Hsieh at the RWC 7s / Photo: Jackie Finlan
In June 2018, Emily Hsieh returned to her childhood home of 25 years. Her mother was readying the house for sale, and Hsieh stumbled onto boxes containing 20 years of schoolwork.
“There are journal entries … like, ‘I can’t wait until I grow up because I might go to the Olympics. – 7-year-old Emily,’” Hsieh laughed. “Every year of my childhood schoolwork, I see this repeated over and over again. It kind of fades out when I get to high school, and it’s cool to see it re-emerge when I found rugby. This is my new path.”
That Olympic draw resurfaced at Brown University (’12), where Hsieh picked up the game under then-head coach Kerri Heffernan. During Hsieh’s second year in the sport, the IOC announced the addition of rugby to the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. Injuries prematurely ended Hsieh’s playing career – her initial avenue to the Summer Games – but just when the outlook seemed darkest, a less trodden track to the Olympics emerged: refereeing.
That was back in 2013, when Hsieh decided to go full throttle into the refereeing world. The start date was a bit too close to the 2016 Games, but not 2020, giving Hsieh seven years to not only become an expert in a new trade but to also have it culminate in the pinnacle of appointments. But navigating to the Olympics wouldn’t be easy, as there’s a skeletal pathway for referees, one that allows for lots of variation to account for individuals’ personal and professional realities.
“The first year I refereed, I had a full-time job and I realized it was limiting me in ways that didn’t align with my ref goals or life goals at the time,” Hsieh said of cultivating a situation that would allow for intense exposure and growth. “It was providing me with a lot of financial freedom so I saved up a lot of money and moved home. The main reason [to have not have a full-time job was] to have a flexible calendar, because I think if I wasn’t available … all of the time, then I wouldn’t have gone where I did when I did.”
Hsieh shifted to a part-time job, moved in mom, and paid off school loans quickly (Hsieh explained that among her Brown class of rugby teammates, $20,000 was the average debt upon graduation). Hsieh could take advantage of last-minute opportunities and that’s precisely how she got access to the USA Women’s National Team assemblies. After a 15s championship in North Carolina, a USA Rugby rep approached the referees during breakfast, explaining that an Eagles camp beginning the following day needed an official for scrimmages.
“There were seven of us at a table and they literally, to my right, said, ‘Are you available?’ And she said no. Then, ‘Are you available,’ to six different referees, and they all said no,” Hsieh’s tempo revved. “Then they said, ‘Emily, are you available?’ And I said, ‘YES!’ And they said, ‘O.K., you’re going to hire a car and drive there tomorrow.’ If I had a full-time job, I couldn’t do that.”
Three months later, RugbyTown 7s and another Eagles camp occurred on the same weekend, limiting the availability of referees, and Hsieh was the only one who could make a trip to Colorado with a week’s notice. That exposure to the national team camps expedited Hsieh’s progression, but she wasn’t willing to sit and wait for opportunities to present themselves.
Colleen McCloskey photo
“I had to make myself visible and make myself heard, and part of that was to be able to be seen everywhere I could be,” Hsieh explained. “I made my own spring tours when there wasn’t rugby happening in New England until April. I planned my own tour to SoCal, to the Surfers games, to NorCal and Seattle, and I made my own spring tour and self funded that trip to be able to ref every single weekend.”
Hsieh never withheld her intentions of becoming an international ref and getting to the Olympics, or the confidence that she could achieve those goals. As she became further recognized at the territorial and national levels, appointments to international invitationals started to arrive. World Rugby’s first introduction to Hsieh occurred at the 2017 Las Vegas Invitational, and positive evaluations produced subsequent invitations to Amsterdam, Dubai and Hong Kong. Hsieh was then selected as to the assistant referee (AR) and in-goal team at the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
After the women’s portion of the three-day tournament there was a short debrief session led by World Rugby 7s Referees Manager Paddy O’Brien. He indicated that there had been a selections meeting and Hsieh was chosen for the 2018-19 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series (WSS).
“And then I cried all the tears I had left to cry, because I had already cried four times earlier that day for other reasons,” Hsieh said of the emotionally drenched week.
The appointment marked the third American woman (behind Dana Teagarden and Leah Berard) to serve as center ref for the international 7s series, but Hsieh was quick to redirect the conversation from such statistics.
Hsieh in Glendale, Colo. / Alex Ho Photo / hoiho.net
“I think it’s important to acknowledge my identities but for them to not be the focus, especially when I’m out there doing my job, being an athlete,” Hsieh said. “People love to talk about gender but that might not even be the identity I hold closest. I stay rooted in all the things I hold dear. I believe I will be the first person of color referee from the USA on the series.
“When you say, ‘first, second, third,’ and stuff, you’re like naturally subscribing to a priority or a power or a significance, and I think in my mind it’s like invalidating each person’s individual experience,” Hsieh continued.
Hsieh debuted as an international referee on Oct. 20, 2018, (Australia vs. Mexico) during the newly added Glendale, Colo., WSS stop, and by circuit’s end will have featured in four of the six tournaments. While 7s is Hsieh’s focus now, she’s just as active in 15s and was a core member of the 2018 Women’s Premier League.
“If you only referee one [code], there isn’t enough rugby in the U.S. to get as good as you can as fast as you can,” Hsieh said. “In 2016 I did over 265 games. About 200 were 7s games but a good chunk were 15s games.”
Hsieh and Kat Roche served as ARs for the USA vs. New Zealand 15s match in Chicago.
Roche (l) and Hsieh (r) at Soldier Field / Photo: Max Haynes (mxfotos.com)
“As a referee you just have to do all of it. We don’t really an off-season, ever. It’s a really different demand of training and physicality,” Hsieh continued. “The classic is off-season, pre-season, in-season, and it cycles like that and you want to peak at the right time. But really for refs … you have to be able to perform at any game, any code, any time, anywhere. … You just want to maintain optimal performance.”
There are a few more steps leading to the Olympics, but at this stage of Hsieh’s career, they’re much more visible than when she started refereeing. After the ’18-’19 WSS, World Rugby’s referee staff will evaluate the series referees, and if all goes well, Hsieh will be named to the ’19-’20 circuit, which culminates with the Tokyo Olympics.
“I have done it one way but it’s not a one-size-fits all,” Hsieh addressed aspiring referees seeking advice. “Do what works for you. I didn’t do it the way Leah [Berard] did. I’m not the same as Dana [Teagarden]. I’m not the same as the other refs on the national panel, like Haylee [Slaughter], Lee [Bryant], Olivia [Nigh].”
But, all of these people do have one thing in common:
“Referees profoundly love rugby, because you must profoundly love something that is like kind of abusive to you – not kind of, which is objectively abusive sometimes, just based on people’s relationship with the referee,” Hsieh said. “To see something through that is so isolating and lonely, you have to have a reason and you have to know why, and you have to love it – its beauty and its dark underside.”