Maryland's Carmen Farmer has quickly become big hit playing rugby

The Baltimore Sun
Maryland resident Carmen Farmer finding balance between work and trying to make the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carmen Farmer was scaling Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of friends from law school during a seven-day adventure in Tanzania in early 2012 when the discussion turned to staying in shape.

Farmer, who had played college softball about a decade earlier at Virginia Tech, missed competing in team sports. She had tried triathlons, pickup basketball and cycling, but they hadn't filled the void.

Her friend Robyn, who had spent time in Australia, mentioned rugby. Farmer's knowledge of the sport was limited, so she looked into it when she got back to the United States and discovered Severn River, a women's rugby team in Annapolis.

Less than four years later, Farmer, 34, is living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., vying for a spot on the 12-woman roster that will compete in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympics, the first time rugby will be included since 1924.

"If you went back to that girl [on Mount Kilimanjaro], she would've laughed at you and said, 'That's never going to happen,'" said Meredith McAlister, who founded Severn River with a pair of friends.

After Farmer returned from Tanzania, she found that Severn River was a viable, and local, way to reignite her team-sports competitive streak.

"It just felt really right at the time," Farmer said. "I was kicking myself thinking, 'Wow, why didn't I start playing this 10 or 15 years before?' But there just wasn't those opportunities. It's still very much underground. ... It's still really obscure."

Softball was Farmer's sport growing up in Richmond, Va. While she also played volleyball and basketball in high school, the goal was always to earn a softball scholarship. A shortstop, she got a full ride to Virginia Tech.

"When she went to college, I told her: 'You are going to be like the other people, talent-wise,'" her mother, Betty Farmer, said.

But Carmen Farmer continued to excel. She started 225 of a possible 232 games and ranks fifth in career runs scored and second in triples at Virginia Tech.

After her graduation in 2003, Farmer attended law school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and has lived in the state since, working at two firms.

Once Farmer came out to play for Severn River, McAlister knew the team had found a special talent.

"We were like kids in a candy store when she showed up because we knew how good she was going to be," McAlister said.

Farmer got her first chance to play competitively in a scrimmage against Maryland. She remembers it vividly.

"I was terrified," Farmer said. "Up until that point, I hadn't really experienced any of the contact. I mean, I thought I would enjoy it, but you never know until once you actually get it."

Farmer never had broken a bone before starting her rugby career. Shesince has fractured her wrist and broken multiple fingers, but she continues playing the sport at a top level.

Pete Steinberg, coach of the women's rugby 15s national team, discovered Farmer in November 2012 at the Women's Division II Club national championship.

"She was the tallest girl on the pitch and playing on the wing," Steinberg said of the 6-foot-1 Farmer. "She was an unusual combination of height and speed."

He said most women that tall and athletic from the United States pursue volleyball or basketball careers after college. Steinberg approached her about moving to the second row, where her height and speed would help the U.S. team match up with elite countries such as England and France that feature multiple starters her size.

Steinberg invited Farmer to national-team camps, and she made her first appearance for the United States on June11, 2013, against France. Steinberg recalled Farmer making a pair of "unbelievable tackles" in her 20 minutes on the field.

Farmer got her first start the following month, against South Africa. Her presence at the national level continued to grow, and she was invited to participate in the Women's Rugby World Cup last year in France.

"It was really surreal," Farmer said. "You would be walking down the streets in Paris on a day off, and people would recognize you, and that never happens over here."

Since Farmer returned, her focus has transitioned to sevens, the version of the sport played in the Olympics. With seven players instead of the standard 15 on the same-sized field, speed is essential. For that reason, Steinberg said most women Farmer's height can't compete.

But Farmer is quick for her size — she was 15-for-15 on stolen-base attempts with the Hokies — so she brings a unique skill set to the more wide-open format.

"She's a 6-foot-1 woman who doesn't know she is 6 foot 1," Steinberg said.

In June, in Cary, N.C., Farmer helped the United States qualify for the Olympics, with her mother and brother looking on. Now she spends her days training with about 25 others at the Olympic training center.

Most of her teammates are paid to play rugby full time, she said, but Farmer still practices law, working remotely from California for the Queenstown-based Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. She awakens at 5 a.m. PST to work for about three hours before she starts her training.

But what started as a way to stay active in 2012 has turned into a second job. And as she strikes a balance between the two, Farmer's hoping she has to find a way to fit in a trip to Rio next summer.

"She's making a career sacrifice," Steinberg said, "but that's what you have to do if you want to make it to the Olympics."

rbaillargeon@baltsun.com

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