Cheta Emba leaps and snatches the ball out of the air. It’s obvious she’s boarded a basketball and thwarted a few crosses into the box in her day.
Her USA teammates are standing on the upper crust of the embanked sidelines that surround the oddly ensconced and molecularly deprived Infinity Park in RugbyTown, USA.
Six weeks later while sipping on a latte in a San Diegan coffee shop, USA teammate Ilona Maher will suggest she was fully confident her team would win. Perhaps she didn’t know it’d happen so instantaneously and with such pizzazz.
Maher was watching on from the sidelines. She had already put in a tidy nine-minute shift.
In a few moments, Maher will throw a fist pump into the air and receive a celebratory hug from Jordan Matyas. Then she’ll hug USA coach Chris Brown. Then, she’ll take a direct line to Emba to hug the hero of the hour, who had just dropped in exhaustion after scoring an epic try.
It’s the quarter-finals of the World Rugby Sevens Series opener in Glendale, Colorado. and the Eagles are moving on after a thrilling victory over Canada.
Emba is to thank for it.
Five years earlier, at Harvard University, the product of Glen Allen, Virginia would have done something that looked very similar and done it regularly. Emba was a star soccer goalie at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. While there, she was part of three Ivy League-winning sides and was the starting netminder for her Crimson’s title-winning seasons in both her junior (2013) and senior (2014) years. To this day, she still holds the Ivy League’s single-season goals against average record, posting a miniscule 0.14 mark over 13 outings in 2013. That year, Emba allowed one goal in 625 minutes and 29 seconds.
In those days, she would have caught the ball all the same, but then, within the confines of her 18-yard box, she would have stopped and, in most cases, slowed play down. She may have bounced the ball a few times and then kicked it, thrown it, or rolled it to a teammate.
The jumping and the catching – talents also ascertained through a few years playing AAU basketball – were the transferable skills she’d been working on since her teenaged days at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Virginia.
On a sun-soaked early-October morning in the fall of 2019 – in a time when the Olympics were still planned for 2020 and Emba wasn’t working out on a slab of concrete outside her Californian home while following a remote training program – it all came together for the American star.
“I was just trying to execute my job on the field,” says Emba – a bastion of humility.
The result was a combination of her soccer-playing efforts as both a high schooler and then at Harvard, her mental skills training from both Harvard (obviously) and from five years with USA’s national Sevens program, and the daily “extras” she insists upon after practice.
“She’s always like, ‘Can I get a couple more? Can I get a couple more?’ says teammate Alev Kelter. “She’s just perfecting the timing, the jump – everything. It was a testament to how well she orients herself around getting better.”
It was also her unfettered focus.
Brown sees it every day.
“Everything she does, she does for a reason.”
Emba frequently traversed the bridges that crossed the Charles River at Harvard University. She passed over the iconic waterway daily – walking from academia to athletics and, often, back again.
She was doing the things she loved.
“Academics were always important for us as a family,” Emba says. “To be able to play sports, I needed to take care of things in the classroom, but I enjoyed school. They have always gone together for me.”
In both worlds, she was a high school standout – becoming a star goaltender (rugby came later) and a brilliant student.
“The opportunity to play at Harvard was an exciting one,” she says. “I valued the emphasis that they put on academics, as well as the caliber of the athletic teams. It’s definitely a school where you’re a student and an athlete.
“It’s challenging, but it’s so rewarding.”
Using the lingo of the establishment, Emba’s concentration was molecular and cellular biology, while her secondary field was history of science and her foreign language citation was in Spanish.
Umm…so were your days just jam-packed?
“Um…yeah, it was pretty busy,” Emba says in a nonchalant way that rather belittles what she was actually doing. “I think it was similar to a typical college athlete’s schedule.”
This is where the author jumps in and suggests that it was not quite typical. To begin with, she’s a student at Harvard, she’s a varsity athlete with the soccer team and in her third year, she started to play with both soccer and rugby teams.
Then there’s what you’ll read next – the heart of Emba.
She’s about so much more than rugby.
Anchored in her ever-deepening Christian faith, Emba wears a servant heart on her sleeve.
Outside of the rugby lines and beyond the Harvard classrooms, she volunteered with a group that supported people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia (Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies), helped serve with the student-led Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and spent time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
“I feel like it’s part of what I’m called to do and what we’re called to do as people,” she says. “It’s about loving God and loving others and how you care for other people can be demonstrated through how you serve them and the things that you value.”
She spent time with Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies just being a friend.
“Often they don’t get very many visitors and it can be a very challenging and scary time. We were coming in as a third party solely with the interest of being there for that person and establishing a relationship that benefited both of us. It was eye-opening and it was a challenge being vulnerable and looking outside yourself and serving other people – it was a unique opportunity to get a more personal understanding of other people’s situations.”
With the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, Emba would help prepare food or clean up – basic, hands-on tasks – but even more to her desires, she’d also work to build relationships.
“It was a unique opportunity to serve and to get to know people on a more authentic and personal basis, because that’s when you start to develop relationships. You allow them to see you and they allow you to see them and it’s a kind of breaking down of walls in a way that’s comfortable for both parties.
“We’re all the same and we all have something going on. So, how can we learn from each other and how can we help each other?”
So when Emba found rugby, the ever-connecting community that enlivens the sport like few others felt just right.
It was in her third year when her roommate, who was on the rugby team, suggested Emba try the sport.
It was perfect match for the Emba, who had played basketball through high school and had only recently been confined to the penalty area in recent years after growing up playing every position on the soccer pitch.
“It was a mix of everything I knew,” she says, fondly remembering her early days playing rugby. “There was running, catching and passing and wide open spaces and I thought it looked really fun. And, of course, the community was really welcoming.”
In the fall, she was busy winning conference titles with the soccer team. In the spring, she was training with the rugby team, which was elevated to varsity status the same year she joined.
Now, here’s the crazy part. Okay, at least one of the crazy parts to her story.
Within just a year (just one year!) of Emba taking up the sport, she was invited to take part in a USA sevens camp in Chula Vista, California in January, 2015.
“It was tough,” she recalls. “I had just started playing rugby and these were the top players in the country and you knew you were playing in front of a national team staff. I just took it as a huge opportunity and wanted to soak up as much as possible.”
She was invited to a couple more camps that spring, but this was also her senior year at Harvard and there was, you know, that whole molecular and cellular biology, history of science and Spanish thing she was set to finish.
“I recognized that it was becoming a lot of balance with school and it was a priority for me to graduate that spring,” Emba says. “I took the time to focus on doing that and I didn’t go to camps for the last couple months of the school year.
“Academics are a priority for me, so I told myself I’d see that through and then go full force after rugby.
“I knew I was putting myself at a disadvantage rugby-wise, so if anything, it made me work harder.”
That summer, she made USA’s team for the Women’s Rugby Super Series. While Emba suffered an injury in the event, her national stage trajectory carried on.
By the following January and with the Rio Olympics just eight months away, she was back in Chula Vista at a camp with the Sevens team. Soon after, she was offered a contract to stay with the Eagles full-time.
The Olympic rings became the target. With her fast-rising progression, it seemed like a real possibility.
Sitting at home on a Friday night in July 2016, the summer was on the horizon and Rio was tantalizingly close. Emba had yet to make her debut on the World Series, but within her time in residency, she had put herself into consideration for the Olympic roster.
The Olympic news came in an email.
She hadn’t made it. She was to remain part of the training group that would help prepare the USA for the Olympics, but Emba was not part of the 12-player roster.
“I was pretty devastated. But I made the decision right then and there to stay true to who I was. I could have just been upset and quit, but I still had the opportunity to train and be with the team and to get the most of the ability to train with the best players and grow my game.
“It was a chance for me to live out the things that I thought that I valued. Could I serve the team? Could I encourage that people that were playing? Could I stay connected and resolved in my values and my goals and my motivation?
“It was a true test of that.”
While she didn’t make the active roster, on July 19 – less than three weeks before Rugby Sevens made its Olympic debut – she was named as one of two travelling reserves. The other happened to be her current roommate in San Diego and USA teammate, Nicole Heavirland.
The duo trained with the team in Rio, but they were only in Brazil in case of injury. They didn’t stay in the athletes village. They watched the games from the stands.
“It was challenging, but still pretty cool to be in that environment and get a taste for what it’s all about.”
Naturally, it was also motivating.
Upon return, what has become a unique five-year Olympic cycle began, with Emba taking the steps to becoming a star.
She made her World Series debut at the 2016 Dubai Sevens, launching a career that has her on 96 matches and having scored 28 tries.
The following year, she represented the USA in 15s at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland, helping the Eagles to a fourth-place finish.
In 2018, she donned the Red, White and Blue at the World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, which was followed by an historic 2018-19 season for the USA, in which they finished a best-ever second-place in the final World Series standings.
That, ultimately, put the pieces into position for Glendale.
Emba landed almost precisely on her team’s 10-metre line and was at full speed just a few strides later. She ran untouched for the game-winning try.
Moments earlier, it was Emba who had been beaten for Canada’s then go-ahead try. In an instant, she grabbed the narrative and literally ran with it.
“It was a testament to Cheta and her mental skills,” says Chris Brown. “We had one play to go. It was basically: ‘Clear head. Process. Bang. She executes and runs 60 metres.
“That’s not easy.”
It was a snapshot into who she has become.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve arrived. It’s just a continuous journey of growth and development.
“But my role has shifted from a ‘just go out there and play’ mentality to having set responsibilities and a set role and taking ownership and leadership over certain aspects of the game.
“I think I’ve just tried to stay the course and keep working on and off the field.”
Six weeks after Emba and the Eagles went on to win the Cup in Glendale, she walks across Adams Avenue along 30th Street in San Diego.
She’s part of a three-person photoshoot alongside Heavirland and Maher. Perhaps she’s not quite as comfortable as Maher (few are!). Rather, she’s just Cheta – happily willing to show a humble smile.
She’s in the spotlight now. Yet for Emba, it’s the conversation with friends over coffee that excites her. It’s the relationships she has built along her journey from Glen Allen to Harvard to Chula Vista.
In a world of uncontrollables, it’s the little things that sustain Emba.
It’s the pour over coffee.
“I like that stillness and that slow down. I love the preparation. I enjoy the small moments.
“And the caffeine doesn’t hurt.”