Every little kid who plays sports dreams of playing professionally and dreams of someday representing his or her country, whether it be the Olympics or the World Cup or maybe the World Lacrosse Championships (see Foxboro’s Sophia Dicenso, who was featured last week). Former Franklin star Kristi Kirshe, a former soccer state champion with the Panthers and Div. III national champion at Williams College, recently fulfilled that dream, although not in a sport she would have ever imagined.
A former standout in soccer, lacrosse, and basketball at Franklin (being named MVP in soccer and lax as a senior), and a two-time All-American at Williams, Kirshe has achieved her dream of being a professional athlete as a rising star in rugby.
Kirshe recently played with the bronze-medal-winning U.S. Women’s Eagles Sevens at the HSBC Sydney (Australia) Sevens tournament and scored five tries in three matches and is a full-time resident at the U.S. rugby base in Chula Vista, Calif., despite having not even picked up a rugby ball until one year ago this week.
“I’d say this one tops it all,” Kirshe said this week about how playing for the U.S. stacks up to all that she has achieved in sports. “I think I said when we won the state title in soccer that it was a dream come true but I’m pretty sure putting on the USA rugby jersey topped that.
“Getting to play professionally, getting to play internationally, it’s something you dream about as a little kid. I thought soccer was going to be the sport to get me there and when it didn’t happen I kind of gave up on it and it’s amazing that this opportunity is back in my life and I’m chasing the dream again.”
When Kirshe graduated from Williams, there was an immediate void. She had played competitive team sports her whole life, from youth leagues, including Pop Warner football, through high school and to one of the top DIII college programs in the country. Now, she was left working out by herself and trying to sate her competitive juices playing rec soccer once a week.
Kirshe said, “I was trying to figure out what my life was post-competitive sports and I didn’t like it too much, so I was trying to find another sport to play. I think I really missed the team environment the most, being around people that are working towards a common goal.
“Graduating college was the first time that I didn’t have a sport going on and honestly I felt pretty lost. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It’s always been something that I did, it’s always been part of me as a person, so not having that was really hard.”
It was her former Franklin teammate Grace Conley, who played rugby at Boston University, who introduced her to the potential of a new sport. Kirshe took her friend’s advice and went to an open tryout for Boston Rugby, which was getting ready to start its spring 15s season. She made an immediate impact and her new teammates convinced her to tryout for the Northeast Academy, which is a national development program for rugby.
She made the academy team and went to play a sevens tournament in California, where she impressed enough to be named to the tournament’s Dream Team. That led to her selection as one of 12 players on the Women’s Falcons team that played in the Hokkaido Governor’s Cup in Japan. In less than seven months, Kirshe went from having never played rugby before to joining a U.S. team in an international tournament.
Franklin basketball coach John Leighton said of Kirshe, who was the point guard on teams that made back-to-back Div. 1 South finals, “Her motor is just set different. Just the most competitive kid I’ve ever met. I had to change my rule on drills because she was so competitive she would do anything to win the drill.”
He showed no surprise that Kirshe was an instant success in her new sport. “If we started a ping pong team,” Leighton joked, “she’d be my first pick because she’d push herself to be the best.”
Having the eye-hand coordination of basketball and lacrosse and the tactical awareness of soccer and the physicality of all the sport she has played going all way back to Pop Warner, rugby has turned out to be a natural fit. From the culture of the sport to the rapid learning curve to being back on the field as part of a team, Kirshe is enjoying every part of this experience.
“I just think it’s one of the ultimate team sports,” she explained. “You’re going into contact so you have to always be willing to put yourself on the line for everyone around you. Whether it’s be the first person there in support when someone gets tackled or just knowing when you get tackled that someone else is going to be there to support you, you just have to each other’s back at all times, which I think is really cool.”
That experience was taken to a new level this month when she joined the official U.S. team (the Falcons are part of the U.S. developmental program) in Australia for one leg of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, which builds up to the 2020 Olympics.
“It definitely felt different wearing [a U.S. jersey] on the world series stage,” Kirshe said. It’s pretty surreal honestly. I was thinking about it a lot when I was there that I couldn’t have imagined I’d be here a year ago…I definitely took a few minutes with it before I put it on, just kind of stared at for a bit.”
On her debut against China, Kirshe, who came on as a substitute, found a seam and outran the opposition for her first of five tries in the tournament. “Everyone around me did everything perfectly and I saw a little gap and instinct just kind of kicked in,” she said. “It was definitely nerve-wracking but the second that I got the ball in my hand it felt like every other game that I’ve played. Instinct kicked in and I thought, okay avoid getting tackled and keep running.”
After experiencing the world stage, Kirshe returns to Chula Vista and the residency program to prepare with the Women’s Falcons for a tournament in Las Vegas in March. The next world series stop is in Japan in April and Kirshe hopes to be part of that team as well. It is hard to believe that this time last year, she was being pushed to give rugby a try for the first time.
“Thinking about where I was in my first practice last year,” she reflected, “I knew nothing, not a single thing. It’s just been a rapid learning curve and I feel like in every single game I play in I’m learning something new and every day at practice I’m figuring something out or something is starting to click.”
It obviously clicked enough for Kirshe to score five times against international competition and get pegged as a rising newcomer on the U.S. team. She admits that being on the U.S. team is a different level of nerves, but also that having played on the biggest stages since high school has prepared her for taking this opportunity when it presented itself.
“Playing in a national championship,” she said, “playing in high school championships, helped me be ready for big games, but still just focus on the little things and getting the little things right and being able to stay calm despite the nerves and the excitement.
“In all sports and no matter what stage you’re on, the second the whistle blows you’re just playing and I think that is kind of where I thrive.”