U.S. rugby player Kristi Kirshe's unlikely path to the national team

U.S. rugby player Kristi Kirshe, left, has played the sport for less than a year and a half, and she is quickly becoming a bright spot for the U.S. national team. Mike Lee/KLC Fotos for USA Rugby

Kristi Kirshe wanted something competitive. She was working in a Boston law office after four years of varsity college soccer, and playing in a city soccer league didn't feed her fire. She was looking for more fun. So, a friend suggested she try rugby. That was in February 2018.

"I just kind of ran with it from there," she says.

Now, barely 16 months after beginning to learn the fundamentals and rules of the sport, Kirshe, 24, is playing a significant role on a U.S. team that has won a silver and two bronze medals in World Series tournaments this season. And this team is one of the best in the world: The U.S. women reached the quarterfinals in rugby's Olympic debut in 2016, and this weekend, they could solidify their qualification spot into the 2020 Olympics at the HSBC Canada Women's Sevens in Langford, B.C.

Over 12 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series games, Kirshe is tied for fifth on the team with eight tries (analogous to a touchdown in football). It's been a mind-boggling evolution to elite-level, impact player in a new sport.

"Sometimes I wake up and still can't believe this is my life," she says.

Kirshe was a rugby newcomer but not a rookie athlete. She graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 2017 as a political science major and a soccer star. Kirshe twice earned All-America honors as a 5-foot-5 forward, setting career (43) and season (18) school records for goals. As a junior, she helped Williams win an NCAA Division III national championship. Both her parents played soccer at Cornell, and Kirshe was a three-sport athlete in high school (soccer, basketball, lacrosse) just as her older sister and brother had been. She also played baseball and Pop Warner football. In four seasons of football (into middle school), she played running back, linebacker and a little quarterback.

"Playing football as a kid desensitized me to being afraid of the contact," she says. And, playing fluid sports such as soccer, basketball and lacrosse gave her skills she believes eased her transition into rugby.

"I really do think everything in my life prepared me for rugby," she says.

After that first practice in February 2018 with Boston Women's Rugby Football Club, she played several spring games for the club in 15s rugby. Because she was new, she played mostly on the wings.

"When you're starting in 15s and they throw you at wing, you're just sort of waiting to get the ball, and you just catch it and run," she says. "That's basically what I did that first season."

But she did enough to get recruited by the Northeast Academy, a development program for sevens rugby (the more wide-open game played in the Olympics, with seven players a side). She played a June tournament with Northeast at the Elite Athlete Training Center (formerly known as the Olympic Training Center) in Chula Vista, California, and eventually was invited to join USA Rugby's Falcons development team in September. From there she was invited to the U.S. national camp in November and was offered a contract to join the team in December.

"It's been an absolute whirlwind," she says. "This is just one of those experiences you just can't say no to. It's an incredible opportunity."

It was once she started playing sevens that Kirshe began to really develop what she calls "rugby skills." Her teammates and coaches have been willing to spend extra time with her to teach her fundamentals, rules and techniques. And, with the national team, every practice and game is filmed and studied, allowing her to get constant feedback.

"I feel like every time, every single day, I learn something new," says Kirshe, who lives and trains with her teammates in Chula Vista. "Every time we play a game, I learn new rules. I'm trying to keep up, but it's been a very, very steep learning curve."

But Kirshe isn't alone. She's one of several players in the national program recruited from other sports. U.S. head coach Chris Brown says it's what Kirshe knows how to do -- not what she doesn't -- that has added a boost to the team.

"She defines consistency, and as I joke with her at training, she's 'all business,'" Brown says. "Her ability to do what is natural for her and not get caught up in what she's still learning is outstanding. It's how she's been able to commit and succeed having spent such a limited time in the game."

In her debut with the national team in February during an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament in Sydney, she scored the first time she touched the ball in a 26-10 victory over China.

"That was kind of like, 'Oh, my God, here I am, I'm actually doing this' type of moment," she says.

At the second World Rugby Sevens Series tournament in Japan in April, Kirshe came off the bench to score a game-winning try against powerhouse New Zealand. Teammate Kris Thomas turned upfield with the ball, pulled a pair of defenders toward her, then pitched back to Kirshe, who sprinted more than half the field for the try.

"[Thomas] made a great run, absolutely pinned the defender, and all I had to do was beat one girl one-on-one," she says. "But it was a really exciting moment. It's always exciting when you get that few feet of separation and you know that you're off to the races."

Now, Kirshe is in position to dream of playing in the Olympics. The 12 members will be selected in early 2020 based on performance and training, and right now, Kirshe appears to be a likely candidate. Already, just competing for Team USA has been the highlight of her quick rise through rugby's ranks.

"Every time I step out onto the field, or every time we run out of the tunnel, every one of those is like a pinch-me moment," she says. "I can't believe I'm here. I can't believe I get to do this. I can't believe I'm wearing a USA jersey. Every one of those moments is surreal."