The Olympic Grind

Bruise-loving, pass-catching, coffee-swigging Whitefish native Nicole Heavirland is the co-captain of the U.S. National Rugby 7s team that has its sights set on a gold medal in 2020

By Andy Viano
Nicole Heavirland, co-captain of the United States women’s national rugby team, poses for a portrait at Smith Fields in Whitefish on July 31, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A corner of Nicole Heavirland’s lip curls into a devilish grin as she plays with the words in her head between sips of gourmet pour-over coffee.

“You’ve got a lot of girls growing up wanting to be soccer players or basketball players,” she says. “But who wants to go tackle and bleed and get bruises and black eyes and broken fingers and noses?”

Once upon a time, when she was a multi-sport star at Glacier High School, Heavirland was one of those girls who grew up wanting to be a basketball player, and the Whitefish native even landed a spot at Division I Army to play hoops. But after one season in West Point, Heavirland found a better way to fuel her passion for sports in a way that better fits a person who laughs about taking a knee to the face on an almost daily basis.

“I love it,” she says. “It means you did something.”

In rugby, Heavirland has done plenty in a rocket ship of a career that continues to accelerate. She made the USA Rugby Women’s National Team as a 21-year-old, traveled to Rio de Janeiro as an alternate for the U.S. Sevens Olympic team in 2016 and was named captain of that same team just one year later. In the last 12 months, she’s taken the Eagles (the 7s team’s nickname) to an unprecedented No. 2 world ranking and an automatic berth in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

And for her next act, the 24-year-old isn’t just shooting for one of the 12 spots on the Olympic roster next year. She expects nothing less than coming home from Japan with a gold medal.

“Number one,” she says confidently. “We actually have a shot.”

Team USA co-captain Nicole Heavirland during a training session prior to the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series on May 10, 2019. Mike Lee | KLC Fotos

Professional athletes like Heavirland all have a competitive streak. Hers first grew at home with her parents and two brothers, Taylor and Ryan, her twin. At night, their father Lance would sit on a couch in the living room and fire a football at his three kids as they ran passing routes. The first to drop a ball was the first to go to bed. Nicole almost never lost, and on many nights she and Lance would stay up well after her brothers had gone to sleep, throwing and catching passes until one finally touched the ground.

“If she didn’t win every time, she was in the final two,” Lance recalled. “She didn’t want to lose.”

The action went behind the nighttime pass-and-catch competitions, too. Carmen Heavirland, Nicole’s mother, is a competitive runner and memorably left her pre-teen daughter in the dust on a run on the Whitefish Trail, and she instilled a love of yoga to help balance the hyper-competitive Nicole. Mom and dad also kept the Heavirland children busy, doing everything from soccer and softball to waterskiing, wakeboarding and fishing.

“I couldn’t imagine a better childhood,” Nicole said. “My parents got us into everything.”

These days, Nicole Heavirland is scratching her competitive itch even when she’s away from her full-time job. On a team full of them, Heavirland is “one of the biggest coffee nerds” and has a tattoo of a coffee plant on her left shoulder to prove it. She’s entered coffee competitions and took fourth in an Aeropress tournament at her favorite San Diego shop.

“Probably the Colombian in me,” she jokes, noting her mother’s ancestry. “It’s something I do on the weekends … I’ll hop on the bike and then go to a coffee shop and just chill out.”

Coffee’s physical properties — high in antioxidants and caffeine; low in calories — make it an attractive vice for the 5-foot-5 Heavirland, who practices monk-like discipline in her diet and exercise routines in order to stay fit for her grueling day job. Being a part of the U.S. Rugby program means training full-time at the Olympic Training Center (recently renamed the Elite Athlete Training Center) in Chula Vista, working alongside other U.S. Olympic hopefuls in a number of summer sports under the guidance of a legion of trainers, dieticians, sports psychologists and other specialists whose job it is to build gold medal-winning athletes.

Nicole Heavirland, co-captain of the United States women’s national rugby team, poses for a portrait at Smith Fields in Whitefish on July 31, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Heavirland does all of this with a memory from three years ago in mind. She received word late in the summer of 2016 that she had not landed one of 12 available spots on the U.S. women’s sevens team that would be competing in the Olympics. And even more painfully, she later learned she was the program’s 13th choice. Although she did get to travel to Rio with her teammates, she equated the experience to “going to a candy shop but not getting any candy; and everyone else is getting candy.”

In the last two years, Heavirland has been a staple on the national team, consistently playing more minutes than any American in international tournaments and serving as a co-captain with Lauren Doyle. Provided she stays healthy and her performance does not wane she is likely be among the 12 women chosen to play at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but she isn’t taking anything for granted and no spot will be determined before next July.

“Every decision I make in life is solely based around (making the Olympic team),” Heavirland said. “Am I going to eat that piece of cake? No. Am I going to drink? Am I going to stay out late? … For that feeling, for that dream to come true, would be amazing.”

The Eagles finished fifth at the Rio Olympics, but the years since have seen the team become an international force. The Americans won the program’s first-ever gold medal at the most recent World Rugby Sevens Series tournament in June in Biarritz, France, beating world No. 1 New Zealand in the finals. The team finished the seven-stop series with five medals — one gold, one silver and three bronzes — and has made giant leaps forward since Chris Brown was named the team’s head coach in October 2018.

Brown’s commitment to building a team culture first, Heavirland says, has made all the difference, and having the affable Heavirland as a captain has helped maintain that cohesion.

“Nicole gets along with everyone, listens and understands well, which makes her a vital asset to the group,” Emilie Bydwell, the general manager of the USA Rugby women’s national teams, said. “The way she carries herself feeds onto the rest of the team and the perspective she brings is refreshing.”

Heavirland will be home for one more week before returning to California, and while she’s here she will spend some time with players and share some gear with the local Black and Blue rugby program. Lance Heavirland runs the Black and Blue, and the team’s first girl players included Nicole, then a high school sophomore, when she and her five Flathead Valley teammates played matches with a club in Missoula.

It’s still a little jarring for Nicole and Lance to think back to those days, less than a decade in the past, and reconcile just how quickly the younger Heavirland has climbed to the top of her sport. If Nicole does qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team in 2020, she will join a very short list of Montana-born summer Olympians and continue to cement her position as the most successful rugby player the state has every produced.

“You forget how cool it is, to be honest,” Nicole said. “My mindset is to always figure out what I’m not perfect at and keeping chipping away to make my weaknesses my strengths. You forget where you are and how far you’ve come. When I come back to Whitefish I’m like, wow, it is pretty cool what I do.”

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