Brianna Kim knew she wanted to play sports in college. A four-year varsity standout in soccer and swimming at Jefferson, she arrived at the University of Virginia figuring she’d play for the school’s club soccer team.
Three years later, Kim is the best player on her club team. Her reward? A trip to Ontario this week with the USA Rugby Women’s Junior All-American squad to compete against Canada.
It turns out Kim never tried out for Virginia’s club soccer team. Club rugby tryouts happened to take place first, and Kim tagged along with a friend to check it out. She’d never played the sport before, but she was hooked from the opening whistle.
“Rugby culture is really unlike any other,” Kim said. “You beat the crap out of each other for 80 minutes and then afterwards everyone’s super friendly and you’re best friends with the people you just played.”
Now a rising fourth-year at Virginia, Kim is a regular at the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Football Club (NOVA) and a captain for the Cavaliers’ club side. This week she’s also a captain for the Junior All-American team, one of 26 women chosen from a select group of 100 standouts across the country. The team assembled in London, Ontario on Wednesday for the first leg of its two-game, Under-20 Can-Am series against their Canadian counterparts.
Wednesday’s contest didn’t go so well for the Americans, as the home side coasted to a 51-5 victory. Kim led an American back line that put forth a valiant fight in the game’s opening minutes, but the Canadians’ superior chemistry and experience soon yielded an insurmountable onslaught of points.
No matter the results, though, Kim’s trip to Canada this week marks the latest climb in a roller coaster journey with her new sport. Her skills developed with Virginia’s club team, but they’ve been sharpened during summers with NOVA. The league has about 50 members, some of whom play in college while others are still playing deep into their 30s.
“It’s a great program to really introduce the girls to rugby and then force them up to play with really high-level players,” said Dana Creager, a former national team player who serves as the head coach of NOVA’s sevens squad. “Then they can get a chance to go to nationals and travel to bigger tournaments against some of the top athletes in the country.”
Northern Virginia may not be a hot bed for the sport, but the NOVA sevens team is a perennial powerhouse that took fourth place at nationals two weeks ago after finishing runner-up last year. While Kim is the oldest member of her Junior All-American team this week — her birthday falls two days after the age cut-off date — she was the youngest player on NOVA’s 13-person roster at nationals this year. Some of her teammates and opponents are capped players who have competed on the international stage in the past.
“It’s definitely intimidating because they may not necessarily be bigger, but they just know a lot more about the sport than you do since they’ve been playing for so much longer,” Kim said. “But as a result I think I’ve improved tremendously over the past couple months because I’ve been able to play with them. I’m excited to come back to college and share that knowledge with my teammates.”
This week’s event in Canada featured rugby 15’s, the 15-a-side format traditionally seen in international competitions like the World Cup and Six Nations Championship. With NOVA Kim plays sevens, a more fast-paced version of the game played on the same-sized field with shorter time periods.
“I really like sevens because I guess it plays more to my skills,” said Kim, whose quick adaptation to the sport resulted from years of sound coordination and fitness on the soccer field. “I’m a back, which means I run a lot and pass a lot, and I have to be more fit than the forwards. I like it because I’m able to read the field and see where the holes are. It really tests my thinking.”
In 2009 the International Olympic Committee voted to include rugby sevens in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, marking rugby’s first appearance in the Olympics since 1924. That’s reinvigorated the sport in the U.S. to some extent, though it still has a long way to catch up to traditional world powers like England, Australia and New Zealand.
“Really now, with the Olympics coming in a couple of years, there’s really not a huge pool of players that have been playing all their life because it’s still a growing sport in the U.S.,” said Kim, a pre-med engineering major who’s uncertain about her future with the sport. “So now the coaches are looking at crossover athletes — soccer players, basketball players, lacrosse players, really anyone who is athletic and can pick up a sport can play.”
Kim’s upcoming matchup with a different Canadian squad is set for this Saturday. A win seems elusive, but a place at the forefront of something new is guaranteed.