One-on-one with Frankie Sands '19
Frankie Sands ’19, a recent transfer from Norwich University, has dominated the rugby scene, earning her top honors nationally. Most recently, she was named as one of four finalists for the Sorensen Award, given to the best collegiate women’s rugby player in the nation. While Sands has found success here at Dartmouth and throughout her career, her journey to rugby has been anything but conventional.
When did you first start playing rugby and what got you into the sport?
FS: I first starting playing my freshman year of high school. I was actually a cheerleader in high school and started cheering three years before and kept doing that in the fall and winter. When the springtime came around, I had nothing to do, and I hated running so I was not about to do track. All of the other sports required some sort of previous knowledge, like lacrosse or softball, and I was not nearly as capable of doing either of those sports. I was walking around and saw a poster for rugby in the halls at my high school that said “no experience necessary.” At first I had to go home and google what rugby was because I had no idea, and it looked pretty awesome. I had my first practice and just kept going back.
In high school, you not only participated in both rugby and cheerleading, but you excelled — being named to All-American teams in both. How did cheerleading help your rugby play and vice versa?
FS: My cheerleading coach really instilled a confidence in me that I could do whatever I wanted, and we ran all the time. In the fall, we would cheer for football and in the winter, we would cheer for basketball and do all of our big competitions. Contrary to popular belief, cheerleading takes a lot of endurance, so we would run all the time and my coach just kept me so fit. That is kind of where I started getting into a lot of fitness and preparing my body. They taught me a lot about nutrition and ways to be the best athlete. From there, that just carried over to rugby. With cheerleading, it’s very much a sport where you go out on the mat, and you make every move perfect and you have to be happy all the time. When I finally got to rugby, I was able to go out and be aggressive, and I never had that before. It was really awesome to play very different styled sports, and be able to get two things out of them, but also to combine a lot of the similar aspects.
What was the transition to collegiate rugby like, and how is it different from your high school experience?
FS: Oh my gosh, it was so scary. In my first-ever game that I played, I was the starting fullback against Penn State [University], the then-eight-time national champions, and the head coach of the women’s national team. The position I was starting in had previously been played for four years by another All-American, so I was very nervous and very scared. The second that the whistle blew, it was just like high school — all of the nerves just went away. Once I got the ball and I could just start playing, it was easy. Ever since then, it’s been like that for all of the transitions. The transition from high school to college was hard, the transition from college to college All-Americans was really scary, and the transition from college All-Americans to the women’s national team was, I think, the scariest one yet. Every time, the nerves would be there, but the second we start playing, it was easy.
Why did you choose Dartmouth?
FS: I was recruited to play for Norwich and after spending two years there, it got to a point that I wanted to be challenged academically. I made a couple of All-American teams while I was there, but that was all I was doing — I was just playing rugby. Truthfully, I started looking first at schools that if I had gone, I would have, again, just been playing rugby and wouldn’t have been challenged as much academically. In December of 2015, I went to the National All-Star Camp, which is a week-long try-out for the U.S. Women’s Rugby National Team. While I was there, one of the teams that I was placed on was coached by [women’s head coach] Katie Dowty. Getting to know her and her coaching philosophy was something that really attracted me to Dartmouth. Even before coming here, my mom really tried to encourage me to apply to Dartmouth, and I was very hesitant at first. A couple of days after the camp, I got in contact with Dowty about transferring. After speaking with her and getting to know the program and the school, I applied. Once I got in, it was a no-brainer. Obviously, Dartmouth was going to give me that academic challenge. The team was on the rise. It had just gone varsity, and the group of recruits that they had coming in were going to prepare it for the next season, and I wanted to help and be a part of it.
Can you describe your training, both in and out of season?
FS: We are in season in the fall and spring, and we practice four or five days a week for about one and a half to two hours outside on our fields or on Memorial [Field]. We will do about an hour or so of video review of the previous weekend’s game, and we will do that on the first day we get back to training. We have two lifts a week in the morning for about an hour. We either play on Saturday or Sunday. The day after a tournament, we have off to rest and do a recovery workout or some sort of thing on our own. That’s in-season. Out-of-season, we lift three times a week for about an hour, then we will practice about four times a week — it’s a little less time consuming. In the summer, we are given a fitness plan that we just need to stick to. There are about three or four lifts a week that we do. On top of that, I also play for a club sevens team. With that, I train about two or three times a week, then we have tournaments on the weekends. Kat Ramage [’19], who is on the team here, also plays on that team during the summer in New York City.
What has been the most challenging aspect of rugby?
FS: A big thing that the national team has been focusing on is mental toughness and your ability to bounce back. I think that’s something I continue to work on whenever something happens to me. Last year was a really big challenge for me because I was injured. In December, I fractured my spine and then in my first game back, in March, I ended up tearing my PCL. I’m still recovering from that now, so this whole year has been challenging in terms of how I decide to bounce back and the way I overcome those injuries and lead my team on the field. Right now, my biggest challenge is mental toughness and still performing at my best even when I’m not feeling my best.
How would you describe the dynamic of the team?
FS: At Dartmouth, we’re still in this transition mode between a club team and a varsity team. We only made varsity two years ago so there are people on the team who joined and played on this team when it was a club team. We are one of only two varsity programs at Dartmouth, the other being rowing, that allows all walk-ons to come and play. That has brought a great deal of diversity to the team. A lot of these members have never played rugby before. At our tournaments, a good amount of those players are starting for us, and about half of our team is made up of walk-ons so I really value the inclusivity that we have on the team in terms of having those open arms to people. What’s nice about rugby is there is a place for any person on the field — we have the forwards, backs, scrumhalfs — they are all different shapes and sizes, and it’s not like many other sports where there is a specific type of person that plays a certain position. We are made up of so many different types of people, and I really value the inclusivity that rugby itself brings as well as the team at Dartmouth. I’ve been a part of so many teams and one of the things that really attracted me to the school was the people on this team and continues to do that. The reason I go to practice every day is to see them and be with them and to play the sport that we all love.
How have you seen the team’s performance improve from the fall?
FS: It’s a little hard to look at the fall versus the spring because in the fall we play a different style of rugby, which is fifteens, and in the spring we play sevens. Fifteens rugby is 15 players versus 15 players with 40-minute halves, and it is a much slower paced game. Sevens rugby is seven versus seven with seven-and-a-half minute halves but on the same sized fields as fifteens. It’s a much faster-paced game, and you’re literally sprinting for 15 minutes. I think back to freshman year Frankie who did not want to run track at all and ends up playing rugby. Yet she finds herself sprinting up and down the field for 15 minutes a game, five games a day at the end of the tournament. I think with rugby I’m a little more motivated. If I don’t run fast enough, someone is going to tackle me and I don’t know, maybe get the ball back. If I have the ball and I can run as fast as I can and not let anyone touch me and I can score, at least there is some sort of celebration.
What can we expect from you and the team going forward?
FS: Constant progression. Three weeks ago, we played in our first sevens tournament of the year. In this tournament, we made it to the semifinal and ended up losing to Harvard [University] — it was pretty bad. They definitely had the upper-hand on us in that game. The week after we played fifteens, and we played a fifteens development game the next weekend and then the weekend after that, which was last weekend, we had the Ivy’s Sevens Championship and in our pool we played Harvard. In that first game, we actually beat them 12-0, which was awesome. We actually played them in the final, and they beat us 10-5, but still there was this constant progression that we’ve been seeing from the team. We play them again on Sunday, and I can’t wait to see what we can do against them.
You were recently named one of four finalists for the Sorensen Award, presented to the top collegiate women’s rugby player in the nation. What does it mean to you to be recognized for you athletic accomplishments? Does it influence your performance in anyway?
FS: That blew my mind. I’ve had friends who have been recognized as top Division I Rugby Player of the Year, and I look up to these girls so much. I remember I was on Facebook a few weeks back and an article had gone out about the top-12 nominees for the Sorenson Award, and I was like, “Alright, let’s go see my friends that are awesome.” I’m scrolling through, and I see my name and I was like, “What?” I hadn’t even been notified, nothing. The way it got cut down to four was that the public had to vote for who they wanted. My team, my friends, my family and everyone started voting. That was cool, but a lot of these players are big-name players that I have played against and have looked up to my entire rugby career, so I was thinking, “I’m not gonna expect much. It was nice just to be named in the top 12.”
I got a notification about a few weeks ago that said that I had been named in the top four and that was just mind-blowing. I know two of the other nominees, Danielle [Walko Siua, Notre Dame College], who is my roommate during the summer — we play summer rugby together, and Ilona [Maher, Quinnipiac University]. We were roommates at Norwich my freshman year. It’s really cool because the group that is being named are players that are up-and-coming, and just to be named, I have no words. I was so excited. The article went out, and my team started instantly sharing it and saying how proud they were — that was awesome.
The Sorensen Award is great — again, I can’t say enough how excited I am about it, but being named the captain of the women’s rugby team I think so far, since coming to this team, has been my biggest accomplishment. I was voted the captain by the team for next year and so for them to have that confidence in me, that means the world. I think more so that has influenced the way I play. It definitely reminds me to keep my cool during games because people are looking up to me.
Anything else you would like to share? Perhaps something most people don’t know or would be surprised to find out about you?
FS: In December 2015, when I started talking to Dowty, I had gone to the National All-Star Camp. While I was there, I actually fractured my spine. I totally did not know. I thought it was some weird muscle spasm, and I remember that I was just like, “I have to keep playing.” It’s a tryout, you’re trying out for the women’s national team, so I was not going to let anything stop me. The trainers there didn’t really know what it was, and it had been at the end of camp so I was like, “It’s fine, I’m just going to keep playing on it.” I ended up leaving camp and going home and then found out it was fractured. A few weeks had gone by, and I had been given a brace to wear and was told I couldn’t do any activities whatsoever — I had to be immobilized at all times. The list of women that made the top-40 pool for the women’s national team went out, and I was on it, and I was actually the youngest player that year to be in the pool. That was probably the coolest thing I’ve done so far in my life: making the pool of players with a fractured spine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.