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Richmond Rugby Player Cheta Emba Heads to Olympics

Cheta Emba
Richmonder Cheta Emba will be hitting the pitch with Team USA in the Olympics on July 23. (Photo Credit: Mike Lee/KLC Fotos)
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Cheta Emba
Richmonder and rugby player Cheta Emba is part of the U.S. Women's Sevens rugby team--a team which has won many big events. (Photo courtesy of Travis Prior)
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The Olympic games start Friday, July 23 in Tokyo, Japan. One athlete to keep an eye on is rugby player and Richmond-born Cheta Emba. Emba grew up playing basketball and soccer at Maggie L. Walker Governor's School and continued with soccer at Harvard – winning All-Academic and All-Conference honors.  She discovered rugby while looking to cross-train and fell in love with the sport. She’s now one of the leading players on the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. Emba and her team flew to Tokyo on July 13. Their first match is against their rival, Australia, after that first weekend.

To get ready for the rugby matches, here’s a terminology primer, with the help of U.S.A. Rugby. The site also breaks down more of the game and lingo than what’s listed here.

Rugby: In 1823, William Webb Ellis used his hands to pick up a ball in a soccer match and ran with it to the goal. That day, rugby was born.

Pitch: The field in which the game is played on.

Ruck: A ruck is when the ball is on the ground and at least one player from each team closes around it while on their feet. The ball cannot be handled in the ruck, players must move it until it reaches a teammate's hindmost foot and can be picked up.

Scrum: A means of restarting play after an infringement. Each team's forwards bind together and connect with an opposing team's forwards. The ball is thrown into the middle of the tunnel by the non-offending team's scrum half. Both team's hookers use their feet to try and move the ball while also pushing the other team backwards until the ball reaches the hindmost leg of one of their teammates where they can claim possession.

7s/15s: There are two types of Rugby teams--those played with 7 players and those played with 15 players on each team respectively. The matches differ in length depending on which style you’re playing.

Rugby Union vs. Rugby League: There is a long history of which style is better and the conversations can get very heated, so watch this great YouTube video that explains it all. 

Cheta Emba
Emba grew up playing soccer and basketball and Maggie L. Walker Governor School before going to Harvard. (Photo Credit: Mike Lee/KLC Fotos)

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Transcript (*this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)

Cheta Emba:  We’re responsible for a lot of the set pieces, so the scrums and lineouts. Those are the places where a lot of our technical work comes in. And then you're likely to find me towards the edges just working to go forward, establish a clean ball. But in sevens, everyone does just about everything, so the positions are much more fluid than someone who's familiar with the sake of teams might assume.

Ian Stewart: Right. And with that, too,  you mentioned sevens and 15s. So for people that don't know,  rugby 15 is a group of 15 on each team, and they play, what 40 minutes sets? And sevens are a team of seven and you play two seven minute halves, is that correct? 

Emba: Correct. 

Stewart: So like a total of 14 minutes. So it's over before it starts, it feels like. Or does it feel longer?

Emba: It feels longer sometimes, because the pitch size does not change. So you're putting in a lot of meters to cover that pitch with your six other teammates. And then you play with 15s, and you'll have a test match and you play one game a day. With sevens you're playing up to six matches over two to three days. So it adds up.

Stewart: And are you a rugby union fan or rugby league fan? 

Emba: Rugby union at the moment. Rugby league looks fun. But…

Stewart: That's an inside joke for anyone that knows rugby. One’s a little bit rougher, and they have a long history. And there's a big conflict between rugby union and rugby league. 

Emba: Exactly. 

Stewart: Were you with your team when you guys found out you were going to the Olympics? Where were you and tell me about that. What was that like? 

Emba: Yeah, that was actually a pretty cool experience. So we decided as a team kind of how it would be best to get that news. We found out via personal letter, and we had an appointed date and time. We were off from training that day so that everyone kind of could have their time and space to receive the news. I personally was getting a little antsy and had received the news in 2016 in this sort of similar fashion. 

So there were lots of emotions and whatnot swirling around. So as that time was nearing, I actually was like, let me just get on my bike and get some fresh air and decided that I wanted to be in a quiet space at the local park that I go to pretty frequently. And so I biked for a bit and then went over there and sat down and listened to some music. Just kind of had a bit of a quiet moment and worked up the nerve to open that email when the time came. 

And thankfully it will,  it was great news and soak that in for a bit and have some time to reflect. And pretty soon after, not soon enough I realize now, but pretty soon after, I called my family and shared the great news with them. They were kind of on edge waiting and that was really fun. And since then I've kind of been able to share the news with a lot of people that  have made it possible along with my family and helped me get to this point.

Cheta Emba
Cheta Emba reaches for the ball in a small scrum. (Photo courtesy of Travis Prior)

Stewart: With that, too. So you mentioned in 2016, you found out you were slated to go to the first Olympics, right?

Emba: I did not make selections in 2016, but I was told that I was one of the alternates. And so from there, you continue training and they decide who the traveling reserves will be, and I was ultimately selected to be a traveling reserve but was not named to the 2016 team.

Stewart:  So this is  a really big deal then, yeah, having to be reserved, like on the sidelines. First of all, that's awesome. And congratulations. That's great.

Emba: Thank you very much.

Stewart:  You're very welcome. You've played some,  incredible games, according to your bio that I was,  checking out  with the Eagles Sevens. You won silver at the 2019 Pan American Games, the Rugby World Cup Sevens, in the Women's Rugby World Cup 15. So is that pretty good training for the Olympics? Or is this going to be a whole different ball game because it's on a bigger stage? Or, what are your thoughts about that?

Emba: I mean, I think that every opportunity to compete on the world stage is a huge privilege and honor and valuable experience, but each one is unique. The 2015 World Cup was my first World Cup. It was in 15s. We played in Ireland, and that was incredible.  

Stewart: A little pressure?

Emba: Yeah, 

Stewart: A little pressure playing in Ireland, right?

Emba: Right,  big rugby nation and playing against the best of the best, and as I mentioned,  my first time. So there were definitely nerves going into that and lots of learning moments, lots of exciting moments. And then you go to the 2018 World Cup in Sevens and to be playing on home soil,  added a new element — not to mention again, the top teams and  high stakes games. 

The Pan American Games in Peru were also really valuable just to get a taste of the Olympic movement. Unlike  the Rugby World Cups, the Olympic Games and the Pan American Games include most of the sport disciplines in the Pan American Games, all of them the Olympic Games, many more countries, and things just operate a bit differently than  on the World Series or at these other tournament events. 

So I believe they will all be hugely helpful in preparation and getting ready to take the pitch in Tokyo. But I have no expectation that it will be the same. it's, it's something completely different and remarkable in and of itself. So I'm looking forward to that. 

Stewart: Is your family still here in Richmond? 

Emba: Yes, yeah, my parents are still in Richmond. My older sister lives in DC, and the rest of my siblings and I are kind of spread out. My mom and my sister and brother were able to be in LA this past weekend. We had kind of an exhibition, warm-up tournament in LA. And so that was really special to connect with them. Before we head out, we'll do a team training camp in Japan and then head towards Tokyo.

Stewart: With COVID in Tokyo,  they're at a different level than we are, I guess, in the US in terms of their numbers and everything. Did you have pause going to Tokyo with the numbers that high? What was your thought process like?

Emba: Um, I mean, we had a big pause over the past year to kind of see what was going on with this pandemic. And  it definitely mixed things up for a bit, but to hear that it was back on and the schedule was in place was pretty exciting. I think appreciation and understanding for how serious it all is and holding that health and safety as the primary,  of utmost importance. 

We have been taking huge precautions here in our local area. And  with the opportunity to go to Tokyo, I think, at least for me personally, I know that doesn't slow down one bit.  For them to open their doors to host us and the rest of the world, I mean, is incredibly kind and an amazing opportunity. So  we have a pretty intense isolation bubble that we've continued. We test frequently. Thankfully, I've been able to get vaccinated, and they're steadily sending us information about the protocols that they'll have in travel and on the ground there in Tokyo to keep everyone safe.

Stewart:  In your bio, too. I noticed that you've only been playing rugby for about eight years. And you started off in soccer, and you wanted to cross train. Most people cross train by doing weightlifting, and things like that. From soccer or rugby, what drew you to rugby was the fact that you could hold the ball in your hands. I know you were a goalie. Right? 

Emba: Yeah. 

Stewart: So I mean, you could already hold the ball. But what drew you to rugby? The contact?

Emba: Surprisingly, no, I think that's a big draw for a lot of people. But for me, it was just the opportunity again, to kind of open up, stretch the legs, be creative in a different way. Something that I had done a lot of growing up with soccer and basketball, but  when you get to college, you start specializing. So the way that I was playing and seeing the game was different, and I was looking for not only just an opportunity to cross train and get that fitness and that hand eye coordination, but just a different outlet and a way to balance  the gifts and talents that I've been blessed with.

Stewart: Plus you get to move around a lot more than you were as a goalie.

Emba: Exactly. 

Cheta Emba
(Photo courtesy of Travis Prior)

Stewart: At Harvard, you got a Bachelor's Degree in molecular and en say cellular biology. Anything in that field help you play on the pitch?

Emba: I haven't been asked that question before; that’s a good one.I think that the way that you study biology, history of science, things that I studied in college has definitely contributed to the way that I've learned the game. I think any of my teammates would mention that I'm probably a detail-oriented teammate in the way that I work on and pick up skills and try to get a better understanding of the game. I think it's helped me understand  that there's so much beyond what you see as that final product. So wanting to understand or uncover those little aspects that can unlock the game for me, I think that definitely translates directly from my life as a student.

Stewart: So your first opponent is going to be Australia, I understand, in pool C. It's been five years since the last Olympics, and the US team have met Australia thirteen times in seven internationals, with the Australians winning eight of those. Plus they’re the Olympic gold medalists, so it's kind of a heavy load to lift or a big hill to climb? What are your thoughts on going into this for the first pool being Australia,  the team to beat right?

Emba: Yeah, I mean, I think you have to respect every opponent, but then  focus on our game plan and executing our strategy. Sevens is a super dynamic game, and you have to show up on the day and bring your best and play with whatever the game presents at the moment. And it's who can capitalize the most on that. Try not to think too much about  what happened before or what might happen next. And instead, just try to stay present and take things on in the moment and  execute what we've been practicing for quite some time now.

Stewart: And you guys, so you guys have the team, the U.S. team has been together for a while already? It's not completely random strangers who are picked?

Emba: No, no. Yeah, we have a full-time environment here. So we've been training together for some of us for years, some of us a year but  yeah, quite some time getting to know each other and trying to fine tune everything.

Stewart: Great. We're almost done. One last question. You're going to be celebrating your birthday. I understand 28? 

Emba: Yes.

Stewart: Any birthday wish or any birthday things you’re going to be doing while in Tokyo?

Emba: You just reminded me honestly. It's been so busy here that I sort of forgot. And I'm just so thankful to be able to do what I'm about to do and to be a part of this team and take that stage and be able to play. That's a huge birthday present in and of itself. I think it'll be cool to just soak that in and practice that gratitude in the moment. No big plans yet. So we'll see. Maybe something’ll come up; let me know if you have any ideas.

Stewart: Cheta Emba I really appreciate you talking to me today about the  Tokyo Olympic Games, did I leave anything else out?

Emba: Not that I can think of, I mean, it's gonna be unique with the limited fans, and I just hope that everyone understands how much of an honor and privilege it is for us to represent the United States and  that we're gonna be playing for everyone at home watching and supporting and that support means so much to us. So  we are going to try to stay as connected as possible from afar but yeah, we're playing for you guys. So..

Stewart: I wish you the best of luck.

Emba: Thank you. 

Stewart: Yeah, it's gonna be a fun, fun game, I think, and I can't wait to watch.