Written Senior Perspective - Rachael Harkavy, Women's Rugby

Photo by Gil Talbot
Photo by Gil Talbot

The 2019 Senior Perspectives is the 14th in a series of annual collections. Senior captains and representatives of teams at Harvard have been invited to contribute viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard.

Rachael Harkavy
Hometown: Cambridge, Mass.
Concentration: Applied Mathematics
House Affiliation: Dunster

When I arrived at Harvard, I was sure I had left my competitive sports days behind me.  Although I had played varsity soccer and lacrosse in high school, I wasn’t planning on playing a sport in college and was content to live a normal student life. However, one email from the captain of the Harvard women’s rugby team was all it took to change my mind. That one, seemingly innocuous email, changed the course of my Harvard career and I am infinitely grateful for it.

About four years have passed since I received that email and timidly walked onto Ohiri Field as a slightly smaller, definitely weaker, freshman. I know “love at first sight” is cliché, but that’s truly how I felt. Here was a sport where aggression, strength, and work ethic were praised above skill, natural ability, or how long you had been playing.  Here was a team that valued hard work and pushed each other to be the best they could be. Here was a coach invested in developing new players.

Without a doubt, the Harvard women’s rugby team changed who I am more than any other activity at Harvard. The lessons I have learned from my coaches and teammates - who have also become my closest friends - are some of the most important things I have gained from my time at Harvard. I learned how to work hard to accomplish a goal, like an Ivy League Championship. I learned discipline from early morning practices. I learned that the team that does extra, that comes across the river early, that does extra conditioning is the team that comes out on top. I learned how to be a part of something that is bigger than myself. 

In being a part of something bigger than myself, I have gotten to not only experience personal growth, but also the growth of my team, and this program, as a whole. Two stories illustrate this program growth: one about my freshman year Ivy Championship experience, and one about this year’s Ivy Championship. My freshman year, I had played exactly three games of rugby in my life prior to the semifinal, so obviously, I was an expert in the sport. We were set to play Brown, and I knew that it would be a challenge from the way my teammates were talking about the horrors of playing this particular team. However, the tone of how they spoke about Brown was what stuck with me. It wasn’t enthusiastically and excited for the opportunity; it was scared and filled with doubt.  We lost the game badly and ended up emotionally, as well as physically, battered.  Four years later, the championship game against Dartmouth was looming, and we were keeping an eye on the weather. When the day arrived, it was 29 degrees and snowing in Hanover, N.H. But we were excited. We had lost to Dartmouth earlier in the season, and we were itching for a rematch. The mood could not have been more different than that other game, so long ago. And we won. The outcome though, isn’t what mattered. It was the mindset that truly showed how much this program had grown, and how much I had grown.

Looking at the team now compared to my freshman year, I can’t believe how far we have come. When I walked onto this team in the fall of 2015, there were six recruited athletes and 20 walk-ons. Now we are about 50-50. We had a different coach, different trainer, different goals and a different culture. Four years ago, we were a fairly new varsity sport at Harvard. We were still struggling to understand what it meant to be a varsity sport and whether or not we were going to be able to compete with perennial rugby powerhouses, like Quinnipiac and Penn State. Now, I have been a part of four Ivy League Championship teams, a runner-up National 15s champion and a top-eight finisher at 7s nationals.  I have also had the opportunity to play against and alongside international-level rugby players. My childhood dreams of playing with some of the top athletes in the world have come true.

The road to get here wasn’t easy, and I want to thank my fellow seniors for their help. We are the last class that played with players on the Radcliffe women’s rugby club team, the predecessor to the varsity women’s rugby team. We have held this team together when there were only fourteen healthy players. We dealt with the stressful, arduous process of finding a new head coach, and of losing our athletic trainer,  strength coach and numerous assistant coaches. And we managed to come back stronger on the other side. I am so, so proud of us. I know that we are all going to do amazing things in the future, and I can’t wait to see all my teammates and friends succeed. More than anything, I am grateful to Harvard Athletics for the relationships I forged while being a part of this team, which I know will stick with me for life.