At 18 years old, Olivia Popp is already versed in adversity, perseverance and just reward. She sought out some of those challenges, whether transferring to a more academically demanding high school or helping start a new rugby team; while others found her and brought confidence-withering repercussions. Hard work, solid support systems and persistence were always part of the solutions, and as she readies for the next stage of life toward which she’s been unexpectedly building, those tenets will only increase in their importance.
Popp grew up playing lots of sports and in 7th grade tried rugby after watching her brother practice with Land Park Motley, a Sacramento-area youth club. There was one other girl – Sadie Holt Warren, who would later be a high school teammate – on the all-boys team, but everyone welcomed their participation. Popp called out coaches Rich Boyer, Matt Eason, Jeff Phillips and John Buchholz for playing pivotal roles in her young career. In 8th grade, USA Rugby decreed that girls could not play with boys at the middle school level.
“Coach Matt Eason had me on a conference call with USA Rugby to try and reverse their decision,” Popp said. “Our main argument was that my younger brother, who was probably 30-40 lbs. lighter than me, could play up but I couldn’t play at all legally just on the basis of gender.”
Popp, sitting fourth from left, with Land Park Motley
Even though USA Rugby disagreed, Popp’s playing career wasn’t met with a hiatus, but another big undertaking awaited in her freshman year of high school. The only girls’ U18 club in the area, the Sacramento Amazons, practiced out of Burbank High School, and that was a bit of a drive for Popp. So with the help of her dad, Curtis Popp, and the Motley coaches, the Land Park Harlequins formed in fall 2016.
“We recruited mostly out of local high schools – McClatchy, Christian Brothers, Saint Francis – but also farther out,” Popp said. “We did have a lot of numbers … and a lot of girls who had played in middle school with myself or transferred from soccer.”
The Harlequins got out in front of the 2017 Rugby NorCal season, playing a bunch of scrimmages and practicing constantly. The team immediately competed at the Girls High School Club National Invitational Tournament in Indiana to see where it measured up against the rest of the country. Unfortunately the team had to play to two NorCal sides but did face eventual champion United from Utah.
Popp entered the NorCal All-Star and Regional Cup Tournament systems that summer, and this exposure paired well with the information she gleaned from The Rugger’s Edge earlier in the year.
“My first introduction to college [rugby] was through Karen Fong Donoghue. She had a conference that highlighted rugby opportunities at the collegiate level,” Popp reflected on freshman year. “It was an eye-opening experience for me, personally, because I had always looked at college purely through the academic route and started to seriously consider how rugby could open up more opportunities.”
Popp really mixed it up for the 2016-17 school year and transferred from Christian Brothers to a public high school, C.K. McClatchy, through the ultra-challenging Humanities International Studies Program.
“The program tries to break you down – not in a negative sense, but to bring you down a few pegs in order to build you back up,” Popp unwittingly described the relationship with a future academic institution. “Sophomore year is considered one of the more difficult years and I remember my grades immediately dropped. It totally dampened my self-esteem and the expectations for myself.”
Popp took hit on the GPA but did eventually maintain a 3.0-3.2. Rugby was still there and although it wasn’t the outlet it could have been during these stressful times, she was still putting in work, and added teams like Rhinos Rugby Academy to her resume. She worked with influential coaches like Orene Aii.
“He’s a former All Black and has helped me train and develop my rugby skills for many years now,” Popp said. “He was pivotal in getting me physically and mentally prepared for various USA events and high school tournaments and I am very thankful for all of his coaching expertise.”
During junior year, she got a nice boost of confidence when she was named to the Youth Olympics Games (YOG) player pool. There she met USA Rugby Women’s High Performance General Manager Emilie Bydwell, a mentor and gateway into elite rugby.
“It was the first recognition I received from USA Rugby. … That was a turning point in a positive way for rugby,” Popp said. “I’ll never forget it – and a lot of other people can attest to this – that was one of the hardest camps mentally and physically that I’ve been to. … It was an eye-opener and it made me hungry and gave me a taste of the next level – something I’ve been chasing ever since.”
After two elimination camps, 14 players remained, and just before the final cut, Popp and current West Point flyhalf Alex DiMarco were named co-captains for Team USA during the YOG qualifier in Las Vegas 2018. A couple of days before the tournament, Popp sustained a minor concussion and was ruled out of the event.
“So that was, again, a huge bummer but it definitely made me hungry to get back and wear the USA jersey. I was just grateful for the opportunity,” said Popp.
Popp went on to play 7s and 15s for the Girls High School All-Americans, now dubbed the USA U20s, as well as select sides like the Utah Lions. The final two years of high school saw Popp compete from British Columbia to Saranac Lake, N.Y., and she upped her rugby IQ with player camps at Stanford and Cal. Popp had zeroed in on the Golden Bears, but then a senior teammate, Zyana Thomas, became the first Land Park player to be heavily recruited by an NCAA varsity scout – Kathy Flores of Brown University.
“Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Central Washington, Lindenwood, West Point, Vassar, Quinnipiac – they all came into the picture,” Popp said of college scouts who made contact. “After the interest from some Ivy League schools and very competitive rugby schools came in, I started to consider: What do I want? What can I achieve?”
Popp went on an east coast tour to visit a handful of NCAA varsity programs, but then nearly all of her early reads – essentially a pre-application that lets coaches know whether a prospective student-athlete will be accepted on academic merits – came back negative.
Popp (standing, 2nd from right) with the Utah Lions at NAI 7s
“When the college interest first sparked, I felt on top of the world,” Popp said. “But when all of the early reads came in, they pretty much all said the same thing. ‘We love you as a candidate. Your resume is perfect. But unfortunately due to your grades and math scores on the scholastic and aptitude tests, we don’t think it’s going to work out.’ That was a huge blow.”
Popp was looking at other schools and did visit Central Washington and Lindenwood, but as senior year loomed, she struggled to find the motivation to improve her grades for the schools that had unofficially rejected her.
“I remember having a conversation with my dad,” Popp said of another turning point. “We were driving to rugby practice one day and discussing the matter, and he pulled over and said, ‘We know what they’ve already said. We can push to change their minds or find someone who’s going to fight for you.’ That definitely turned my mindset around.”
Futures 7s tournament in Saranac Lake
MaryBeth Mathews at Bowdoin College was willing to fight and advocated for Popp’s case. The senior hunkered down at school, sourced teachers for any means to improve her grades, and produced 4.5 and 4.2 GPAs in her final two semesters of high school. She took tutors and specialized classes for the SATs and ACTs, and when all was said and done, took the college entrance exams a total of 13 times to increase her math numbers.
Along the way, Popp rebuilt her confidence by setting goals and achieving them, but that didn’t insulate her from disappointment. Mathews kept submitting early reads as Popp improved her standing, but they kept coming back negative. Popp applied to Bowdoin anyhow and in March 2019 of her senior year, she received official notice that she was denied entrance.
“Right then, I decided I was willing to try again, so I decided to take a gap year,” said Popp, who also put down a deposit on the University of Oregon as a back-up.
Popp wanted another shot at her schools, specifically Bowdoin, and let them know she was spending a gap year to study and get the test scores she needed. She took the SAT/ACT the day after graduation, updated her resume, took two jobs to stay busy, and used some of the free time to travel around California. Popp found that schools didn’t discriminate against a gap year but applicants did have detail their activities during that time. She wasn’t able to play with a rugby team due to NCAA eligibility regulations, and both she and her dad ceded their roles with the Harlequins. Wes Hilger and Cliff Rouse lead the team today, while long-time veterans like Simone Sackett, Promise Rouse, Sophia Hilger and Destiny Nash lead the team today.
But another early read came back negative, and Popp ended her pursuit of Bowdoin.
“My heart goes out to coach Mathews because I know throughout the application process she was an advocate for me. And I really connected with her on a personal level; and I’m really grateful for all the time and energy that she spent on my case,” Popp lamented. “I think she understood as well, and what was really admirable about a lot of the coaches I talked to, was even when they said, ‘I’m sorry my hands are tied, I don’t know if there’s much that I can do,’ a lot of them did say, ‘ I hope you find a school who can get you in.’ That was really nice to hear. ‘If I can’t get you in, I hope someone else can, and I want that for you.’ They want to see you on the pitch even if it’s in the opponent’s jersey.”
Army West Point had contacted Popp as a junior but she dismissed the military option straightaway. But by early fall 2019, Popp was considering the cadet life.
“I never saw myself as a military person and had a closed mind about it,” Popp said as she readied for a campus visit in October 2019. “Going in I thought, ‘I’m not going to like this. It’s going to be a prison.’ But I ended up really loving it, and that’s when everything changed for me.
“I recognized the benefits of the discipline,” Popp reflected. “I’m someone who makes my bed every day. I’m probably a little bit Type A. I was never the stereotypical teenager who had their room messy. I’ve always been super organized, and I recognized that was a definite fit.”
When she talked to current cadets, many had a similar experience where they hadn’t considered the academy, and still couldn’t pinpoint why they were there, but something about the environment appealed to them.
“I didn’t think of this and I’m sure most people don’t either, but people have fun there,” Popp said. “The coach [Bill LeClerc] said, ‘It’s a weird type of fun but you find and invent ways to have fun.’ And the other thing is the camaraderie. When your work ethic and grit are tested, you’re looking to your neighbor for support. Every school has leadership and community and a sense of togetherness, but this version is kind of on steroids.”
West Point also indicated that she needed to get her math scores up and that taking a trigonometry or pre-calc course at a local community college would help her chances, so she followed that instruction. She also took the SAT/ACT three more times between October and December. Heading into the final test, however, she received a Letter of Assurance (LOA), which is essentially a recommendation for an appointment to West Point and awarded after someone passes the medical and fitness tests and shows continued excellence in schoolwork.
“That was helpful in that I was the calmest I’ve ever been going into a test,” Popp said. “Before it had always felt like the world revolved this score, which obviously it didn’t, but it felt that way, and you go down that rabbit hole. I knew I had a slot and that I’d been studying so hard and that I deserved to improve and that I knew I could improve. I had a more positive outlook so that definitely helped.”
Popp hit the math numbers she needed. Last weekend, she received her appointment to West Point in the mail.
“I could finally breathe,” Popp said. “Even after I received the LOA, in my mind I knew this could be taken away at any time – and so can the appointment. But to have it in my hands, it was sealing the deal. … I need to thank the coach at West Point and all the athletic liaisons because they had their work cut out for them and they were always advocates for me.”
Popp worked incredibly hard to get what she wanted, but she took risks and was dealt her share of disappointments that required comebacks. She’s grateful for her gap year experience and promotes the idea to other student-athletes.
“During this gap year I’ve gotten closer to my parents. They were the ones who really pushed me not only through big-picture problems, but day-to-day hurdles,” Popp said. “They’ve always dreamed for me, and I think that’s super important: to have parental figures who push you to achieve more.
“I got to grow and go on a little bit of a journey of self discovery without the social pressures of a traditional college environment, I think,” Popp continued to laud the gap-year option. “That’s also part of the reason I want to go West Point: I want to do something more with my life than party for four years. … Aside from applying to college I technically didn’t have anything to do which is why I had two jobs and traveled around California a bit. You have to keep yourself accountable and busy. Thankfully I had an end goal, and that’s the important thing of taking a gap year: first deciding why you want to take a gap and what’s your ultimate goal, because that decides what you’re going to do during your gap year.”
U20 camp at Chula Vista
Rugby wise, she’s joining an outstanding program in the Black Knights, which finished runner-up to Harvard in the 2019 DI NIRA National Championship, and she’s still in the mix at the USA age-grade level. In February, she traveled to San Diego for one of the U20 regional training weekends, and the outing stoked the desire to get back on the pitch and playing again.
Popp is due to report to West Point, N.Y., on June 29 and she’ll arrive with a different
“I think my story definitely showcases that I worked for every inch that I got – and that wasn’t just for the grades but more for the feeling of accomplishment,” Popp closed. “I really delved into what my grit is and how to improve it and to be a harder working person. But I think what is also really important is that I had opportunities to work really hard and i seized them. Those opportunities extend from the coaches who recommended me, to the teachers who supported me when I said I wanted to bring my grades up. … I’m just grateful for all the opportunities that presented themselves, and I’m humbly proud of what I’ve accomplished.”