There were the childhood days scheduled completely around sports, when she joined just about any youth league her hometown of Franklin offered. Then there was high school, when she’d whittled her sports options to the three at which she most excelled, moving through Franklin High’s fall soccer, winter basketball, and spring lacrosse slates with predictable dominance. And then came college, when she boiled it down to soccer, becoming an All-American forward at Williams.
Kristi Kirshe knew how to work with sports. She loved the discipline, she loved the predictability, she loved the camaraderie, and she loved the competitiveness. And sports loved Kristi back, with its glorious unpredictability, its lessons in winning and losing, its heart and its soul. They were a perfect match.
And then they weren’t.
The post-college real world came calling, bringing the adult days scheduled around a new job with the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray, when Kirshe put her degree in political science to use as a possible precursor to law school. Oh, there were recreational teams to join, Patriots games to watch, and gyms to frequent, but still, something was missing. Like a recipe without its main ingredient.
“As long as I could remember, my whole life revolved around sports, being there, traveling, tournaments, and then to be without that was really a jarring experience,” Kirshe said in a recent conversation. “I realized I did not like it very quickly. I started doing pickup soccer so it would keep me doing something, but it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t competing enough.”
And then she found rugby. Or rugby found her. Either way, their union is one of those stories that makes you smile, one that should be broadcast to the world — and might well be by the time the Tokyo Olympics get under way next summer. Kirshe, 24, has emerged as an integral, if relatively inexperienced, member of the United States women’s rugby team that has already qualified for the 2020 Games, named a captain by general manager Emilie Bydwell despite only picking up the sport shortly after her 2017 college graduation, when a friend called with an invite to a local club rugby practice.
“It took me a little convincing, I was a little hesitant at first, but probably half a year later, February of 2018, I finally went to practice,” Kirshe said. “I got convinced, and I just kind of ran with it.”
She ran right up the learning curve. Despite not having picked up a new sport since she was about 8 years old, Kirshe devoured the game, suddenly finding the perfect outlet for all the ones she’d played before. There was soccer, obviously, the game both of her parents had played at Cornell, the one she played all those years in the yard with her brother, the one that gave her such foundational elements in fitness, foot skill, and speed.
There was lacrosse, for field vision and agility of movement. Basketball for teamwork and hand-eye coordination. And football, when she’d been one of the only girls on the field in Franklin and had played quarterback and wide receiver, for the tackling and contact.
And now there is rugby, this beautiful sporting stew of teamwork, skill, physicality, and fun, a recipe for which she already had every ingredient. She just had to learn how to put it together, and in what seems like an eyeblink, she did it well enough to make the US roster.
“I think it’s starting to get there,” Kirshe said. “Soccer and rugby are both fluid games, but are so different. The fact in rugby you can’t pass the ball forward, that’s one of the hardest things to adapt to. I played forward in soccer. I’m learning to be in support lines, realign, and be in a good position. I kept running by the ball, and my teammates would be like, ‘You can’t do anything there!’ I think now my brain is finally starting to be more rugby wired. I’m starting to understand and see the game better. It comes with playing and time.”
She recently helped the US win a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Peru (losing to Canada in the gold medal match) and will return to California soon to resume training with the national team, with an eye on the Olympics. No guarantees, of course, but Kirshe is certainly trending in the right direction.
“It was her center of gravity and her ability to not just get herself into spaces but the ability to power herself through those spaces that really stuck out to us,” Bydwell said. “She understands space well, and coming from a soccer background she understands the relationship between attack and defense. She already had really good defensive tracking, and her ability to tackle after not playing rugby for very long is something we often struggle with with crossover athletes. She took that on board pretty quickly, so we knew she would accelerate pretty fast.
“She has experience in a high-performance environment, so she knows what it’s like to be an elite athlete, she’s brought those behaviors into this environment, and her work ethic and attention to detail and her intent is second to none. We started investing in her as a leader . . . she is really thoughtful, thinks about the team, the people around her, how they can maximize their output, and really thinks about the team in a meaningful way.”
That’s what can happen when you find a new passion, when you are present enough in a moment to realize something amazing might be unfolding before you, when your mind and heart are open enough not only to see a new course, but have the willingness to take it.
“The sport completely changed my entire world, completely flipped my world upside down in the best way possible,” Kirshe said. “Getting to play for the US team is amazing. As a kid I grew up dreaming of playing for the soccer team. I kind of realized when I was in high school, and picked a Division 3 school, that it probably wasn’t going to happen. I’d come to terms with that. But life works in mysterious ways. You have to be open.”