When Kristi Kirshe and her USA Women’s Eagles Sevens teammates step onto the pitch for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Biarritz, France, on June 15, they will earn a berth for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The top four teams in the series standings qualify. Ranked second in the world and so far ahead of the fifth-place team, the U.S. women only need one more point to guarantee their spot for the Tokyo Games.
“We’ve done the hard work to get there,” said Kirshe by phone from the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California. “Just for bringing a team to the tournament, we’ll get the one point and be officially qualified.”
Kirshe has only played rugby for the Eagles Sevens for four-and-a-half months and is in the running for HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series rookie of the year. But she has made an impact from the minute she set foot on the rugby pitch. Since her debut at the Sydney Sevens tournament in February, the Eagles have finished on the world series podium at every tournament. And Kirshe — a 24-year-old recent college grad whose main sport was soccer — has scored tries in every one of those tournaments. She is now tied for fifth in points scored for the Eagles.
“Kirshe is incredible, and I’m not at all surprised by her ability to impact the rugby world so quickly,” said Michelyne Pinard, Kirshe’s soccer coach at Williams College. “She is quick, powerful, fast, and one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever coached.”
For a talented athlete who gave up on her Olympic dream in high school because she chose not to focus on one sport, Kirshe is now living that dream — in part because of her multisport background.
“I had given up on the idea of being an Olympian,” she said. “Then here comes rugby.”
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From Franklin, Massachusetts — a town about 40 miles southwest of Boston — Kirshe is the youngest of three in a sports family. Her parents, Greg and Kathy, played soccer at Cornell University; older brother, Lane, played football at Wesleyan University; and older sister, Lindsey, played three sports through high school and earned a doctorate in physical therapy.
When she was little, Kirshe jumped into soccer, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, and Pop Warner football — a sport she gave up in middle school to focus on soccer. She participated in the Olympic development program soccer progression. But in high school, she faced another dilemma: continue with ODP and only focus on soccer, or stay on the multi-sport path, playing soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring.
“I really wanted to play three, so I chose three over the Olympic development path,” she said. “So that decision turned down the Olympic dream for me.”
College would force her to pick one sport though, so she went with soccer. She considered playing in either an Ivy League NCAA Division I program or a Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) school. With her brother at Wesleyan, the NESCAC schools had always been on Kirshe’s radar.
Then she met with Pinard at Williams — one of the Little Three, along with Wesleyan and Amherst College. Under Pinard, the Williams Ephs have qualified for the NCAA DIII national championships 12 times.
“[Pinard] really knew how to pitch me,” said Kirshe. “She was like, you can go to an Ivy League School and play DI soccer. But you’ll never get a chance at a national championship. Or you can come to this DIII school, same level of academics as an Ivy, and actually compete for a national championship. It sold me.”
In four years playing soccer for Williams, Kirshe competed in two national championships and helped the Ephs win the national title in 2015.
“She was a bull, and she was impossible for most defenders to handle,” said Pinard. “She arrived an incredible athlete, but she evolved to be a very good soccer player too because she is so goal-oriented. You tell her what she needs to improve and why it will help the team, and she’ll do it. She is a perfect blend of stubborn and coachable. If she knows the ‘why,’ she will do anything for her team.”
Kirshe graduated from Williams in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Assuming her competitive days were behind her, she took a job in Boston with the law firm Ropes & Gray to see if law school would be her next goal.
“It was a great first job, a great opportunity,” she said. “But I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to do very well sitting at a desk all day.”
She was also struggling with her identity. For as long as she could remember, she had defined herself as an athlete. She was playing in a women’s soccer league — the equivalent of a come-one-come-all rec league. But it wasn't enough.
Around this time, a high school friend, Grace Conley, suggested Kirshe try rugby. Conley had played rugby at Boston University and was on the Boston Women’s Rugby Football Club. Williams has a rugby club, but the first time Kirshe had watched the sport was on TV during the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and only because New England Patriots football player Nate Ebner was on Team USA. Kirshe, who grew up just a few miles from Gillette Stadium, is a big Pats fan.
After a few months of waffling, she decided to give rugby a try.
“Ugh,” she sighed, then laughed, when asked about her first practice.
“The fact that you can’t throw the ball forward threw me off so much,” she admitted. “I was running soccer support lines in front of people, and they were like, ‘I can’t give you the ball there.’ It was very overwhelming not really knowing anything about what I was doing.”
Her teammates thought otherwise.
“She had the innate ability to anticipate where the ball was going and put herself in a position to catch (which no one had to teach her),” said Boston Women’s RFC 15s captain Stacey Markovic by email.
“Kirshe’s raw talent and athleticism was obvious at the first practice she attended,” added Deanna Nash, Boston Women’s RFC Sevens captain. “But what truly made her so successful so quickly with Boston was how coachable she is. She’s amazingly humble, receptive to feedback, and hardworking. She was eager to improve right away and never accepted anything but the best from herself."
What Kirshe did not understand, she studied. And she asked questions, impressing her teammates with her intensity, willingness to learn and humility. By her first game, Kirshe understood the sport and began a rapid climb up USA Rugby’s development ladder. In May 2018, a few of her teammates brought her to a practice with the Northeast Academy, part of USA Rugby’s National Development Academies.
From there, Kirshe made the roster for a National Development Academy tournament at the Chula Vista training center in June — her first sevens tournament — and she was named to the Dream Team.
Kirshe returned home to Boston for the summer, then competed at nationals in August with the Boston Women’s RFC. Last fall, she played with the Falcons (the Eagles development team) in Japan’s Hokkaido Governor’s Cup.
The last week of October, Kirshe quit her job at Ropes & Gray. In December, she was offered a contract with the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens.
Kirshe entered her first world series tournament on Feb. 1, 2019 in Sydney, Australia, and soon scored her first try. By the end of the Sydney Sevens, she had scored another four tries and helped the U.S. earn the bronze medal. The U.S. moved from fourth to third place in the rankings.
“Kristi has been an outstanding addition to the group,” said U.S. women’s sevens coach Chris Brown. “She defines consistency and as I joke with her at training, ‘She’s all business.’ Her ability to do what is natural for her and not get caught up in what she’s still learning barely a year into this game is outstanding, which is why she's been able to commit and succeed with such a limited time in the game.”
For Kirshe, rugby is a blend of her sports past. Basketball and lacrosse helped her hand-eye coordination in rugby. Soccer taught her how to train and to compete in a fluid sport, like rugby, without many stoppages. And football prepared her to play a contact sport.
“I learned how to make a proper tackle when I was 8,” Kirshe said, “which probably really helped me getting ready to be able to do it now when I’m 24.”
After the Biarritz tournament, the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens will turn their focus to the Lima 2019 Pan American Games, then the 2019-20 Sevens Series that starts in the fall, and finally to Tokyo, and Kirshe is one of the favorites to make the 12-woman roster that will compete in the 2020 Games.
“I’m going to go home, hang out in Boston, and focus on learning more rugby skills, and get ready for the Olympic push,” said Kirshe, cognizant that there is more still to learn. “I think it’s going to be a big one.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.