Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
Sarah Levy went to college with the intention of leaving athletics in high school and focusing on academics, but that was before the SoCal native met rugby. Today, the 25-year-old is a capped 15s Eagle, USA 7s resident, and as of Nov. 27, a forever member of the Barbarians legacy. And 2022 has the potential to be even richer.
Levy played soccer, golf, tennis and ran track growing up, but those pursuits didn’t following her across the country to Northeastern University. But like many rugby-origin stories, she sampled the sport “on kind of a whim and it took over my whole college experience,” Levy said.
During junior year, Levy started looking into elite opportunities and worked into the Northeast Academy. She got international exposure, as well as consistent, positive feedback that nurtured her desire to play at a higher level. She always intended on PT school after college, but access to rugby resources now influenced those types of life decisions.
Levy with New York in fall 2018 / Photo: Jackie Finlan
Levy decided on New York Rugby Club after graduating in spring 2018. The Women’s Premier League (WPL) team had solid coaching and attracted top talent, and she was able to live with Northeast Academy teammates in Connecticut while gaining field experience prior to applying to PT school.
“I was gaining experience in what I wanted to do [professionally] but also seeing where rugby could take me as well,” Levy said.
Northeastern coach Keith Cattanach had nominated Levy for the 2017-18 Collegiate All-Americans, and she attended her first USA Rugby camp in June 2018.
“It was good timing, because it was just as Rob Cain was hired,” Levy said of the Women’s National Team’s first full-time head coach. “So there was a new coach and he made the WPL the new pathway to how you should enter USA Rugby. It was like a fresh slate and I ended up doing well through WPL and all that.”
It was all 15s for that first year-and-a-half after graduation, and Levy earned her first USA cap in November 2018.
Levy tackling San Diego’s Tia Blythe / Photo: Jackie Finlan
“It wasn’t the greatest first-cap experience, but it makes a good story, I guess,” Levy said. “I started against England in England, and it was really rainy. At minute 13 or 14, one of the props got a red card, and since I was playing wing, I had to come out. And then that was the ending of my first cap. Afterward I had to get drug tested. It wasn’t the greatest ordeal but it shook off all the nerves because I was very, very nervous for that game. By the time I got my second cap it was: Nothing can be as bad as that first experience; this is fine.”
Levy earned her second 15s cap against Canada in November 2019, and she considers that match her real debut. The game occurred at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center (CVEATC), and the San Diego native had family and long-time friends on the sideline. Even though the USA lost, it was a much better experience for Levy – the wing scored two tries – and helped her development at the international level.
“It’s so much faster,” Levy compared the game to the highest level of domestic competition. “You have to be aware of so many things at once. Out on the wing you think you just have to wait for the ball, but there’s literally so much you should be doing to defend the back field, make sure defensively you’re in the right spot, make sure you can field any kicks. And if you’re on the weak side, making sure you insert yourself [into the line] – there’s just so much more going through my head. … And they hit really hard at the international level.”
Levy with the USA Falcons at 2020 LAI 7s / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
That Canada match put Levy on the USA 7s radar, and invitations for return visits to Chula Vista followed. Levy represented the USA Falcons at the 2020 Los Angeles Invitational, and then Covid-19 shut down rugby a few weeks later. But Levy was in a good place to advance both her rugby and professional aspirations. When the pandemic hit, she had just been accepted to PT school in San Diego. All of the course work was online and in-person labs were on the weekend. That freed her up for rugby training during the week, and she was able to take advantage of a new opportunity.
“Since the Olympics were postponed, [USA 7s] wanted to have a developmental team still working on the side so that once the Olympics were over we’d still have a good amount of depth on the team,” Levy said.
Levy was able to train with the USA 7s developmental squad under the guidance of Emilie Bydwell. It was essentially the 7s version of the 15s Daily Training Environments (DTEs) that occurred between fall 2020 and summer 2021 in Glendale, Colo. Players worked on skills, did a lot of conditioning, and helped the Tokyo-bound team prepare.
“It was honestly a really great program, because in the past, people come in one at a time and it’s a little bit hard going into that environment all alone and not knowing what to expect,” Levy said. “So [it was nice] having this small group of close friends. We had these practices on the side that weren’t as intense as the residents. So it made the whole process of when we eventually did get contracts so much easier. I thought that was the greatest thing for me.”
Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
The developmental players scrimmaged the residents and mixed in when Brazil visited and larger USA 7s camps were held. It was a good amount of playing time for Levy, who bolstered the practice squad from fall 2020 to June 2021. From there, Levy reported directly to the third DTE from mid-June to July 2021.
“At the beginning, it was frustrating for me,” Levy said of the transition. “It was just a different experience. … It felt fun. I enjoyed it a lot. Obviously there would be a lot of hard days but it felt like exactly what I wanted to do. I think going between 7s and 15s and school was hard but I got through it. … Otherwise, totally seamless. Just the extra stress of those three things at once.”
After the Olympics, Levy was offered a full-time 7s contract, and in anticipation of a busy fall and travel schedule, she scaled back her schooling to two online courses. Chris Brown stepped down as head coach and Bydwell filled the vacancy until being officially named head coach in November. For Levy and the other developmental graduates, that familiarity with Bydwell helped t
he transition to pro-rugby life.
“It was very smooth,” Levy said. “Very exciting because it’s what we all wanted for a very long time. It was cool that it was actually happening. It is nice to have so many people now. At the beginning it was hard to play with just six people every day, or whatever amount we had. So it’s nice to have 20 now.”
Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
Levy confessed that she was star-struck when she lined up alongside her rugby icons, and “I don’t think that has gone away yet,” she laughed. “Developing bonds with them off the field too has been amazing. There’s just so much I can learn from each of them. It’s fun. I love it a lot.
“Definitely having [Kristi] Kirshe around and knowing her from the Northeast Academy and playing in Boston has been super helpful,” Levy said of special bonds. “She’s always checking in and making sure I’m O.K. – both in 15s and 7s – making sure I’m O.K. mentally and with the game. She’s just someone who has been so helpful and important for me to have, especially transitioning to this environment.”
Levy stepped out during the Fast Four tournaments in September. They weren’t HSBC series events, but host Canada, Mexico and Great Britain made for a nice range of competition. And with back-to-back events in Vancouver and then Edmonton, Bydwell and the mostly developmental squad had the chance to immediately test adjustments. Several of those players made the Dubai squad and helped the U.S. to 7th- and 5th-place finishes during the first two tournaments of the 2021-22 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Levy at Fast Four 7s / Photo: P Yates for World Rugby
“Some of us who do 15s and 7s, we get a lot of guidance where they best see us or where we are most needed,” said Levy, who also noted that players have a say in their pathway. “My priority has been set to be 15s – because it is hard, because there is the 15s and 7s World Cups this [upcoming] year, and they’re very close in time, so a lot of players are going to have to choose between the two, I think. It’s hard because you want the cohesion of the team. After a couple more test matches, it’ll be more solidified which one we choose and have to go to.”
Levy was named to the USA 15s fall touring squad and played in three of the four November test matches. The Eagles lost twice to Canada (15-9, 26-13) in Glendale, Colo., a 20-10 contest to Ireland in Dublin, and 89-0 to England at the Stoop.
“The whole tour was pretty hard for a lot of us,” Levy said. “A lot of girls are out playing in England [in the Premier 15s], and a lot of the people here just haven’t been able to get any international games, and any games in general. Playing in those international matches – the Stars & Stripes games were helpful but it doesn’t replicate the intensity of those international games, having to adapt on the fly and play game-like scenarios.”
Levy explained that the tour was useful in trying out new combinations and making adjustments based on what worked and what didn’t. The matches were also very useful in building players’ international experience, including Levy, who has five 15s caps. England fielded many players with double-digit caps, and subbed on Sarah Hunter, who has played in 130 international tests.
“It definitely shows where we stand right now and the work that we need to accomplish before the next World Cup,” Levy said. “Hopefully we’ll get what we need to get going – like get test matches, and making that our priority to get these international experiences.
Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
“It’s definitely tough,” Levy said of keeping a positive mindset. “I think a lot of people going into it, we were so excited to finally have international matches. And then to have a loss and then turn around and be like, ‘We’re going to fix this,’ and then having another loss, and doing that three times. It takes a toll for sure. But I think a lot of people took out what we need to individually work on and what we need to work on as a team. It’s definitely hard to be positive about it all the time.”
For Levy, she intends to work on her defensive skills and counter-attack.
“In England and a lot of the European countries, their kicking and their kick-chase is just amazing and I don’t know if we’re able to get that much experience in it domestically,” Levy said. “In England there are just such amazing back-three players and they use that to their advantage for sure. So I definitely want to work on my kicking and figuring out how to defend that back field as well.”
The final quarter of Levy’s 2021 was so dense with activity that she hardly had to time to focus on an unexpected opportunity. She was selected to the storied Barbarians team for a Nov. 27 match against South Africa at Twickenham. Barbarians veteran Alycia Washington (Worcester Warriors, Eng.), Bulou Mataitoga (Berkeley All Blues) and Hope Rogers (Life West) were also named to the international all-star team.
“The first time it was even on my radar was when Alycia and Ashlee [Byrge] went in 2019,” said Levy, whose grandfather was a founding member of the Barbarians. “I didn’t even really know about it that much. My dad always talked about how my grandfather played for the Barbarians, so I thought that would be really cool [to do], but didn’t think it was something I would ever be selected for. I always thought it was for way more experienced players, and there were definitely way more serious players on our team.”
But again, it was a right-place, right-time situation, where Levy had already taken time off from school and was in England with the Eagles.
“I had so much rugby lined up and you don’t actually know for sure if it’s going to happen. You’re just hoping to make it,” Levy referenced both Covid cancelations and things like injuries. “I didn’t really think about [the Barbarians] that much until the end of [USA] tour and it ended up being the best experience of my life. So it was actually kind of cool that it didn’t have much buildup. I knew I was going but I was so distracted with other rugby things that it ended up being a great surprise.”
Nov. 27 was supposed to be a double-header with the men’s Barbarians, but that match was canceled due to positive Covid cases. The women’s game stayed on.
“It felt significant, definitely,” Levy said. “When the men’s game got canceled, it was heightened a little more because it was, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to be the main event.’ They’re all going to be there and it’s going to be all for us. It’s not like people are going to be leaving during our game and that thing, they’re all there to watch us play. It was an opportunity that no on
e would have ever expected to happen but in a true Barbarian-style story, where all this stuff goes down, it suddenly became the most amazing experience, especially how big this is for women’s rugby in general.
“It was such a scramble to get there,” Levy added. “We weren’t allowed to tell people [about the kickoff change] until an hour and a half before. So I’m trying to find WiFi and message my family who’s on the West Coast that our game is actually starting at 6 a.m. It was crazy for it to all fall into place and eventually it being the most-watched women’s game – it was so cool.”
Nearly 30,000 spectators watched the Barbarians vs. South Africa match at Twickenham, setting a new world record for attendance at a women’s rugby match.
“The first time I realized – when we went for the captains run the day before it was like an NFL stadium size. It was huge,” Levy said. “And for it to be all for rugby was so cool, especially coming from the U.S. where our biggest stadium is in Denver and it’s not even close to the size of that. It’s definitely very loud so that took a lot to get used to but it was so cool. … It definitely amped us up.”
Levy didn’t falter and scored three tries during the Barbarians’ 60-5 win against South Africa.
“So the tries were very much team tries. They were literally just handed to me. I felt very fortunate,” Levy demurred. “The center I played off of just really put me right in there. It was amazing because they were all team tries and we all grew such strong bonds with each other the whole week, so finally playing with each other made the experience so amazing, one of the best team experiences I’ve ever had.”
Even while in England and playing 15s, Levy was still tethered to the USA 7s team. Her teammates were playing in the HSBC kick-off tournament in Dubai, ending with a 7th place finish.
“It was kind of fun, because I was with the Barbarians, and the French and the Irish and Spanish were all watching the games, too, so we were all supporting our friends,” Levy said. “It is exciting to see a lot of my friends from the developmental side finally getting out there and playing international rugby after playing against them for long. We’re still in developmental stages right now and adjusting to new coaching and everything. But it’s cool to see and we’ll do better this weekend.”
Levy is excited to get back to the CVEATC and train with the 7s group again. Looking ahead to 2022, she hopes to be selected to an HSBC tournament and earn her first 7s cap.
“I think it’s the leadup to the World Cup that I’m most excited for, especially because New Zealand just just opened up its borders, so it’s becoming more likely that the World Cup will happen and that there could possibly be fans there, which will also be exciting,” Levy said. “There’s so much happening in the next year.”