For the last six months, Nicole Heavirland has been competing around the world and training with some of America’s best athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
On Monday, she found out her next destination: Rio de Janeiro.
The 21-year-old Whitefish native is a member of the USA Women’s National Rugby Team and was named a traveling reserve for Team USA at the Summer Olympics in Rio, which begin Aug. 5. It’s the first time ever that female rugby players will participate in the Olympic Games, with 12 teams competing.
Heavirland, a former Glacier High School standout multi-sport athlete, has been working tirelessly and living in Chula Vista along with 19 other women rugby players hoping to earn a spot on the Olympic Sevens team. Sevens rugby, which uses seven players instead of the traditional 15, will make its Olympic debut in Rio, with matches scheduled for Aug. 6-11.
“It is an exciting time for USA Rugby and I am very honored to name the first USA Women’s Sevens rugby team to compete in the Olympics,” USA Rugby Head Coach Richie Walker stated after announcing the team.
He added, “I have selected a group of girls with a wide variety of playing styles and I am excited to see them all come together and play for each other in Rio.”
Heavirland received word that she was not one of 12 players selected to play for Team USA; instead she is one of two traveling reserve players who will serve as backups in case of an injury.
“I’m excited. I would never wish for someone to get hurt but I’ll be ready if that time comes,” she said. “It means a lot and it’s really ‘team first’ but hopefully I can help put them on the podium.”
Heavirland and the Olympic team will travel to Florida later this month for a week-long training camp. The team will then depart for Brazil July 29, before the Opening Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 5. The Rugby Sevens competition kicks off Saturday, Aug. 6, at 10 a.m. ET, with the U.S.’s first game scheduled for noon ET.
Heavirland is the second-youngest women’s rugby player on Team USA. Playing the hooker position, along with scrum-half and fly-half, Heavirland has earned praise as one of the nation’s rising stars for her dynamic abilities and power. She is a top prospect for the Fifteens national team, which will be competing in the World Cup in coming years. She made her debut for the USA National Rugby Sevens squad in late March.
For local fans and coaches, Heavirland’s success has not been surprising.
“She’s a great athlete,” said Kris Salonen, head coach of the girls varsity basketball team at Glacier from 2010-2016. “(When she was playing at Glacier) she was just athletic beyond anything I’ve ever been around and coached. You knew she was pretty special.”
Heavirland grew up alongside two brothers — Taylor and her twin, Ryan — playing any and every sport possible. At a young age, she wasn’t shy of contact sports and became a standout wrestler in the local Little Guy program.
“My dad (Lance) put us in every sport and got us experience. He was a Marine and made for a tough dad sometimes, but he always took us outside and he raised us the right way,” she said.
Basketball became her favorite sport, and she played varsity as a sophomore and junior, earning Class AA all-state honors after averaging 13 points per game and scoring 20 points or more five times for the Wolfpack, who advanced to the state tournament for the first time in program history when she was a junior.
Around this time, she was also introduced to rugby when she joined a boys team her sophomore year in the upstart Black and Blue program. Not sheepish about physical activity, she practiced and trained with the boys while traveling to Missoula to compete with a girls team.
“I remember we were playing rugby in the snow and your hands want to fall off and you still play,” she said.
“I love (rugby). I just love the grit about it and the fact that your teammates are on the right and the left of you and are willing to lay down their body just like you are.”
Heavirland has always had high standards for herself and set a goal to play Division I basketball while in high school. Yet, living in Northwest Montana, she had a hard time drawing attention from regional schools, so after her junior year she transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire with her brother Ryan.
“That was a hard decision, but she loved basketball and wanted to play at the D-I level,” Lance Heavirland said.
After two years at the prep academy, Heavirland received basketball scholarship offers from 20 schools and chose the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At West Point, Heavirland’s passion for rugby was rekindled and she was invited to play for the national squad. Seeing the opportunity to possibly compete in the Olympics, Heavirland left West Point and began traveling with the Eagles. She developed into one of the top players and received an invitation among 20 women to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in California.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s honestly the best environment I’ve ever been in.”
Since November, her days have been grueling yet inspiring. Waking up at 6:30 a.m. every weekday, she would ride her bike to the training center, eat breakfast with other Olympic prospects and then warm up for an hour. Then she would go through two-a-day practices that included scrimmages and gym sessions, lifting weights and focusing on strength and conditioning while also sharpening her rugby skills. Afterward, the athletes undergo sports massages and acupuncture treatments to heal the bodies they’ve beaten up all day.
Through it all, she has carried a water bottle with a “406” sticker, reminding her of her roots.
“I always look back on Montana. I definitely want to come back home after all this. I miss it,” she said. “When I talk to my dad, he’s my No. 1 fan and he always tells me to go out there and show them what it means to be a Montanan, and to represent Montana well.”
Now she also has the opportunity to represent her country.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I’m excited.”