Sports

Tokyo Bound

Whitefish native Nicole Heavirland aims to lead Team USA at the Olympic Games, well caffeinated and with an eye on a gold medal

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

If you wander in to Folklore Coffee in downtown Whitefish to pick up a bag of beans, you’ll notice a new blend on the shelves. 

Nicole’s Blend is a collaboration between the Pollard brothers, who own Folkore, and Nicole Heavirland, a self-professed coffee aficionado, Whitefish native and Olympian. 

Heavirland has been a member of the USA National Rugby sevens squad since 2016, and when she travels around the globe for tournaments, she always searches for a good cup of coffee. 

“It’s something we do as a team,” Heavirland said. “We get to a town, look for a good coffee shop and flock there to get caffeinated. It’s a bonding thing.”

Heavirland decided to pursue a partnership with Folklore after having “one of my favorite cups of coffee ever” the first time she entered the shop. 

Her Colombian and Ethiopian signature blend is a lighter roast, and she insists on brewing via pour over to extract the fruitier notes of the roast and make them pop. 

“I’ve found that coffee is pretty universal wherever we travel,” Heavirland said, mentioning favorite cafés she visited in Australia, Dubai and Cape Town. “Even if there are language barriers, we’ll find coffee.”

In a few days, Heavirland will be taking off with her teammates to fly to Japan for the 2020 Olympic Games (which were postponed for a year because of the pandemic), and she’s already got a bag of her beans packed to ensure she’s caffeinated enough to compete. 

Five years ago, as a 21-year-old, the Glacier High School graduate was in Rio de Janiero for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, but she wasn’t competing. She was the first person off the Team USA roster and made the trip as a reserve player. 

This year, Heavirland will be there in uniform, taking the field as a member of Team USA, after she was named to the roster earlier this month. 

“Everyone on the roster deserves their spot and I wholeheartedly believe we have the best athletes in the world,” Heavirland said this week. “The goal is gold, 100%.” 

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, now 26, has been playing rugby for more than a decade. While at Glacier she was a multi-sport athlete for the Wolfpack, earning all-state accolades on the basketball court. During her sophomore year she was introduced to rugby and joined a boys team in the Black and Blue rugby program.  She trained and practiced with the local boys team and traveled to Missoula to compete with a girls team. 

While in college at the United State Military Academy at West Point, her skill and love of the sport garnered an invitation to play for the national squad, known as the Eagles. With the possibility of competing in the Olympics on the horizon, Heavirland left West Point, began traveling with the Eagles, and moved to California to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. 

Heavirland is there now, and was enjoying a brief respite from training when she spoke to the Beacon. 

“We just finished up a friendly against Great Britain, Jamaica and Mexico up in L.A.,” she said. “It was nice to play a bit before heading out for the big one.”

The USA women’s team earned its automatic berth to the Olympics after a 2019 season where the Eagles were ranked No. 2 in the world, while Heavirland was co-captain of the squad. 

Then came the pandemic, which canceled tournaments, limited training and ultimately led to the postponement of the Tokyo games. 

“We still got sent home-based workouts to stay fit, using fit bands and lots of running, but San Diego parks were closed so we did workouts on any patch of grass we could find,” said Heavirland, who took advantage of the postponement to travel home to Whitefish for a few months. “I’m super thankful for that because any other year I wouldn’t have been able to come home.”

Training for the team picked up in the fall with limited squads before transitioning to include the entire team and a few tournaments after the winter holidays. 

The official roster for the Olympics was announced in June and this time Heavirland’s name was high on the list. 

The Olympics are known for drawing viewers’ attention to lesser-known sports (think the quadrennial internet obsession with curling), and Heavirland hopes that Tokyo boosts the U.S. rugby fan base. 

“Our sport is really fast and aggressive and I feel it’s very entertaining because games are only 14 minutes long,” she said. “It’s not like you’re watching some long event, and it’s one of the fastest growing sports in America.”

“There are a lot of hard tackles, lots of speed, lots of power and there’s something in each game that will interest everyone,” she added.

The women’s sevens rugby matches in Tokyo will take place over the course of three days at the end of July. The women’s pool rounds will start on Thursday, July 29, the quarterfinals will take place on July 30 and the gold medal match will be July 31.

As scrum half, part of Heavirland’s job is to study her opponents so she knows what plays to call to best set up teammates to score

“I really like outsmarting opponents,” she said. “It’s like scouting them before the games, so like Australia, I know if they do this, we’ll do that. It’s kind of like a chess match.”

Team USA will be facing defending Olympic champions Australia, as well as Japan and China in the first round of itsgroup play. 

“It’s one of the best pools we could have drawn,” Heavirland said. “I’m really excited for that Australia match. They’re great rugby players, but we’re great rugby players as well. I’ve already started visualizing what the game will be like in my head.”

Team USA will head to Japan on July 13, and due to COVID restrictions, will be returning just days after the final rugby match. 

Heavirland’s family was originally slated to go to Tokyo as spectators, but instead will be stateside, hosting a watch party in the valley. Heavirland said she’s looking forward to seeing them when she “returns to Whitefish with a medal.”

Until then, the plan is to get as much last-minute fitness in as possible, mentally prepare to take on the best in the world, and bask in the excitement of being an Olympian. 

“I know it’s meant to be,” Heavirland said. “I know the Olympics is where I’m supposed to be.”

USA Women’s Sevens Eagles Nicole Heavirland in the game against Japan during the 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series Atlanta. Photo courtesy Michael Lee | KLC fotos for USA Rugby

To follow along with all the rugby action during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, bookmark www.nbcolympics.com/rugby and tune in to watch the games.

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