An Olympics like no other: Four alums reflect on their experiences in Tokyo

Kent Barbir and Katherine Yang

Representing the U.S. in rugby sevens at the Tokyo Olympics, Kristi Kirshe ’17 evades a tackle in a game against Australia. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Lee, KLC fotos.)

Div. III athletics are not commonly thought of as a breeding ground for Olympic athletes. But four Williams alums — Joey Lye ’09, Tala Abujbara ’14, Will Hardy ’10, and Kristi Kirshe ’17 — have broken the mold, appearing in this year’s Olympics in a variety of roles and for three different countries. From the Purple Valley to Tokyo, and after a year-long delay of the Games, these four alums have traversed a diverse array of paths to reach the pinnacle of their sports. 

Joey Lye ’09

Joey Lye ’09, alongside the rest of the Canadian softball team, received her Olympic bronze medal standing on the Olympic podium in front of a near-empty stadium. “Even though the stadium wasn’t overflowing with spectators and cheers, that moment was an extremely special one for our program and country,” she wrote in an email to the Record. “I will forever remember the emotions of placing [teammate] Erika Polidori’s medal around her neck and receiving mine from Jenn Salling in addition to sharing a big embrace with each of them.”

Lye helped Canada bring home a bronze medal with a 3-2 win over Mexico. The typical exclusion of softball in the Olympic games — it hadn’t been in the games since 2008 and will not be in 2024 — made this experience especially historic, despite the lack of spectators.

“While we would have loved to share the experience with family and friends, we enjoyed the intimate experience of making history for our country with just us to witness it in person,” she wrote. “It was a special moment for our team that we will remember forever.”

While Olympians could not bring family and friends to the Games, Lye noted that there was a sense of community in the Olympic Village. “Despite [having to mask at all times], there were still many athletes out and about trading pins and sharing stories,” she recalled. “You could feel the energy and excitement, especially when we returned to the village from our trip to Fukushima where we played our first two games.”

Lye also had the opportunity to meet up with fellow Ephs Kirshe and Abujbara, which proved to be her favorite moment off the field. “It was pretty special to meet fellow Eph athletes and hear about the successes and obstacles they faced in order to be competing in Tokyo,” she wrote.

The transition from college athletics to the international level is an adjustment, according to Lye. “My nerves were probably the biggest thing I had to learn to control after having been so comfortable playing at Williams by the time I graduated,” she wrote. “Lots of attention has been given to the mental side of the game over the past 12 years.” 

“[But] Williams prepared me by challenging me in every aspect — physically, mentally, emotionally, and with time-management and balancing various responsibilities,” Lye wrote. “Stepping into the real world after graduation, I felt I could accomplish almost anything I set my mind to.”

Tala Abujbara ’14

Abujbara had never rowed before stepping foot on the College’s campus. In a whirlwind 11 years, however, she learned to row, became the first Qatari woman to qualify for and compete in the Olympics in her sport, and achieved a goal she had set for herself many years before.

When Abujbara returned to her home country of Qatar after graduating from the College in 2014, she began training with the Qatar Sailing & Rowing Federation. At the time, rowing was still relatively unknown in Qatar, according to Abujbara. Due to the lack of rowers in Qatar, she was forced to row in a single. “I am a team sport athlete at heart, so to be training and competing alone for most of my journey has been the part I struggled with the most,” she wrote to the Record.

The transition to individual rowing was challenging for Abujbara. “Seemingly overnight, I went from winning consecutive NCAA championships in an eight [-person boat] to survival-rowing my way to the finish line in a single at the 2014 World Championships, a full 1.5 minutes behind all other competition,” she told the Record. “However, my experiences at Williams instilled a love for rowing and a passion for high-level sport which helped carry me through the challenges over the years.”

Undeterred by these challenges, Abujbara had her eyes set on a greater goal: competing at the Olympics. Her plan was simple. She would finish her Masters program, compete at the Olympics, and then return to Qatar to start working. The pandemic and resulting postponement of the 2020 Olympics, however, presented significant obstacles to that plan, as she now had to balance training with working a full-time job.

Despite these obstacles, Abujbara managed to secure an Olympic qualification spot at a regatta last May. Earning the spot meant Abujbara would represent Qatar in the women’s single sculls competition. “It was a huge honor to represent my country and to be competing at the Olympics,” she wrote. “I went into the competition knowing that I was way out of medal contention, but I had my plan and my job to do.” 

Abujbara did just that, winning her final race with a 6.78-second margin of victory over Uganda’s Kathleen Noble and finishing in 25th place in the women’s single scull competition.

Like Lye, Abujbara also found community in the Olympic Village. “Every single rower competing at the Olympics has been through inconceivable challenges to make it to the start line,” she wrote. “It was extremely inspiring to be in the midst of that and there was a great sense of sportsmanship and solidarity between us.”

While at the Olympics, Abujbara created once-in-a-lifetime memories. Not only was she a flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies, but she also enjoyed meeting with Lye and Kirshe. “We chatted about our sports careers during/after Williams and found a lot of common ground in our experience,” she wrote.

Having returned home from Tokyo, Abujbara plans to take a step back from rowing and focus on other aspects of her life that she has had to sacrifice over the past few years. 

“Becoming an Olympian has taught me that achieving a big goal is great, but it is only truly worth it if you enjoy the process along the way,” she wrote. “I have no regrets and am so grateful for my journey, but I am now ready to spend less time relentlessly grinding away at the future and more time focusing on the present.”

While her time representing Qatar in rowing may be drawing to a close, Abujbara’s impact on women’s sports in Qatar has just begun. “Several young women have already reached out to me expressing their interest in taking up sport and asking for my advice,” she wrote to the Record. “If I could inspire even just a handful of girls to start participating in sports, then this was all worth it.”

Will Hardy ’10

Hardy took a slightly different route to the Tokyo Olympics than his fellow Ephs. Chosen by San Antonio Spurs and U.S. men’s basketball head coach Gregg Popovich to be a member of his staff, Hardy stayed with the basketball team in a hotel away from the Olympic Village. “It was a far different Olympic experience than people are familiar with,” Hardy said. “They really kept everything very separate to try to prevent any type of outbreak [of COVID].”

As a coach, Hardy also had a different set of responsibilities and priorities from the other Ephs during his time in Tokyo. Hardy’s main role was briefing the U.S. men’s basketball team on the various opponents that they faced on the way to their 16th gold medal. “My responsibility was really making sure that everybody had the video they needed … and preparing the scouting reports,” Hardy said.

Hardy had taken on a similar role earlier in his career. After a successful playing career with the College’s men’s basketball team, Hardy worked as a video coordinator for the Spurs. It was there that Hardy grew close to Popovich, eventually rising up the ranks to become the Spurs’ assistant coach for five years and even joining Popovich’s staff for the USA men’s basketball team at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. 

While Hardy left the Spurs to join the Boston Celtics this summer, the Olympics gave him the opportunity to have one last run with Popovich, his long-time mentor. “It was kind of a couple-year commitment because [Popovich] was going to coach the [USA] team for that long and he wanted to have the same staff all the way through,” Hardy said. “He asked a couple years ago — it was a pretty quick decision to say yes.”

Like all the other teams, U.S. men’s basketball had to face the ramifications of the year-long delay brought about by the pandemic. However, the process of assembling the team and preparing for competition remained largely unchanged. 

“I don’t know if COVID and the delay affected our preparation super directly, because a lot of that preparation happens towards the end — once you know who’s in the tournament and then what the groups are,” Hardy said. “We don’t know what the team would have been in 2020, in terms of the people that would have been on it, because the team isn’t selected until much later.”

U.S. men’s basketball had a rough start, losing pre-tournament exhibition games against Nigeria and Australia and its opening game of the Olympics to France. As the most prominent team in one of the biggest sports at the Olympics, Hardy knew that there would be pressure to deliver results. “Team USA basketball always draws a big audience,” Hardy said. “A lot of people [are] excited to see our guys play, and probably a lot of people [are] hoping to see our guys lose.” 

The lack of spectators at the games added a new element to the mix. “To be in a building of that size without the noise is eerie at times,” he said. “Chandler Gym with no one in it would be weird to play a game [in]. 

Still, the team made the best of the strange circumstances, according to Hardy. “In some ways, it really brings you back to the team dynamic because you have to create your own energy,” he said. “The bench is probably more animated than it would be in a regular game because they’re trying to carry some of that energy that a crowd would bring.”

Despite their slow start, the team closed out the tournament with five consecutive wins, earning them their fourth consecutive gold medal. “I think it just takes a little time for everybody to sort out how they best fit together,” said Hardy. “The guys are so competitive — they just want to win. I think this group in particular was really fun to watch. They all put their own personal egos and all that stuff aside and just tried to figure out how they best fit together.”

U.S. basketball is no stranger to Olympic gold medals. However, Hardy said that this year’s victory was especially sweet given the unforeseen challenges of competing during a pandemic. “It was hard, I think, for a lot of reasons,” Hardy said. “There was the slow start, some guys had to leave the team with COVID, we had three guys come in the first day of the game from the [NBA] Finals, being away from your family for a month… It was isolating in some ways, and I think everybody, really, just put their heads down and worked,” he said.

Still barely 10 years out from his graduation, Hardy reflected upon how far he had come from his time at the College. “I’d be lying to you if I said I had a master plan while I was at Williams,” he said. “At 20 and 21 I was just trying to get an education, and I was enjoying college and being on a team and being in Williamstown, which was an experience I still look back on so fondly because it changed me and matured me in ways I never expected. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I knew when I was 20, living in [Mark] Hopkins and eating at Greylock, that I was like, ‘I’m going to be a coach one day.’”

Kristi Kirshe ’17

Throughout her time in college, Kirshe didn’t give much thought to the possibility of an athletic career post-graduation. “I figured that once I made the choice to go to Williams and play Division III soccer … my life was going to be outside of purely athletics,” she said. “I thought my moment had passed already.”

At the College, Kirshe was a consistent standout on the women’s soccer team, earning two-time All-American honors and setting school records for all-time career goals and points. In fact, her rugby career did not start until nine months after her departure from the Purple Valley. Barely four years later, Kirshe was representing her country at the Olympics in women’s rugby, a sport she had never even tried out until after graduating. “It was quite a whirlwind of a process,” Kirshe said.

After joining a local club in Boston, where she was working, Kirshe was quickly recruited to a regional academy team. Kirshe was scouted at her first tournament with the team at the U.S. rugby training center in California and called up to a national team camp soon afterward. “I made my national team debut in January of 2019, 11 months after first going to a rugby practice,” said Kirshe. “Pretty crazy little timeline.”

Some parts of her soccer experience, Kirshe said, served her well during the transition to a career in rugby. “One of the big elements is just the fluidity of soccer and rugby,” she said. “They’re not really start-stop sports, they’re sports where you’re constantly kind of in motion.” 

Like the other Olympic athletes, Kirshe and U.S. women’s rugby struggled with the adjustments required after the year-long delay. “It was tough because we didn’t have the same level of competitions and international games and all that kind of stuff that we would have in a normal year, so we spent a lot of time playing ourselves, practicing against ourselves,” Kirshe said.

“After the postponement, I didn’t want to put too much weight on [the Olympics] because you never knew if it was actually going to happen,” Kirshe added. “But moments like the opening ceremonies and running out on the field for the first time were such special, surreal moments that I’m just so thankful I got to experience.” 

The camaraderie of the Olympic experience was also a highlight. “Being with all of Team USA and being around all these athletes that you grow up looking up to … was a really special moment,” Kirshe said. “It was just such a dream come true.”

When reflecting on her time as an Eph, Kirshe explained that the environment of athletics at the College prepared her well for Olympic rugby. “When you’re at Williams, your sport feels like the most important thing,” Kirshe said. “[The] environment is very similar, very professional. So that was actually a pretty easy transition for me because I was like, ‘Yeah, I know how to do this. I know how to show up every day ready to play because I learned it all at Williams.’”

Not satisfied with just one Olympics appearance, Kirshe is training hard with an eye towards Paris 2024. “For now, rugby is my full-time job, [my] full-time career,” she said. “So at this point, I’m hoping to stay around until 2024.”