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While most Harvard students are frantically trying to write papers and finish problem sets before heading off for winter break, senior Haley Steele is fulfilling her athletic dreams by playing on the USA Women's Rugby under-23 National team this December.
The team is the developmental team for the National Team, the Eagles, and will tour England for the next two weeks facing England's toughest competition. Steele, along with Harvard graduates Zelime Ward '98 and Carolyn Magill '97, are three of the 25 players selected for this traveling team.
During the tour in England the team will face the University of Cambridge, the Army 15, England Students--the equivalent of an All-American team--and England's national developmental team. Selection to this team is highly competitive, and it is a huge accomplishment.
"It's an honor to be playing for the U.S., and it's also an honor to play with the players on the team, who are the best collegiate players around," Steele said. "Rugby's going to be an Olympic sport in 2004, and the Eagles are going to play there, so [selection to this team] opens up a lot of doors."
This is also an accomplishment for the entire Radcliffe rugby program.
"Having three Radcliffe rugby players means a lot in terms of one team's dedication to rugby in and beyond college," senior Erica Brooks said.
In preparation for the tour, the team had a week of training and games in Tampa on Dec. 2-6, where they competed against select USA club teams from all regions of the country in the Inter-Territorial Tournament. They did a rigorous amount of training in Tampa, practicing as many as six hours per day. The under-23 team started in the summer of 1997 and has improved a lot since then.
"The thing that always strikes me about the under-23 team is that, in this country, there's never been a group of girls our age, that has played rugby as well as we do," Steele said. "There's just a sense that we can put the bar as high as it can go."
Steele is looking forward to the high level of competition and to playing with her former teammates, Ward and Magill.
"I'm really excited to play with them again, and it's nice to be in an environment where rugby is the top priority," Steele said. "It's so incredible when you get there and everybody is so phenomenal. You just look around and think, 'Oh my God, this is a privilege to play with these people."'
While this is not Steele's first international competition, it will be here first time playing in England, which has a rich rugby tradition.
"It's really exciting to go to a country where rugby matters to people," Steele said. "It's a country where rugby is taken really seriously. It's nice to have that respect accorded to it, which it doesn't get over here."
Even though the U.S. is relatively new to rugby as compared to England, Steele believes that the U.S. team has an edge on its British counterparts in terms of athleticism.
Steele also feels that it is more socially acceptable for women to play rugby in the United States.
Steele began playing on the Radcliffe Rugby team her freshman year very coincidentally. Knowing that she wanted to play a sport in college, she signed up for many different sports at the Freshman Activities Fair. All the teams called back, but all of the phone numbers blew off her desk and "rugby was the only phone number that I remembered."
"It was such dumb luck that I started playing, but I feel like I'm very cut out for rugby in a lot of ways," Steele said. "In a fourth-grade game of capture the flag a kid was just standing in my way as I was about to cross the line, and it didn't even occur to me to go around him. I just dropped a shoulder and rammed into him."
"[Steele] is extremely aggressive," senior co-captain Erika Lundquist said. "She doesn't get tired. She always knows where she has to be, and she can always get there no matter how long she's been playing. She's very mean on the field."
Her teammates also note her extreme devotion to the game.
"Haley's dedication to rugby surpasses everyone else's," Brooks said. "She's been doing her own workouts all semester in preparation for this tour."
Steele envisions this tour as a highlight of her rugby career.
"Winning nationals last year was an extraordinary experience," Steele said. "If this comes anywhere near close to that, it will be one of the few truly extraordinary experiences that I have in my life. That's what it means to me."
Steele truly loves the game of rugby and everything about it. Rugby has been her niche at Harvard.
"Going to a place like Harvard, where some people are aiming to be senators or President, makes it sort of weird to have the only goal that I'm sure of be an athletic one and a sort of obscure athletic one at that," Steele said. "Nobody's going into rugby for the money or the fame or the glory. Winning nationals last year was literally one of the most gratifying experiences I've ever had, and definitely the most gratifying sports experience that I've ever had. It was just incredible. Everybody burst into tears after we won."
Although being named to the under-23 National Team is a tremendous accomplishment--the highest individual honor a U.S. player can earn at this stage in her career--Steele has long-term goals as well.
"I'd say that my ultimate goal would be to make the Senior National team and maybe some day to even play in the Olympics," Steele said. "It's a wonderful sport, and it's so much fun to be passionate about it. I just wish more people liked it and understood what a great game it is."
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