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Whitefish native Nicole Heavirland's Olympic dream on hold for another year

HSBC Sydney Sevens 2020 - Women's
HSBC Cape Town Sevens 2019 - Women's
Posted at 6:03 PM, Apr 06, 2020

MISSOULA -- Nicole Heavirland was just months away from finally achieving her dream of competing in the Olympics.

Unfortunately for her, that wait has been extended for another year.

Heavirland, a native of Whitefish, is the co-captain of the United States women's national rugby 7s team that had already qualified for the 2020 Olympics. However, two weeks ago, the Olympics were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

That postponement hasn't quite settled in for Heavirland.

"I've trained the last five years of my life for ultimately the Olympics and this big event," she told MTN Sports. "For it to be postponed is kind of shocking."

Now, Heavirland, 25, is making the adjustment, as is every athlete, to continue her training to prepare for next year. Heavirland resides in Chula Vista, California, which is just outside of San Diego. She can't go to gyms or the training center.

So Heavirland has been using her backyard to work out while communicating with her team.

"It's a big adaption period for us as athletes, just trying to find what we can to get what we need in," she said.

But Heavirland's journey to this point in her rugby career has been built on patience and betting on herself. Heavirland first picked up the sport as a freshman at Glacier High School in Kalispell. Her brothers started playing the sport and sometimes Heavirland would join or observe, but her sophomore year she was able to join an all-girls 7s team.

"First tournament was in Hamilton, Montana, and there was still snow on the ground," she said with a laugh. "I'll never forget that.

"My dad (Lance) one day just said, 'Hey, Nicole, you're going to play rugby,' and I asked him why and he said, 'Because you're going to be good at it.'"

Lance Heavirland, who is the head coach of the Flathead Black & Blue boys and girls rugby teams, believed his daughter could handle the physicality to become a rugby player. He was right and from there her career escalated as rugby just clicked for Nicole. She played tackle football in fourth and fifth grade and also wrestled, so aspects of the game came to her naturally.

Heavirland continued to play rugby through high school, but after her junior year at Glacier she transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where she graduated in 2014. After that, she went on to play Division I basketball at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

However, she only played one semester of basketball as she quickly learned it wasn't what she wanted. She knew West Point had a good rugby program, so she opted to switch.

She spent two semesters playing rugby for Army before receiving an invite to head back out west to California and compete for a spot on the national team.

"A part of me felt pretty bad about leaving college to go pursue this Olympic dream, but I think it's all meant to be," she said. "I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be and I'm learning a lot despite that I have yet to be an Olympian.

"I've learned a lot through this journey and things I can take on and just life in general."

Heavirland headed out to California at the end of 2015 after accepting a contract to train full-time at their training center. While working as an athlete full-time took getting used to, she worked her way up to becoming a reserve for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On a roster of 12, she was the 13th.

While being a reserve had its fun moments, Heavirland said it was "hard" at times because she wanted to play and be a major part of the team.

"There are moments where it's hard to put the team first every single second," she admitted.

But it was still an experience she said she wouldn't trade for anything. And once Rio completed, the grind was back on for Heavirland and away she went. She excelled as her training continued and she was ultimately named a co-captain in 2018 of the Eagles 7s squad.

“It didn’t stop there after the Olympics in 2016," she said. "Just kept trying to beat Nicole Heavirland each day and striving to hopefully be named, one day, an Olympian.

"I didn't really change who I was. I think I just grew more confident with my teammates and my surroundings and I opened up to who I actually was."

The Eagles finished second in the world rankings at the end of the 2019-20 season as they trailed only New Zealand in the standings. Finishing in the top four automatically qualified them for the Olympics.

"It was amazing," Heavirland said. "We were in Biarritz, France, an absolutely beautiful place. I'll never forget that tournament because we actually ended up getting first, beating New Zealand in the final match, and before that we qualified for the Olympics so there was a lot to be proud of during that time."

In her career, Heavirland estimates that she's easily played rugby in more than 20 countries, her favorite being Fiji.

The Eagles still qualify for the 2021 Olympics thanks to their top-four mark from the 2019-20 season. Depending on how their 2020-21 season goes, their ranking could change within that top four, whereas had the Olympics happened this year, they would've been the No. 2 seed.

So their spot in Tokyo continues to be reserved, despite the extra waiting. Going forward, Heavirland said the team hopes to begin practicing together again by Aug. 8 with its first tournament coming in October. Currently, the United States sits in fifth in the world rankings.

Heavirland's dream is still on track. She'll just need to wait a little longer.

“We’ve qualified as a team. We were ready to go and to think that, 'OK, we have to put this on pause,' was tough but also knowing that everything happens for a reason," Heavirland said. "I guess we weren’t meant to have a 2020 Olympics. It was meant to be 2021 and that’s where the goal is now.”