we were kind of scared. We were, like, 'We don't prefer this kind of a sport for a girl.' "

"She always played fullback," Emily's brother, Brian, says. "And so one of the responsibilities of fullback is you're the stopper. You have to make that tackle to stop the other team from scoring.

"So, the other team's got the ball. They're flying down the field. And Emily was the last line of defense. And she had no fear. She comes in like a wrecking ball and just lays down the most crushing tackle I've ever seen.

"I was, like, ‘That's my little sister!’ "

Emily playing rugby with the Brown University team in 2011. (Alison Gale/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
Emily playing rugby with the Brown University team in 2011. (Alison Gale/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

A New Olympic Dream

When Emily started playing, rugby wasn’t an Olympic sport. But in October of 2009, Emily’s sophomore fall, the International Olympic Committee voted to make rugby an Olympic sport starting in 2016. Emily’s dream transformed again: now, she thought, she might have a shot to make it to the Olympics as a rugby player.

Over spring break of her senior year, Emily and the Brown rugby team traveled to Scotland to compete.

"When we came back from Scotland, everybody was on the team bus going back to the campus, and they were texting their family," Emily says. "And I just remember sitting on the bus thinking, ‘Who can I text?’ Like, everybody that I want to text, all of my family, is right here on this bus. It’s the 30 people around me."

After graduation, Emily joined a club team in Boston so that she could keep playing.

She still dreamed of going to the Olympics as a rugby player. But she suffered back-to-back concussions, and her doctors told her to take a year off. It became clear that her injuries would end her playing career.

"I felt like I almost went through the five stages of grief," Emily says. "At first I was in denial that I wouldn’t play again competitively. And then I felt kinda angry at myself for letting myself get injured — even though that’s not really how it works in rugby. And then I started bargaining and thinking, ‘Maybe, if I do these certain training regimens, I won’t get injured again.’ "

Emily finally made it to the fifth stage: acceptance.

"And part of that was that I was just reading rugby newsletters and rugby websites," Emily says. "And I came across an article written by a referee at the time. What it said to me was, ‘You could be a referee, and you could go to the Olympics.’ And I really latched onto that."

So maybe acceptance isn’t exactly what Emily found. She found an alternative — a different way to achieve her Olympic dream and be a part of the sport she loved.

Emily set a couple of goals. She wanted to be an international referee in five years and to ref at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. She applied for a scholarship through USA Rugby to study at a referee academy in South Africa.

Emily refereeing a match in South Africa in 2014. (South Africa Referee Academy/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
Emily refereeing a match in South Africa in 2014. (South Africa Referee Academy/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

South Africa is rugby-obsessed — Emily remembers the excitement of seeing rugby on TVs in bus stops and grocery stores. During the eight-week academy, she reffed over 70 games.

And she became close with the other referees. So it was especially painful when she found out how they had been talking about her behind her back.

"Just because I was a woman," Emily says. "And that was pretty tough. Because I felt like what I had done on the field had been speaking for itself. And then just for people to distill it into a conversation about gender, and not about my ability, that was a little surprising."

But that didn’t stop her. When she came back from South Africa, Emily started reffing as many games as possible while working full time as a data analyst. It was a balancing act.

"I would just train either before work or after work, almost every day," Emily says. "And then over the weekends, I’d go out there and ref Friday, Saturday, Sunday."

A Different Path

After months of juggling a job and squeezing in rugby matches every weekend, Emily realized she wasn’t developing as a referee as fast as she wanted to.

"So I actually left my full-time job," Emily says. "I resigned from it with the purpose of being able to spend more of my time training and learning."

Emily trains in South Africa. (South Africa Referee Academny/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
Emily trains in South Africa. (South Africa Referee Academny/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

Quitting a stable job with benefits to pursue a life reffing an obscure sport isn’t what most parents dream of for their children.

"A lot of, like, immigrant families in the U.S. are very one-track minded in terms of possible career paths, so you either grow up to become a doctor or you grow up to become a lawyer," Brian says with a laugh.

"My parents immigrated from Taiwan, and I was worried what they would think," Emily says. "Because it’s less traditional in an Asian-American family to just resign and pursue an athletic dream."

But when she told her parents, the reaction she got wasn’t quite what she had expected.

"I remember that my dad said, ‘Oh, just be like Tarzan,’ " Emily says. "Like, what? He said, ‘Be like Tarzan: don’t let go of your current vine until you have the next one.’ And he just asked me, ‘What's the next vine you’re going to grab onto?’ And when I told him, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. Just make sure you grab onto that vine.’ "

"We support her," Pen says. "That's what it is. And another thing I told her: I say, ‘If rugby is your dream, while you're young and you have time, you pursue ... your dream.’ So, while she is young, and she has no burden, she can do anything she wants."

Being Like Tarzan

Emily reffed the Collegiate Rugby Championship in June 2018. (Colleen McCloskey/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
Emily reffed the Collegiate Rugby Championship in June 2018. (Colleen McCloskey/Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

Emily's parents and brother all pitched in to help with her reffing career.

"Rugby doesn't pay the bills," Brian says. "Refereeing certainly doesn't pay the bills. Women's sports and athletics doesn't pay the bills. So we helped her pay the bills because we knew that this dream was just more important than anything else."

Emily moved back home to live with her mom and save on rent. Sue cooked most of their meals, and they spent a lot of time together.

"I would just pull out my computer while my mom and I were about to eat lunch, and then she'd say, ‘Oh, are we watching rugby?’ " Emily remembers. "I’d say, ‘Yeah, we are.’ And then she started learning — ‘Oh, is it sevens rugby? Is it 15s rugby? Who’s playing? Is this an international? Is this film of you?’ "

"She bring me to the rugby — the life, the team," Sue says. "And then I say, ‘OK.’ And then gradually, I like this, I like this sport now. ... I watch it without Emily.

"I went to this ... um ... what is called? YouTube? There is a World Rugby YouTube. Sometimes I just watch myself. And then I will tell Emily. I said, ‘Oh, you know, there is a rugby, you know, Rugby Channel YouTube?’ And she said, ‘Ahh ...’ She already watch it."

A few years ago, Emily moved to Washington, D.C. to ref rugby full time. She and her mom no longer sit down for lunch together every day. But watching rugby has become part of how Sue shows her support for Emily’s career.

"My heart was really happy that this thing that I love, to think about my mom loving it, too — it just made me feel really happy," Emily says.

And it’s not just her mom. Recently, Emily traveled to Hong Kong to ref a tournament. She sent the video of her matches to her dad.

"Our family text group had been very silent," Emily remembers. "And then, all of a sudden, he just said, ‘Emily, I watched all of your matches — that was really cool.’ And that was really touching to me, too. Because although my parents might not be the ones who fly around the world or around the country to come and watch me in person, they still come through and support me in the ways that they’re able to."

The Hsieh family on vacation in Taiwan in 2015. (Courtesy Emily Hsieh)
The Hsieh family on vacation in Taiwan in 2015. (Courtesy Emily Hsieh)

A Dream Nearly Realized

Emily is quickly rising through the ranks of rugby referees. She’s reffed all over the world. In August, she was promoted to the National Panel, a group of the top refs in the United States. And she was named as one of 13 refs for the Women’s Sevens World Series.

"She got promoted to the National Panel, I said, ‘Yeah!’ " Sue laughs.

"I said to her, ‘Dreams come true,’ " Pen adds.

"I said, ‘Yeah, it's not a short journey. It's a long journey,' " Sue says. "She's been [sacrificing] a lot for herself. And then, really, she prepare for long time. That's why I just happy for her."

The refs for the 2020 Olympics haven’t been announced yet. But as one of the top rugby sevens referees in the world, Emily has a real chance of making her Olympic dream come true. And if she does make it to Tokyo, her parents plan to be there, cheering her on.

"Go ref! Go ref!" Sue laughs.

This segment aired on December 8, 2018.



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