Rugby World Cup: U.S. Eagles face undeniable challenges in efforts to play full time

US' players celebrate after scoring a try during the New Zealand 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Japan and USA.
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As the Rugby World Cup heads into its fourth week in New Zealand, members of the U.S. Eagles are focused on this weekend’s quarterfinal round rematch against Canada (11:30pm ET on Saturday, Peacock).

But for many players, this two-month block of time they’ve been able to devote to their team, their sport and its flagship event is the exception rather than the rule. Not only is there the obvious: the four-year gap between World Cups – a gap that stretched to five years this cycle due to the pandemic – but also the undeniable reality that playing professional rugby full-time is extremely difficult, both financially and logistically.

“It’s very difficult to have a full-time job and training the way that we would like to train,” said Gabby Cantorna, who is making her first World Cup appearance in New Zealand and plays for the Exeter Chiefs when she isn’t with the national team. “For those of us that have wanted to focus on rugby, there’s definitely been sacrifices along the way. Whether it was in a workplace or even in their personal lives, sacrifices have been made to be on this team.”

Cantorna notes that common bond over team and sport has inspired unity among the Americans, who amassed one win (against Japan) and two losses (against Italy and Canada) during pool play.

“For the most part, I would say people are very good at juggling those two things (work and rugby), and it’s a shame that we do have to juggle them,” she said. “…But that’s kind of just the reality of our situations, the reality of playing for our country at the moment, which we’re all incredibly proud to do and to be able to do. And it just requires [a lot from] us along the way.”

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“I was teaching at school on Wednesday and then flying to a World Cup on Thursday,” 27-year-old U.S. full back Lotte Clapp recounted ahead of her World Cup debut. “It’s definitely a bit surreal, but it’s a very fortunate position and I’m going to take any opportunity I get.”

For 26-year-old scrum half Carly Waters, also playing in her first World Cup, her journey to New Zealand with the national team has come with extensive travel – including multiple relocations – and the price tag associated with nearly each logistical maneuver.

Waters was a three-time All-American at Penn State, where she was a member of three national championship teams (2015-17). But to pursue her goal of making the U.S. national team, she was told she needed to first play in USA Rugby’s Women’s Premier League (WPL), the top annual women’s rugby union competition in the United States. With just 10 teams to choose from, Waters initially chose the New York Rugby Club for its manageable proximity to her parents’ home outside Philadelphia, where she lived and worked.

“Twice a week, plus wherever games were at, I was driving up there for training or taking a flight somewhere,” said Waters, who estimates that first season cost her $7,000 in gas money, flights and gym fees alone. “Just with the size of America, we have really no choice but to take a flight to every game. So that is just a challenge to the league. It’s player-funded, so it’s an expense in and of itself.”

Along with several former Penn State teammates, Waters relocated to Colorado in 2019 and joined the Glendale Merlins (renamed in 2022 as the Colorado Gray Wolves). As one of the only teams in the WPL with city funding, Waters was able to save on costs for the season as well as add her first league championship to her resume. But when the pandemic shut down WPL play in 2020 and 2021, it prompted her biggest move yet: to England’s Premier 15s, the top tier of the English domestic league system run by the Rugby Football Union.

“The Premiership is the top women’s league in the world, and that is fully funded,” Waters explained. “While I’m there, I’m considered a professional athlete. I get a monthly stipend, they cover my flights, they cover my bags there, they provide housing, my car, if necessary. Most teams provide a meal during the day, before or after training.”

Of the 42 U.S. women named to the pre-World Cup player pool, 22 played in the Premier 15s last season, 18 played in the WPL and two are still in college. And while playing in England can allow players to focus full-time on rugby, they still often supplement their income via coaching roles or other remote work. U.S. forward Jenny Kronish plays for the Harlequins in England and also works remotely as the marketing manager for the New England Free Jacks, while back Cantorna works part-time as an assistant coach for the Exeter Chiefs.

The juggling act extends beyond the players to the coaching staff as well. But U.S. assistant coach Jamie Burke, who also serves as a coach for the Colorado Gray Wolves, notes that this has led to a wide network of contacts within the sport.

“The players, they’ll kind of compare notes and go, ‘All right, what does it look like where you are? What does it look like where we are? How do we match up? …And then on the administrative and coaching side, and our management teams talk to each other,” Burke explained.

“We’ve gotten together and had coffees and chatted and so we’re always chatting like, ‘What do your contracts look like for your coaches? [What] does your hiring process look like?’ Those types of things. …So, those conversations are happening. It’s just figuring out, what is the action that goes along with them?”

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.