Thursday Jul 2, 2009 in Magazine
By Jackie Finlan
When twin sisters Alex and Alicia Hartley relocated from Spring, TX, to Providence, R.I., in 2006 to attend Brown University, they both intended to play the sport for which they were recruited—track (Alex a shotputter, Alicia a hurdler). But once at Brown, they attended a couple practices and were immediately bitten by the rugby bug.
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Coach Kerri Heffernan had sized up the twins the minute they walked onto the practice fields, realizing she was looking at a couple of elite-level athletes.
“They were in fantastic shape and so competitive,” remembers Heffernan. “They loved contact, and I joked they were like coaching teenage boys. They were only 17 and had such chest-thumping confidence in their abilities.”
Now 21, the Hartley sisters have been instrumental in Brown’s success, helping the club reach the Final Four of the DI National Collegiate Championship the past two years. According to Heffernan, Alex, who plays outside center, was the key in the team’s ability to own the middle of the field. “She is a powerful runner and commits a number of defenders,” says the coach. “She is such a workhorse that we use her in line-outs, penalties—wherever we can get her in a one-on-one situation.”
Alicia, who is usually a center, played fullback during the recent playoffs. In spite of nursing a pulled hamstring all season, which reduced her speed, she still made an impact.
“We wanted to take advantage of Alicia’s power and keep her close to the centers,” Heffernan explains. “She played very well against Stanford [in the semis] with great leadership and courage. Both girls are integral to team chemistry. They lead by example, are unfailingly supportive, humorous and inspire their teammates and coaches.” The Hartleys’ performances qualified them for the USA A team that played Canada A in late June, but both took the summer off to focus on their college programs and to rehab.
Heffernan says the Hartleys—both 5-foot-5, 155 pounds—have different skills that complement each other well. “Alicia’s strength is her speed. She is really quick and can accelerate as she changes direction; just a beautiful open field runner. Alex is a little bigger and plays a more physical style; she goes at the opposition.”
When Alicia seconds coach Heffernan’s assessment, her twin sister just laughs. “Yeah, I’m trying to work on that,” says Alex, who is younger by 10 minutes, “but my original flanker mentality has me thinking I can go through people. Now that I’m a back, I’ve got to get into that ‘find the space’ mentality.”
Alex and Alicia will line up at inside and outside center this coming fall and this is where their “twin connection” could flourish. “Sometimes people ask why we do certain things [on the field],” says Alicia. “We just know each other’s bodies so well after playing so many sports together that we don’t have to tell each what to do; we just do it.”
“It’s so interesting watching twins play together,” says US U20 coach Bryn Chivers, who first saw the Hartleys as members of the NRU U19s at the 2006 National All Star Championship. “They run very well off each other, as if one’s a part of the other. The support player runs great angles and can read the other. You can tell they’ve been doing this their whole lives.”
Chivers was so impressed by the Hartleys, he invited them to an elite camp in advance of the U19 tour to England. At camp, both were in the top five in speed and fitness tests, and were subsequently invited to join the tour.
Unfortunately, track commitments over spring break that year kept the Hartley twins from participating in their first international contest. Brown had also qualified for the National Sweet 16s in the spring, and with the possibility of being unable to commit fully to the rugby post-season, the inevitable question loomed: rugby or track? The sisters chose rugby, but it was a difficult decision.
“We were quitting something [track] we loved for eight years,” explains Alicia, who majors in American Civilization. “But it wasn’t just rugby’s change of pace [that we preferred]. There were many reasons why we chose rugby.”
“We’re social people and track’s an individual sport,” says Alex, who is pursuing a double major in Egyptology and History in Art/Architecture. “It’s not the same vibe as rugby.”
“They’re a fine example of the caliber of athlete we want for the women’s national program,” Chivers explains. “In years prior, we were getting good players who might project to the senior level, but now we’re getting young players who could do a lot of things—like getting scholarships in other sports—but they’re choosing rugby.”
Alex left the track team before the spring 2007 rugby season began. Alicia, who broke her collar bone while hurdling, was forced to sit out of both sports, and quit track by the end of the spring season. From then on, it was rugby full steam ahead. The twins played in their first of three DI National Championship in 2007.
“I remember when we went to playoffs for the first time,” recalls Alex. “We were star-struck. But the more you play in big games, the easier it gets. This year, we deserved to be in the Final Four, so we showed up to do our thing.”
The Hartleys are intent on making an impact on the Women’s National program. Unfortunately, Alicia tore her ACL so she had to miss out on the 2008 U20 tour to South Africa. Alex made the cut and for the first time played rugby without her sister as a running mate.
“The tour was fun, but it would have been more fun if Alicia was there,” says Alex, who was named a Division I Second Team All American this season. “I’m not shy, so it’s not a matter of making friends, it was just hard because she couldn’t share that experience.”It was also the first time that Chivers worked with only one of the twins. “You can’t help but evaluate them as a pair, especially when you see them so infrequently. The interaction you have with one [twin] affects the other, so you’re subconsciously dealing with both.”
But even without Alicia’s physical support, Alex played well and also impressed Chivers with her maturity and leadership skills. In one game during the South African tour, a US player was sent off. Alex, who was playing open side, came off so the team could play down a flanker, rather than a scrumhalf.
“I apologized to her on the sideline,” Chivers recalls. “She said, ‘Anything that’s good for the team, coach.’ They both understand the player-coach relationship so well.”
You might think the Hartleys are ready to make their marks individually, but the twins are best friends and intensely loyal and protective of each other. In the future, they envision themselves living and working in the same city, playing for the same club team, and eventually logging their first US cap together.
“We never fight on the field,” Alex asserts.
“We’ll give each other looks,” Alicia chuckles, “but only because we expect so much from each other. We can be more emotional with each other than with our teammates. It’s really a benefit in the end.”