Kristine Sommer is ready for the next challenge.
Two months ago, she sat down in Chula Vista, California for a phone conversation to discuss her career, her love for rugby, and the rest of life as well. Looking back, the challenge in front of her at the time was simpler and, while not easy by any stretch, perhaps less daunting. With USA Rugby’s women’s 15s team gathering for camp at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, Sommer’s competition was Canada, as the North American rivals were set to play in a two-match exhibition.
The games didn’t go as hoped for the Americans – Canada won both – but within the early stages of what is ultimately a long run-up to the 2021 Rugby World Cup, the actual results weren’t all that important. Much was learned.
However, it was after the camp, when the team was made aware of USA Rugby’s challenging financial situation (news that was formally announced in late November by USA Rugby through a “Letter to the Membership”), that Sommer’s next challenge drew into focus.
With the World Cup on the horizon, the women’s 15s model remains “pay-to-play.” National team players are often paying for their travel to team camps, paying a lump sum to attend the camp and, generally, helping to fund the journey to their sport’s international pinnacle.
It’s a good thing Sommer enjoys a challenge.
Alongside fellow lock Alycia Washington, who started with Sommer in the second game against Canada last fall, the duo founded the XV Foundation.
The idea is simple.
“We want to make sure players don’t pay a dime when they’re with the national team,” Sommer says in a recent interview from her home in Seattle. “And, if players are selected for a capped tour, they would also get paid a per diem.”
The execution is complex.
The goal of the foundation is to raise $350,000 to help cover the costs of camps and tours in 2020. Through January, the XV Foundation had raised over $21,000, including monthly and one-time donations, but a recently launched campaign has USA Rugby Board Member and World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight set to match donations made through the month of February up to $10,000.
“We’re getting a lot more community support and a faster response than we anticipated,” Sommer says. “People are responsive to the transparency and to us reaching out as players. All in all, it’s super positive, but I feel that we’re just scratching the surface. The rugby community is so large and there are so many fans. Now we just need to figure out how to reach those people.”
Sommer, 29, who hails from Palmdale, California and who played her college rugby at UC Santa Barbara, and who has lived in Seattle since 2012, feels motivated.
“I’m the type of person always looking for the next big thing,” Sommer had stated during that phone call in November when, at the time, she had no idea what was to come.
Upon arriving at UC Santa Barbara as a freshman in 2008, the soccer-playing Sommer had dreams of making the university’s prominent club side – a team that went on to win a national title in all four years she was there. From there, her goal was to one-day play with USA’s national side.
Growing up, she was “the soccer-playing kid passing the ball to the wall by myself.” She was the one wearing the Brandi Chastain jersey.
“I still wear it,” she says with a laugh. “It still fits me.”
The World Cup was the goal.
However, in her first year at UC Santa Barbara, she met the rugby team. The switch was easy.
“The girls were nicer,” she says – laughing a bit, but telling her truth. “There was this culture of community that I think I needed as a freshman.
“I think that’s a driver for me and a differentiator from other sports. They were all just good people.”
Plus. Wait for it.
“It was more of a challenge. That drove me to continue.”
Soon after completing her four years at Santa Barbara and graduating in 2012, she moved to Seattle where she initially joined the Emerald City Mudhens before finding her way to the Seattle Saracens.
By 2014, Sommer was starting to get invited to Eagles camps and then, in 2016, she joined the Sevens program, earning her first-ever opportunity to represent the USA on the World Series stage at the 2016 Dubai Sevens. The following year, she switched to the Eagles 15s side, making her debut against Canada. Then, later that summer, she realized her World Cup dream. It was just in a different sport.
Despite just one cap to her name, Sommer earned a spot on the roster for the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, where she played in four games, helping the Eagles to a fourth-place finish.
“It didn’t really hit me that I was at the World Cup until I had little girls come up to me and have me sign things,” she says. “I’m now having the impact on young girls similar to how I was impacted when I was younger.”
Shortly after the World Cup, she got an offer to play for the England-based Harlequins. She delayed her cross-Atlantic journey a year, but indeed joined Harlequins for the 2018-19 season.
“That was a huge swing for me, playing as a professional rugby player,” she says. “It was just a different vibe. The competition was ramped up. Even training was ramped up and it was legitimately a full-time environment. It was immense for me. I definitely improved my skills and how I played as a forward.”
She’s now back with the Seattle Saracens, but she has hopes to return to England for the 2020-21 season with the aim to prepare as best she can for the World Cup in New Zealand in the fall of 2021.
Amidst a young Eagles squad, her experience abroad also helped develop her into a leader within the group.
“In terms of rugby, she’s beginning to get a really good understanding of lineout culture and set piece culture,” says USA coach Rob Cain. “I think one of her big aspirations is to be one of those top-level lineout leaders in the world. She works very hard. She’s a lovely person and a very talented rugby player.”
The XV Foundation is going to help her get there.
It won’t be easy and it certainly hasn’t been so far.
“We’re literally taking on a third job,” says Sommer, who also works as a business development manager with a water treatment company in Everett, Washington. “I think we both knew this was going to be a ton of work, but I don’t think we quite understood it.”
Perhaps, but if she meets the XV Foundation challenge with the same resolve that she hits everything else with, it’s going to be a success.
“I have an attitude or mentality that if I’ve set my mind to do something, I’ve already made my decision,” Sommer says.
Her decision is to eliminate pay-to-play for women’s 15s rugby in the USA.
I’d pick her corner.