When Xanni Brown `10 walked onto Harvard's campus her first year, she had one goal: to play soccer, just as she had done at Country Day. But, by the time she graduated, she had not just played soccer; instead, she had become a rugby powerhouse.
"I was wandering around the club sports fair and looking for the club soccer team, but they were late, so I kept walking. I walked past the rugby team a couple of times, and finally, on my third trip past their tent, a girl said, 'hey, are you trying to play rugby?' and I thought, 'why not?" because it seemed like a great way to stay in shape, meet some folks, and I just fell in love with it," says Brown.
She eventually played club soccer, too, but in her first year playing rugby, the team qualified for and won the Division II National Championship. She was hooked.
"At first I thought maybe I’d play both soccer and rugby but once I made the junior national team in rugby, it was like the moment I've been waiting for my whole athletic career," says Brown. "I've tried to be this good at soccer for a decade, and rugby just clicked. Rugby was my sport."
As Brown played more competitively, she was entered in the USA Under 20 Junior National Team pool, tried out that winter, made the team, and toured for the Under 20 Nations Cup. Then, she traveled to California to play against the Junior National Teams of Canada, England, and South Africa.
"The Junior Team was influential for my love of rugby. I was all in after that. When I got back to campus, the rest of the women's rugby team and I started pushing for us to become a varsity sport. We wanted to help set a platform for women's rugby in the United States; so, over the next couple of years, we pushed the administration, recruited more folks to the team, and by my senior year, we were named Harvard's 42nd varsity sport. I was one of the captains of that team.”
After graduation, Brown continued playing rugby and eventually played in the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish and Israeli multi-sport event known as the "Jewish Olympics."
"They bring Jewish athletes from countries all over the world to Israel to compete against each other in a variety of sports. When I heard they were putting the women's rugby team together, it seemed like an excellent way to help elevate the game on the national level and help build a women's rugby culture and community globally. And a perfect way to connect with other Jewish athletes," says Brown.
As a Jewish athlete, Brown found the experience to be about more than just the sport.
"It was my first time going to Israel. It's such a cliché, but it was striking to be somewhere where people lived for thousands of years and to feel that history around you. It was an extraordinary experience to connect with the country's history, the sport, and my heritage all at once. I would never have had the chance to do it if I hadn't found rugby.”
Even though Brown played soccer at Country Day, she can link her passion for rugby to the school. She connected with her former middle school teacher Casey Schnieber because of the sport.
“I came by and visited the school when I was home for winter break, and I ran into him and started talking about rugby. He gave me a ball to start working on some of my skills, and when the team went to nationals my first year, he watched all the games online. It was also just a reminder that not only was I part of this Country Day community, but I was part of this rugby community now, too," says Brown.
Brown and Schnieber played the same position, and after games he would send her some notes and tips and even invited her to practice with his team whenever she was home.
"It's incredible to watch Xanni's growth as an athlete and a person through rugby," says Schnieber. "She's always been a fighter and a competitor on and off the field, but she's truly fearless when playing rugby. It's been so special to bond with her through rugby. She went from being my student to being someone I saw play soccer here to now being my friend through rugby."
Brown also attributes her success in rugby to her role model and former soccer coach, Theresa "Hirsch" Hirschauer.
"In women's sports, there's a real push and pull of the demands of the sport itself and the demands of femininity. In women's soccer in the Midwest, I felt that you had to be doing head balls, but you also had to keep the bows in your hair looking pristine," says Brown. “But playing for Hirsch, she taught me how to celebrate the athleticism in me, how it's ok to take up space on the field. And in rugby, it's a sport where women are told to be physical, to be aggressive at times in a way that I think is a compelling counterbalancing force for a lot of messaging we receive growing up."
Now, Brown is coaching Yale’s women's rugby team, hoping she can help bring the sport to the varsity level as she did at Harvard. As she phases out of playing the sport and into coaching it, her goal is to get more women playing rugby.
"I hope that more women around the world get to experience this sport that is so unique. This community is such a close-knit family that is so supportive and teaches women to stand up for themselves and their teammates, believe in each other, and take up space."