Exonians prove their Olympic mettle

Molly Reckford ’11 and Nicole Heavirland ’14 took hard paths to reach the Tokyo Summer Games.

By
Patrick Garrity
July 19, 2021

Nicole Heavirland '14 (left) and Molly Reckford '11 (far right with teammate Michelle Sechser) will represent the United States in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. (Photo credits: Mike Lee/KLC Fotos and U.S. Rowing)

The road to Tokyo is potholed. Molly Reckford ’11 and Nicole Heavirland ’14 can attest.

When the XXXII Summer Olympiad opens Friday, both Exonians will be in the red, white and blue of Team USA. Reckford is a rower in the bow seat of the women’s lightweight double sculls. Heavirland is the starting scrum-half of the American women’s rugby team.

Each blossomed in their respective sport beyond Exeter, and each slogged through adversity and doubt on their Olympic journey. Reckford went 2½ years without pulling an oar, fed up with what seemed like a one-sided love affair with rowing. Heavirland spent four years perpetually black and blue from rugby’s punishing nature, only to have her Olympic plug pulled by a global pandemic.

Ahead of the Tokyo Summer Games’ Opening Ceremonies, both athletes took time from their final preparations to talk about their paths — and to fondly reflect on their Academy days.

“I remember sitting in assembly and imagining ‘What would my assembly be? What would I talk about?’” Reckford says. “Exeter taught me to sit in the audience and think ‘What would I do if given the stage?’”

Most likely to succeed

Nicole Heavirland had hoop dreams as a kid. She is a sports Swiss Army knife from Whitefish, Montana, who calls basketball her first love. She was on a mission to play in college by the time she came to Exeter for 11th grade in the fall of 2012. Her wake-up routine was to go to Love Gym before dawn and make 100 baskets before breakfast. “I became close with the janitor, because he was the one letting me in,” she says.

Heavirland helped coach Johnny Griffith, now Exeter’s dean of student health and wellness, turn a Big Red program that lost 14 games the season before she arrived into a league champion two years later. “I could have won at the Class A level every year if I'd had four or five of her,” Griffith says. Her classmates voted her “Most Athletic” and — prophetically — “Most Likely to Go to the Olympics.” (She was runner-up for “Most Likely to be on the Cover of Sports Illustrated”).

“I only know hard work. ... In order for me to succeed, I have to do it over and over again and put in the work.”
Nicole Heavirland '14

But basketball wasn’t Heavirland’s only game. She and her twin brother Ryan ’14 and their older brother Taylor played multiple sports growing up. Everything was a competition. At bedtime, their father would take turns throwing a football to the three kids as they ran routes across the living room. A dropped pass banished you to bed. Nicole stayed up late more often than not.

And while she excelled in every sport, she was particularly drawn to tackle football and rugby. She played running back for the pee-wee football team and played club rugby through 10th grade. “There’s not a lot of girls out there willing to go tackle someone in the snow in Montana,” she laughs. “I fell in love with the physicality of it.”

Exeter doesn’t field a rugby team, but that didn’t stop Heavirland from continuing to play during her time at the Academy. In the summer before her senior year, she was invited to join a women’s junior national program that competed internationally.

Then came West Point. Heavirland entered the U.S. Military Academy in 2014, drawn to the high academic standards and leadership opportunities and the chance to play Division I college basketball. She played both basketball and rugby for the Black Knights as a plebe, but recurring invitations to travel and train with the U.S. Olympic rugby program clashed with the strict regulations of cadet life at West Point. Eventually, rugby won out. She left school after three semesters to join the full-time residence program in Chula Vista, California, to start 2016.

“It was hard to leave that type of academic institution,” she says, “because I knew that was going to help me in the future.”

Eight months later and just two years beyond Exeter, Heavirland was an Olympian. She represented the United States as women’s rugby made its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro. It was a bittersweet experience for her. She was proud to be part of the team, but she was an alternate. She never got onto the field as the U.S. finished in fifth place. Sitting and watching are not her strengths.

“A tug of war is a good way to put it,” she says. “It was super hard at the time, but it only made me better. I kept my nose down and just kept grinding.”

Heavirland says, “I only know hard work,” and she connects that to her time as a student at Exeter. “In order for me to get a B-plus or an A, I had to work hard. In order for me to succeed, I have to do it over and over again and put in the work.”

That determination turned her into a mainstay of the rugby program, even as her career has seesawed throughout the five years since Rio. Up as she was named captain of the women’s sevens. Down when new coaches came in and stripped her of that captaincy. Up as she and the team roared to five medals in six tournaments in 2019 on the way to Olympic qualification. Down as the coronavirus pandemic forced the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games to be postponed for a full calendar year.

Heavirland took that last disappoint hard. She was fit, physically and mentally, neither of which was a given if she had to wait another year. Not even her spot on the team was guaranteed. She left the training center to reset with family at home in Montana, an unplanned benefit of the Games’ postponement.

She rejoined the team in early 2021 in preparation for the rescheduled Tokyo Games, sparking the Americans to success in tournaments in Madrid and Dubai this spring. The U.S. is a top-four seed and a real contender for a medal. The team’s starting scrum-half — rugby’s version of point guard — Heavirland will have the ball in her hands frequently as the Olympic tournament unfolds starting July 28.

Who knows? That Sports Illustrated cover might happen yet.

Late bloomer

Molly Reckford had given up on rowing — or rather, rowing seemed to have given up on her by the time she graduated from Dartmouth College in 2015.

Reckford enjoyed a solid Exeter rowing career mostly in Big Red’s second boat — “not anything remarkable, no awards, no accolades,” she says. She was tall but slight for a college rower, and her inquiries to collegiate programs were mostly met with “Thank you for your interest” replies. She eventually walked on at Dartmouth and rowed competitively for the Big Green, but no matter how hard she worked and how much committed herself to the sport, her passion went unrewarded. By the time she left Hanover for an investment job in New York City, her rowing career appeared to be over.

“I always felt I could do and be better than I was. I thought I had potential that nobody else saw.”
Molly Reckford '11

“I got to the point where I said ‘I love this sport, but I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been spending a long time trying to prove that I can be good, but maybe you guys were right that I can’t be good,’” she says.

“I felt like I had given my all for seven years and walked away with nothing.”

Her self-imposed exile lasted until January 2018. By then she had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. Her boss suggested she look into joining a nearby masters rowing team — not exactly beer-league softball, but miles from the U.S. National Team she once had dreamed about. Reckford showed up one Saturday and “got my butt handed to me.”

“My hands were ripped up. I was exhausted. These absolutely delightful 55-year-old moms were laughing at me,” Reckford says, “but I had so much fun.” Three mornings a week on the water soon became six, and her workouts grew longer and longer.

Her passion for rowing reignited, Reckford also started to see long-awaited results. A 2-kilometer training exercise on an ergometer bettered her collegiate personal best. “I got off the erg, looked at the screen and I was like ‘There’s something going on here.’”

More training led to more mileposts. She entered six races at the 2018 masters nationals. She won all six. She went to a national-team identification camp and set another personal best on the erg. A U.S. Rowing “speed order” — basically a tryout — gathered 29 rowers in Sarasota, Florida, in April 2019. Seven spots were up for grabs. Reckford finished seventh.

Finally, she partnered with Rosa Kemp in lightweight double sculls and finished second at the national trials to earn a place at the 2019 World Championships. Over the course of 18 months, she had gone from getting whipped by those “55-year-old moms” to a place on the national team.

Like millions of kids, Reckford dreamed about competing in the Olympics, but millions of kids don’t have Olympians in the family. Her maternal grandfather, William Spencer, was a two-time Olympic biathlete and a longtime Olympic coach. He carried the Olympic torch in the torch relays for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. “Seeing an Olympic torch in the hallway at your grandparents house has an impact,” Reckford says. “It planted the seed.”

Reckford ultimately was paired with veteran Michelle Sechser just a month before the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. She told Rowing News “we had three weeks before trials to correct 7,000 problems,” but as it turned out, there was no rush. The pandemic forced the cancellation of the trials, and eventually, the Games themselves.

Just as it was for Heavirland, the cancellation was a gut punch for Reckford — but she understands now that it was a blessing as well. It gave her another year to improve and gave her and Sechser more time to get in synch. “Once Michelle and I got in the boat together, we knew we could move fast, but I needed more time to learn how to row like her,” Reckford says. “I remember thinking ‘I wish I had a couple more months. I wish even a year.’”

The pair made good on Reckford’s wish, winning the Olympic Trials in February — in spite of Reckford’s losing her grip on an oar just six strokes into the final — and clinching their place in Tokyo with another victory in Switzerland in May. She will extend a long line of Exonians to row in the Olympics, including alumnae Anne Marden ’76, Rajanya Shah ’92, Sloan DuRoss ’95, Sabrina Kolker ’98 and Andreanne Morin ’00. Reckford opens competition July 24.

Turns out, she’ll have plenty to talk about one day at that assembly.

“I always felt I could do and be better than I was. I thought I had potential that nobody else saw,” she says. “That was probably a little conceited, because I hadn’t much to my name at that point. But … I was eventually right.”