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Nicole Heavirland: From Perfect Coffee to Perfect Game

Photos and Story: Mark Janzen

Just before sitting down to write this article, I made myself a cup of coffee. It seemed appropriate, if not imperative.

I made the cup using an Aeropress (inverted) and, of course, I used Nicole Heavirland’s recipe:

  • weigh 20g coffee
  • pour 60g water
  • stir (briefly)
  • allow coffee to bloom for 40 seconds
  • add water to 230g
  • let sit for 2:00 (full minutes)
  • press
  • add extra water to taste
  • consume

If you’re lost, that’s okay. Carry on. You just might not become friends with the American sevens star from Whitefish, Montana.

Heavirland has a close relationship with coffee. USA sevens teammate Abby Gustaitis suggests that it actually might be a step further.

“No, it’s not healthy at all,” she says, and then kind of laughs, but only kind of. “It’s completely over the top.”

When travelling with the team, Heavirland brings her scale, her grinder, her Aeropress and her beans (these days she carries Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in her hip pocket). She either makes her own coffee or finds a local coffee shop that is up to her standard.

“Don’t even ask her if she wants the coffee from the hotel,” Gustaitis says. “It’s not even an option.”

That would be laughable.

When she’s at her in-season home in San Diego, Heavirland frequents Hawthorn Coffee. The quaint establishment – on the corner of 30th Street and Adams Avenue – officially opened on December 21, 2015. In Heavirland’s world, where “everything happens for a reason,” its opening seemed rather serendipitous considering the 5-foot-5 playmaker and staunch defender only arrived in San Diego a month earlier.

At Hawthorn, on the shelf above, below, and beside various bags of coffee beans and coffee-related accoutrement is a rugby ball, emblazoned with the USA Rugby logo. On most days, behind the bar is a barista wearing a variety of pins. His name is Jay. One of his pins is from USA Rugby. This is all Heavirland’s doing. Away from the rugby field, this is her happy place.

“They make one of the best coffees I’ve ever had, but more importantly, they’re just really amazing people,” Heavirland says. “Every time I go, I just feel so welcomed. They really do care about people and coffee.”

And it might just be this passionate love affair with the coffee and everything that accompanies a cup that, in fact, best explains Heavirland’s rapid ascension to the upper echelon of rugby sevens.

On weekdays, Heavirland, 23, begins her days with coffee.

Few would suggest she couldn’t keep up her high-tempo daily pace without it – in reality her go-go-go mindset has driven Heavirland her entire life – but a shot of caffeine within the delight of an Americano doesn’t hurt.

Within the confines of the sevens season, Heavirland’s “off button” is hard to find.

“She’s definitely one to look to as far as work rate and relentless effort,” Gustaitis says. “She’s always going the extra mile and always putting in that extra one percent.”

Frankly, it’s the reason Heavirland got into rugby in the first place.

As a youngster, Heavirland played with the boys in Whitefish, and more often than not, she won.

She was involved in everything from tackle football – she was a hard-charging running back – to wrestling, to basketball, and to track.

But early in her sophomore year at Glacier High School, her dad, Lance, changed her life’s trajectory.

“Nicole, you’re going to play rugby,” Lance said.


“Because you’re going to be good at it.”

That was it.

Lance had been watching Nicole’s two older brothers – Ryan, Nicole’s twin and older by 45 minutes, and Taylor, two years her senior – play the sport with the Black and Blue Rugby Club. Despite very little knowledge of the game at the time (he’s now a coach with the club), Lance immediately knew Nicole had the tools and attitude to succeed on a rugby pitch.

“My dad just new I’d have it in me,” Nicole recalls.

The same girl who now admits she was probably the reason Ryan quit playing basketball – “I would elbow the shit out of him and just be so mean and competitive” – was indeed built to play rugby. Without a girl’s side at the Black and Blue Rugby Club, the then 15-year-old Heavirland trained with the boys team, and then joined out-of-town girl’s teams to play games.

Her first-ever sevens tournament was in Hamilton, Montana. In the snow.

Despite excelling on the rugby pitch, Heavirland maintained her long-held basketball dream. She wanted to play NCAA Division I hoops. And she wasn’t going to be stopped.

In the hope of catching the eye of a Division I coach, she transferred from Glacier High School to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for her Grade 12 season. Everything went according to plan. And after graduating in 2014, she took a spot on the women’s basketball team at Army West Point.

“I wanted to go to a college that wasn’t like a normal college,” Heavirland says. “I wanted to be around people who had goals and weren’t going to stop until they achieved those goals. I wanted that strict environment.”

However, soon after arriving at Army, the dream she so desperately once had unraveled. She wasn’t having fun on the hardcourt. Midway through her first year with the Black Knights basketball team, she quit and joined the rugby program. As Lance predicted three years earlier, she was an immediate star. Joining the team in the spring of 2015, she led the Black Knights with 107 points and was named a USA Rugby All-American. And, she was having fun.

Ultimately, her success that spring launched the rugby career Lance was talking about, and midway through the 2015 fall semester, she moved to California to join USA Rugby’s sevens program.

When Heavirland entered an Aeropress competition hosted by Hawthorn Coffee this past spring, it didn’t take long for her competitive juices to flow. Of course, she wanted to win.

Precision is everything. One gram, a few millilitres, or a few seconds can make all the difference between a good cup of coffee and a great cup of coffee.

That’s Heavirland’s world, both while brewing and while training.

On the practice pitch, she models her devotion to detail.

“She brings consistency and professionalism in how she carries herself every day,” says USA women’s sevens head coach Chris Brown. “She’s process-driven and she wants to understand the details so she can put it into her process. Those steps then become habits and that’s how she functions.”

Heavirland is the one arriving at the training centre early and leaving late. She’s the one doing – as Gustaitis says – “the extras.”

And it’s because of her dedication and competitive nature that she’s taken the fast lane within USA Rugby.

In four years, Heavirland went from entering Army as a basketball player (Fall 2014) to joining USA Rugby’s national sevens program (Fall 2015), to making her debut on the World Series in Atlanta (Spring 2016), to being a travelling reserve with USA’s Olympic team in Rio (Summer 2016), to playing in the Women’s Rugby World Cup (Summer 2017), to captaining the sevens side on home soil at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco (Summer 2018).

So, Nicole, what’s been the key to your success?

Heavirland pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts.

“Umm…that kind of gave me a little bit of chills.”

It should. The trajectory is crazy.

“I think it’s just going in every day and finding your weaknesses and making them your strengths. You have to do the work that you don’t want to do every day.

“I just want to be the best Nicole Heavirland I can be.”

But on weekends, Heavirland slows down. She takes her time making her coffee or she sits back and enjoys a cup with friends. She needs this.

On National Coffee Day this past September, she posted a photo on Instagram. The caption summed it up best: “It’s not just the coffee I love. It’s the amazing people and great conversations that come with it.”

For her, Saturday morning coffees and a slowed-down San Diegan afternoon is an oasis. For a moment or two, she can chill.

“She’s low key, but she vibes with San Diego,” Gustaitis says. “She’s like – go to the farmers market, get a cup of coffee, talk about rugby, go to the grocery store and that’s a day.”

If she has time, she’ll make her own kombucha.

“Sometimes I think she’s about 85 years old,” Gustaitis laughs.

Heavirland might take that as a compliment. If she was back home in Montana, she’d slow down even more, take a raft out, and go fly-fishing.

“To me, fishing is just so peaceful,” she says. “My personality is to ‘go, go, go’ and ‘train, train, train’ and ‘lift, lift, lift’, but on the water, there isn’t an option to work out. You’re just on the boat and it’s so relaxing and that’s what you’re doing in the moment.”

Then, she’d probably go home and get to bed a bit early.

Focused on being her best self, Heavirland is single-minded. And she doesn’t settle.

Within the context of a far-flung city on the World Series, she’d rather have no coffee than bad coffee. Or, at least she’d just make it herself.

The hunt for the best coffee stop is half the fun. Over the last few years she’s been collecting paper cups from her favourite coffee shops around the world. She plans to turn them into a piece of art. Those cups tell a story. She doesn’t settle for second best.

So, when she looks back upon her Olympic experience, she’s brutally honest.

“You cannot call me an Olympian,” Heavirland says. “I was there but, while some of my teammates and friends are Olympians, I’m not.”

Heavirland was in Rio and got some of the Olympic gear, but she didn’t live in the village, she didn’t play with the team, and she didn’t get to don the jersey of the Red, White and Blue.

“It was hard at moments. There were tears sometimes.”

Two years on and two years away from Tokyo 2020, the moments in Rio still resonate.

“That’s motivation for me – to strive for that.”

With the 2018-19 season set to begin in Glendale, Colorado, Heavirland, co-captain alongside Lauren Doyle, will help lead her teammates towards their collective Olympic dreams. The top four teams at the end of the season earn automatic qualification. Heavirland is expected to lead the defensive aspects of the game, which seemingly aligns perfectly with her style.

With a new coach in Chris Brown, Heavirland has embraced a revised approach that seems very much ‘Heavirland’.

“We’re really focusing on the minor details,” she says. “We have the athletes and we have the talent and now it’s about figuring out how to piece it together and make each other better.”

For Brown, naming Heavirland co-captain was his way of helping the team do just that.

“She’s a unifier,” Brown says. “She unifies a group of different personalities by being confident and being the glue between them all.”

…I said before I wrote this article, I made a cup of coffee.

I used Heavirland’s exact specifications.

I was precise. I practiced and wanted to make a better cup the second time around. I slowed down for a moment or two. Then the caffeine hit me. It was go-time.

And yea, of course it was good.