Williams women's rugby going for world record


The Ephs will play Keene State for 24 hours on Saturday to raise money for cancer awareness.

WILLIAMSTOWN -- She doesn't remember much about the day she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer last September, but Lisa Shea didn't feel like talking about it.

"The doctors at first told me it was nothing to worry about," the 50-year-old Pittsfield resident said. "Then I find out I have that kind of cancer and I didn't know what to think. I was embarrassed and didn't know where to turn. It's not a cancer that gets talked about a lot."

Shea is on the road to recovery, both physically and mentally. While it's her doctors that assist in ridding her body of cancer, it was the Williams College women's rugby team that aided her in becoming herself again.

This Saturday at 8 a.m. on Cole Field, the team will attempt to set a Guinness World Record by playing 24 consecutive hours of rugby, all to raise money and awareness for colorectal and breast cancer. Keene State, Williams' "friendly rival," will be the Ephs' opponent in what is being called the "Scrum for a Cure."

Last week, Williams coach Gina Coleman -- also the dean of students -- had Shea, her friend for more than 20 years, come in and speak with the team.

"I wanted the girls to make sure they understood exactly why they were doing this," Coleman said. "So I had Lisa come in and speak."

Coleman was unsure at first if Shea would oblige, but she did. It turns out that, while Shea was helping the players expand their knowledge of the subject, she was also taking a giant leap forward in terms of her own mental health.

"I had grown so far from what I used to be, and I needed to get back to feeling like myself," Shea said. "I was so touched by how intently the girls listened to what I had to say. Now I feel much more comfortable telling my story in hopes of helping other people who are suffering."

The fundraiser is the brainchild of a Keene player, according to Keene coach Karen Johannesen. That player then contacted Williams co-captain Leah Lansdowne, who immediately jumped on board. The teams have been playing each other every spring, though it doesn't count in the standings. Williams' true season is in the fall, and because the New England Rugby Football Union rules won't allow them to play in the fall, they schools decided to do it in the spring. Williams is in Division II, while Keene is Division IV.

Both Coleman and Johannesen agree that what the players are doing is more than you'd expect out of the average college student.

"It's amazing what they've achieved in such a short period of time," Johannesen said.

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"I can honestly say that this is not the most athletically gifted team I've coached in my 14 years here, but I can say this team has the most heart," Coleman said.

Lansdowne, who lost a relative to breast cancer, went to Coleman with the idea, and it took off from there.

"I think everyone has been affected in some way by this disease," Lansdowne said before practice Tuesday. "And after we listened to [Shea] speak, we had a better understanding of what people go through with cancer. We're going to make it through all 24 hours."

She and fellow captain Carol Tsoi know it's not going to be easy physically. Coleman decided to do a week of double sessions during spring break, and most of the players attended. It was to get them in top shape for this Saturday.

The team, though, has spent as much time preparing on the field as it has off the field. With a goal of $10,000 set, the players figured out a way to keep the overhead cost as low as possible. They went around the area and got businesses to donate everything from outdoor bathrooms and cots, to tents and food. A Williams dining services employee even donated the four hours before her 8 a.m. shift to help out.

"To see what we've done so far, it was well worth everything leading up to it," Tsoi said.

Saturday will be a crazy day for all involved. Per Guinness guidelines, there must be two witnesses on hand at all times, but none can work longer than four hours at a time. A Guinness representative will be stopping by to check what's going on.

For the women, they will rotate in shifts, but no player is to leave the grounds -- otherwise, it won't set the record. To combat that, the players have arranged for a series of beds to be set up under a pop-up shelter.

"They will play an hour, then get a half-hour break," Coleman added.

Money raised will be distributed evenly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Manhattan Surgical Associates Gastrointestinal Surgery Research Foundation. People can donate money at the event, make a pledge or just a general donation at their leisure.

Williams is rife with tradition, and if all goes according to plan, the 35-year old rugby program will start a new one.

"All of our success has been because we are a team," Lansdowne said. "We put this together as a team, and we're going to finish it as a team."


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