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A Rugby Newcomer Pursues Her Olympic Dream07:23
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Kristi Kirshe was working at a law firm when she realized she missed playing team sports. So she picked up rugby. (Mike Lee/KLC Fotos for World Rugby)
Kristi Kirshe was working at a law firm when she realized she missed playing team sports. So she picked up rugby. (Mike Lee/KLC Fotos for World Rugby)

Kristi Kirshe grew up in a family of athletes.

"Ah, definitely an understatement," she deadpans.

Kristi’s parents met at Cornell University, where they played soccer. Growing up in Franklin, Massachusetts, Kristi watched her older siblings play lots of sports.

"And, like, every memory I have of my childhood is me on the sideline of one of their games," Kristi says. "I don't think there was ever a doubt about whether I was going to pick up sports.

A Four-Sport Athlete

"I started playing soccer, I think, as soon as I could walk."

Soon Kristi took up lacrosse and basketball. She was good at everything she tried.

Well, not quite everything. When Kristi was 8, her mom signed her up for dance lessons.

"And it was something I was god-awful at," Kristi says. "And, after a year of doing, like, the ballet and everything, I walked up to my mom, and I was like, 'You know, mom, I really wanna quit ballet. I don't really like it.' And then I followed up with, 'And I want to go play football.' "

Kristi’s Mom signed her up for Pop Warner in 2002.

"I loved every second of it," Kristi says. "I had so much fun. I got to play running back, a little bit of quarterback, and I played some linebacker on defense, getting to tackle people, break tackles ... "

Kristi played four years of Pop Warner. But, when it came time to go to college, she had another sport in mind.

"I think soccer was always the one that I was dreaming about going to the Olympics for," Kristi says. "It was always soccer."

Kristi Kirshe, top, collides with an opponent during a high school soccer tournament. (Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Kristi Kirshe, top, collides with an opponent during a high school soccer tournament. (Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kristi joined the team at Div. III Williams College and won a national championship in 2015. But it became clear that she wasn’t going to make the U.S. Olympic soccer team. Kristi graduated in 2017 with a degree in political science.

Now, for the first time, she had to imagine everyday life without competitive team sports.

"That was definitely a tough pill for me to swallow, but I was trying to focus on what I was going to do with the rest of my life," Kristi says. "So I ended up getting a job in a law firm in Boston, Ropes & Gray, which is a pretty big one."

From the outset, Kristi missed the competitive environment.

Which is kind of ironic when you consider she was working at a law firm.

"I definitely think I realized pretty early on that the office job life wasn't gonna be for me," Kristi says. "I really did not enjoy sitting at a desk all day, doing the 9-to-5 thing.

"So I was complaining to my friends a lot about how much I missed playing sports."

Entering The Scrum

Kristi complained to the right person. Her best friend from high school was playing for the Boston Women’s Rugby Club.

"She kept telling me, 'You should try playing rugby. Like, you’d probably be really good at it. I think you'll enjoy it,' " Kristi says. "And I was actually really resistant to the idea. Because, you know, in my brain I was like, 'Oh, I haven't picked up a new sport since I started playing football, when I was 8. Like, I could be terrible at it. I could hate it.' I was really afraid of that."

In February of 2018, Kristi Kirshe attended her first practice.

"I was very nervous," she admits. "You know, I had, like, held the rugby ball maybe once before that. And I was like, 'Wow, I have no idea what I'm doing.' "

Kristi has the perfect attributes for rugby: she’s team-oriented, physically strong and a deceptively fast runner. When Kristi played in her first game …

"They threw me out on the wing, and I scored right away," she says. "And I feel like that moment, that was like, 'OK, I can do this. I'm going to be OK at this. Rugby is starting to make a lot more sense to me.' "

"Every time I put on ... the USA jersey, I'm kind of in disbelief that I get to do this, and that this is my life that I'm living."

Kristi Kirshe

As a soccer player, Kristi was used to creating passing lanes upfield from the ball carrier. In rugby, there’s no such thing; all passing must go backward.

But she did have one advantage: all the skills she had learned in the various sports she had played as a kid.

"You know, having played soccer, I had a pretty good awareness of just, like, the fluidity of the sport," Kristi says. "And then I think, you know, hand-eye coordination from basketball and lacrosse were huge. And, having learned how to tackle when I was 8 years old and learned how to take a hit, I wasn't afraid of the contact element. Every single sport I played really allowed me to be good at rugby, I think."

Kristi was invited to join a regional rugby development program. That got her some national exposure. A few months later, she was invited to join USA Rugby’s development team.

"It was one of the most terrifying decisions that I've ever made. You know, I had an apartment in Boston. I had a full-time job in Boston. I was doing pretty well for myself," Kristi says. "And I got offered this opportunity. And so I just took a chance on the Olympic dream."

In November 2018, just 10 months after she picked up the sport, Kristi attended USA Rugby’s national camp. By December, she had signed a contract with the U.S. women’s national rugby team. She now lives and trains in Chula Vista.

International Play

In January 2019, Kristi traveled with the team to Sydney, Australia, on a rugby sevens tour. She scored a team-high five tries, the rugby term for "touchdown." The highlight came against top-ranked New Zealand.

Kirshe took a pass from a teammate, stiff-armed a defender and rocketed 80 yards downfield for the score.

USA beat New Zealand and took the bronze medal in Sydney.

A few months later, the U.S. qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games. Kristi is now among the 24 women hoping make the Olympic cut. And she’s still getting better.

"Every tournament I go to, I'm learning a lot of new things," Kristi says. "For so long, I've just been able to rely on natural instincts. My athletic past has helped with that. But I think there's so much left to learn, and so much potential to still be maximized."

Kristi Kirshe was a standout for the U.S. during the 2019 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series. (Mike Lee/KLC Fotos for World Rugby)
Kristi Kirshe was a standout for the U.S. during the 2019 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series. (Mike Lee/KLC Fotos for World Rugby)

Kristi Kirshe is 25 years old. She says a trip to the Tokyo Olympics would make for a perfect second act … or maybe it’s her fifth act … after her years playing soccer, lacrosse, basketball and football.

"And, every time I put on that jersey, the USA jersey, I'm kind of in disbelief that I get to do this, and that this is my life that I'm living," Kristi says.

"You never know when the opportunity that's gonna change your life is gonna be presented to you. And, you know, sometimes you just have to take a chance on yourself and follow your gut and just go for it with everything you got.  Even if it's terrifying."

This segment aired on February 29, 2020.

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Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.

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