Cheta Emba runs with the ball for a try at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series on Dec. 7, 2019 in Dubai.
When most athletes use their offseason to recharge, vacation and gear up for the next year, former Harvard soccer standout Cheta Emba took a different route.
The current U.S. women’s rugby sevens player and Tokyo Olympic hopeful was looking for a way to stay in shape and learn a new sport. With women’s rugby being named a varsity sport at Harvard prior to her junior season in 2013-14, Emba saw an opportunity.
“Rugby is a very visceral; there's nothing between you and the other person and everyone does everything,” she said. "I think that was a cool new challenge for me, and a different way of pushing myself, and something that I could really see progress in and learn.”
Emba, who was a goalkeeper for Harvard’s women’s soccer team, helped the Crimson to Ivy League championships three of her four seasons. She still holds the conference individual season record in 2013 for goals against average.
After playing multiple positions in basketball and soccer growing up, she missed running around the pitch.
“It was cool to see a sport where you could use your hands and feet, run hard, hit hard - all those things combined,” Emba said.
The Glen Allen, Virginia native had quick success in the sport, and was soon invited to a USA Rugby Sevens camp at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. Just over a year out of college and two-and-a-half years playing rugby, Emba was selected as an alternate for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Rugby Sevens team.
“I was so grateful and excited to be given the opportunity to go to Rio as an alternate, and I think it just served as a huge motivator,” she said. “I got a peek into what the ultimate achievement was like; what the true concept of Team USA was.”
Emba said her time as a two-sport athlete while studying molecular cellular biology at Harvard was challenging, but for good reasons.
“When I walked onto campus and was taking my visit it wasn’t necessarily like, ‘oh, I can really just excel here, this is going to perfect,’” she said. “I think it was the fact that I realized it would be a bit of a challenge and that made Harvard seem like a place I wanted to be.”
With hand-eye coordination and quickness being skills utilized in both sports, the process of learning rugby was not too difficult for Emba. Even though she only played collegiate rugby for two seasons, she credits that time to help her ease the transition into competing at the international level.
“As a collegiate athlete you’re pushing to win that conference title, to get into the national tournament, but it's not the end all be all,” she said. “Once you take that next step it is the end all be all when you go from national to international and the benchmarks change. Being able to do it in a kind of step-wise fashion is a great opportunity and helped prepare me for where I am now.”
With her Olympic dreams still a year away and the additional time to train in hopes of earning a spot on the Olympic Team, Emba has had a chance to reflect on her greater purpose in sport.
“Being able to see people who look like me – shape, size and gender – was a huge part of what helped me even imagine that I could be a part of sport at the elite level,” Emba said. “Now to be able to serve in that role and even show people from various backgrounds, culture-wise, gender-wise, race-wise is a huge opportunity and responsibility, and one that I don’t take lightly but am so honored that I am able to do.”