Former Harvard Soccer Star Cheta Emba Has Sights Set on Rugby Sevens at Tokyo Olympics

Former Harvard Soccer Star Cheta Emba Has Sights Set on Rugby Sevens at Tokyo Olympics

Posted by Chris S. Cornell on 20th Mar 2021

Cheta Emba graduated from Harvard in 2015 with a degree in Molecular & Cellular Biology, and she led the Crimson soccer team to Ivy League titles in three of her four seasons, but she is now best known as a standout on the United States women's national rugby sevens team that is gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Emba excelled both in the classroom and as an athlete at the prestigious Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, a public charter high school in Richmond, Virginia. She earned all-district honors in basketball, but it was as a soccer goalie where she truly excelled, starting all four years and receiving national attention.

Emba—who earned All-Academic and All-Conference recognition for her accomplishments as goalie in soccer and still holds the Ivy League season record for goals against average (2013)—had never played rugby until it was named a varsity sport at Harvard in 2013-14, her junior year. But as has been the case with most things Emba has attempted, she worked hard and learned quickly.

“I think I love rugby and soccer for some similar reasons,” said Emba. “I appreciate the fact that they're both global games and the history behind the sports. I wouldn't say that I have a favorite between the two, but I think rugby presents some unique challenges that test you in a way that's completely different than any other sport that I've come across.”

During her senior year at Harvard, she attended her first camp at the Olympic Training Site and got into her first game with the Women's National Team (15s) at the 2015 Super Series.

In 2016, Emba made her debut with the Women's Eagles Sevens at the Dubai Sevens tournament where she scored her first try—a thrilling game-winner in a 12-10 victory over Russia.

In 2017 Emba helped the Women's National Team (15s) earn a fourth-place finish at Women's Rugby World Cup 2017, and she participated in the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 one year later.

Emba has been a fixture on the U.S. sevens team for the past couple of years. Rugby sevens is a fast-paced, dynamic variant of traditional rugby union in which teams are made up of seven players playing seven minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. With only seven players playing on a full size rugby field, sevens rugby is a faster, more spread out version of 15-player rugby.

You can watch an incredible video of Cheta Emba's top 10 tries on the World Rugby YouTube account:

The U.S.women’s team has already qualified for Tokyo, and will look to improve upon its fifth-place finish at the Olympic debut of rugby sevens in 2016. The team is scheduled to participate in back-to-back events in Marcoussis, Paris on May 15-16 and 22-23, before the countdown to the Olympics.

As a member of the national team, Emba lives in San Diego, not far from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site in Chula Vista.

“We are blessed with the support of the US Olympic Committee to be able to focus full time on training,” said Emba, “It's a humble stipend, but enough to do what we need to do. And we have all of the resources and the facilities out here. Not to mention the pretty superb weather most of the time.”

Training for the Olympics is a full-time job, and players are at the facility from 7:30 am until 4:00 pm on most days. Training includes traditional weightlifting in the gym, sprinting, tempos, repeated efforts, and something called house of pain, which features a combination of drills including grappling and wrestling techniques. The players also work on technical skills with the rugby ball itself, from passing and catching, to reading the game and the strategy that you would see in other field sports.

Cheta’s position is listed as prop (front row players who take and deliver a lot of hits during the course of a match), but her physicality, athleticism, and speed allow her to excel at other positions including wing.

Emba’s skills as a soccer goalie and basketball player are often evident as she goes airborne to make leaping grabs, often followed by sensational runs.

“I think that combining my speed, strength, and physicality with the technical aspects on aerials and set piece roles, I think that is a huge part of what I am asked to bring to the pitch every time. That's where a lot of the sport crossover comes into play,” she said. “When I first picked up rugby, it matched very well with the high ball catches in soccer. And the fact that you're also able to kick the ball in rugby gives me the ability to add a little bit of something non traditional at my position into my game.”

Emba’s strong work ethic, and her constant pursuit of improvement are evident when you watch her on the field.

“I think that it's one thing to go to the gym and lift weights and it's another to know you have benchmarks that you're actually trying to hit on a day in and day out basis.”

Players have training activities scheduled throughout the day, and are expected to be on their game, whether their pumping iron or reviewing game strategies.

“One of the important things for me is finding that ability to keep pushing throughout the day,” Emba said, “because you want to bring your best to every session, so you can get the most out of it, not only for you, but for the team. Because if you're off, what you bring to the environment is missing. And that can throw the entire session off, I think, on the pitch.”

The fluidity and fast pace of sevens make teamwork imperative, a point that is never far from Emba’s mind.

“I'm really motivated by my teammates, and supporting them, and feeling their support in return. And so a big part of my focus is doing what is asked of me by the team, and being able to execute my role in the team strategy. It's one thing to practice those skills in a practice environment, and it's another thing to actually execute in a competition.”

“I think that taking steps to prepare and get the mind right, to be able to navigate the emotions and intensity, and the ups and downs has been a huge part of my game. I've realized more and more, over the years, how important that it is.”

Getting ready for the Olympics - In February, Emba and her USA Women’s 7s National Team ended a long layoff from competition and traveled to Madrid for two weekends of games, The team placed third in the first weekend of action, with wins over Poland, Spain and Kenya followed by tough losses to Russia and France. The team was off to a 2-0 start in the second weekend of play with wins over Spain and Poland, but withdrew from the tournament due to positive cases of COVID-19 among players on other teams.

“We've scrimmaged ourselves so many times over the past year,” Emba said. “It was good to be able to actually take all that work and put it to the test and see what we need to keep working on. That was really helpful.”

“We're doing everything that we can to prepare and get ready for the Olympics this summer. We’re working together on the things that we need to improve on, because rugby is a team sport, and you need to have all the pieces fit together. And hopefully, we will be able to execute when the time comes so that we can reach those goals that we've had in our minds for a really long time.”

Reflection during the pandemic - Emba said the past year of lockdowns and social distancing has given her the opportunity to put things in perspective.

“I think sometimes in life we just go through the motions, and it's easy to lose sight of what we all have.”

The pandemic has made her more appreciative of the things that are often taken for granted.

“We went from being absolutely spoiled with what we have, in some respects. I think having to train at home and be creative and find ways to still get the most possible out of what we were doing, has helped me reflect and recognize the abundance I was in.”

Emba recalls being at a local park last year and being inspired by others who were doing what they could to make the best of the situation they found themselves in.

“I saw this older couple, both with canes, and they were doing what I could only assume was their daily exercise with their masks on, and I was like, wow, if they if they're doing that, what can I do? It was very motivating,”

Emba’s full-time participation in rugby has put some other aspects of her life on hold, but she says she plans to resume her education at some point.

“I'm pretty interested in medicine and figuring out a way to continue with that interest and my passion for the human body and how it works, and keeping it working or getting it working. I've always been interested in science and especially understanding how and why things work at the micro level.”

Emba minored in Spanish at Harvard, and has been able to use her fluency in the language to communicate with members of the Spanish speaking community in San Diego, and she’s also had the opportunity to use it while traveling and volunteering.

Giving Back - While in college, Emba went on work trips with Habitat for Humanity and worked as a volunteer at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run homeless shelter in Cambridge. She also found time in her busy schedule to volunteer with the Harvard College Alzheimer's Buddies, where she regularly met with dementia patients residents in the greater Boston area to provide support and companionship.

“I think with most opportunities to volunteer and serve others, you find when you're putting in work, you're actually receiving back tenfold.”

During her time at Harvard, Emba traveled to Haiti with some of her soccer teammates as part of the GOALS Haiti organization. The student volunteers used soccer as a tool to engage youth and their families in programs that emphasize education, health and the environment to improve their quality of life.

Since moving to San Diego, she has participated in another Habitat for Humanity house build and she has volunteered with other charitable homebuilding projects.

More recently she started working with Mama's Kitchen, a San Diego based non-profit that prepares and delivers nutritious meals for people struggling with AIDS or cancer who are too sick to shop and cook for themselves. Throughout the pandemic, Emba has signed up for weekly delivery routes, and she has made deliveries throughout the city.

“That's been pretty amazing to be able to give back to this community. These projects have given me the opportunity to step outside of myself and discover different different sides of my personality, and things I find important. I've gained so much while being able to serve those who have been hit hard by the pandemic and might not have the ability to take care of their nutrition needs. It's just one way I can give back.”

Family Values - “My parents set a great example for me and my siblings,” said Emba. “They always highlighted the importance of service to others, caring for others and showing love.”

Both of her parents emigrated from Nigeria, and Emba and her siblings, a brother and two sisters, were the beneficiaries of their hard work. Her mom is a nurse and her dad is a pharmacist.

“I’ll never forget something my mom would say, that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Whether it's a training session, a school assignment, an opportunity to work in the community or anything else, that's kind of the mindset she instilled an energy in each of us.

Fueling Up With Simply Snackin’ - Emba first became acquainted with Simply Snackin' snacks when she attended the Pan Am Games in Peru with the U.S. National Women’s Rugby Team in 2019.

"It was one of the snacks available in our Team USA recovery room,” she recalled. “At first bite, I was like, wow, this is amazing. And I saw that it had wholesome ingredients. No weird things on the nutrition label. And I remember thinking I need to remember this so when I go home I can try to find it again."

Emba described the dining situation at the Games as “a little challenging” and she welcomed the supply of beef snacks that were available to her and her teammates.

“When I went home, I did some more research, and I realized they also have chicken, and that had me sold. Since then I’ve tried every flavor.  The Northwoods Beef (with cranberries and blueberries) might be my favorite, but I love all of them.” 

Photos by Travis Prior (Prior-T Photography)

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