Sunday April 24, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Members of two college rugby teams knew they would have to overcome their own psychological and physical barriers to play the game for 24 hours in order to set a world record and raise money for breast and colorectal cancer research.

But Mother Nature dropped a couple of other barriers in their way: As they got started at 8 a.m. Saturday, it was cold and windy, with rain, snow and even hail making things worse.

The proposition was a simple, if physically challenging, one: The women's rugby teams from Williams College and Keene State College in New Hampshire would play rugby against each other at Cole Field in Williamstown for 24 hours. If they make it, they could set a record in the eyes of the Guinness World Records, and raise thousands of dollars for cancer research.

"We thought this was totally doable if the weather is on point," said Gina Coleman, associate dean of students at Williams and head coach of the women's rugby team. "But our biggest challenge at this point is the weather."

By early afternoon, five hours into the game, young women bundled up in layers of sweats, jerseys, thermals and socks, covered in rain and mud, were jogging up and down the field, passing, kicking, tackling and shivering, all in the name of the fight against cancer.

They had been preparing for the challenge since December, Coleman said, when Keene players suggested the two teams play a game to raise money to fight cancer.

Williams College players readily agreed. Then they told their coaches.

"They called me up in February and told me, ‘We kind of agreed to do this thing,' " said Karen Johannesen, Keene State's women's rugby coach. "They were a little nervous about telling me. But I was happy about the idea."

Coleman said the two teams get along quite well.

"We've always had wonderful, friendly matches and the girls get along great," she said. "And when we first talked about it during the New England Rugby Football Union meeting in December, I thought we could raise a lot more money if we were going to set a Guinness World Record."

By late December, the Guinness people had agreed to allow the attempt, as long as the game was played by the proper rugby regulations, Coleman said.

Next came the flurry of logistical arrangements, and the last-minute issues -- like the weather.

They set up a website, and within 24 hours had raised $1,700, Coleman said.

They set a goal of $10,000, and if they can make it for 24 hours, they could come close to that goal, she added.

By game time Saturday, the Williams dining service had set up a tent to feed the players and coaches through the 24-hour game. Another tent was provided by Tailor Events for the players to warm up and nap in, and the Dufour Tours provided a couple of buses which kept their heaters going to allow the girls to warm up in shifts. Village Ambulance had arranged for an ambulance and paramedics to be on-site for the full 24 hours.

But heading out onto a soggy field in the first light of day with temperatures near 30 degrees amid high winds, swirls of snow and a pelting, cold rainfall opened a few eyes.

Nevertheless, by 2 p.m., the players were still fighting their seemingly endless battle against each other, their fatigue and the weather in order to secure some much-needed funding to help find a cure for a killer disease.

And they seemed to be loving it.

There were smiles, giggles, and cheers on the field and from the sparse crowd -- and plenty of grit for all to see.

"No one has even mentioned giving up," Johannesen said. "They just keep on going. It's amazing."

According to Williams senior and scrum captain Leah Lansdowne, the girls were generally playing for an hour and taking a break for a half hour while substitutes took over.

"The biggest challenge is the cold," Lansdowne said as she donned a dry sweatshirt and some dry socks. "But it's not so much of an adversarial competition -- all 44 players are playing together for one goal."

By 2:15 p.m., six hours and 15 minutes into a game that normally only lasts 80 minutes, Keene State was winning with 135 points to Williams' 114.

Only 17 hours and 45 minutes to go.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6241.