In A League of Their Own
Three South Shore women have what it takes to dominate in skateboarding, swimming and soccer.
Photo by Michael Cirelli
There’s never been an easy time to be a female athlete but, these days, some of the most talented young women in sports are breaking new ground and busting open the gender barriers right here on the South Shore. Meet skateboarder Nora Vasconcellos, swimmer Colleen O’Neil, and soccer player Nicole “Niki” Cross. Three names well worth remembering.
While these women are exceptional and unique in their own ways, all three share the essential qualities of great athletes: courage, determination, perseverance, and commitment. They are driven to excel, to push themselves beyond every limitation to accomplish their goals and realize their dreams.
As Cross, who now plays at the professional level, puts it: “You have to work hard. Don’t think you can just get by with the grace of athleticism. While you’re sitting around, someone else is working and getting better.”
It’s a sentiment that Vasconcellos and O’Neil also embrace, and it’s taken all three athletes to the top of their games.
A decade ago, Nora Vasconcellos clambered onto a skateboard for the first time, hoping to follow in the fleet-footed steps of her childhood idol, a cartoon skater girl named Reggie (Regina) Rocket. Before she became old enough to care what the boys thought of her skateboarding, she was already skating circles—and figure-eights—around most of them.
Now, at the age of 18, the Pembroke High School graduate is one of the few competitive skateboarders in the Northeast and the top-ranked female in New England. She has competed in such high-profile national events as The X Games, where she placed sixth, the Dew Tour World Championships (fifth place), and the Skateboarding World Cup (second place). She had her sights set on the 2012 Olympics, but skateboarding has not been included as an official Olympic event.
Still, she continues to perfect her skills. At the Hingham skate park, Vasconcellos draws an appreciative crowd of onlookers, all of them teenage boys ranging from beginners to seasoned skateboarders. The nearest women are the soccer moms cheering on their children at the adjacent Carlson Fields.
Without hesitation, and showing no signs of fear, Vasconcellos positions her board on the lip of the mammoth concrete basin, holding it in place with one foot. Turning sideways, she plants her other foot on the front of the board and leans forward, taking control of her own gravity and driving her board 10 feet downward into the bowl. The rumble of her wheels reverberates as she zips around and then up over the edge, hovering in mid-air before slapping the board back onto the sloping wall and plunging downward and around again, picking up even more momentum.
When she finally pauses after several more revolutions, her expression of concentration breaks into one of pure joy, as the exhilaration of what she’s just done seems to catch up to her.
“I have always liked when a skateboarder makes it look effortless,” says the self-taught skateboarder. “I try to skate fluidly, almost as if I am surfing.”
Surfing may, in fact, be the key to her unwavering grace and poise on the skateboard. Growing up on the South Shore, Vasconcellos spent many summers surfing and has even competed in tournaments. In 2008, she took first place in the junior women’s shortboard competition at the Northeast Regional Surfing Championships.
“I find surfing more difficult because the waves are an unpredictable variable,” she explains. “In skateboarding, the bowl never changes. You can count on it, and know that it will be there under your wheels when you come back down. Of course, if you mess up, the landing can be a lot harder than falling off your surfboard in the water.”
Vasconcellos might never have taken the plunge into competitive skateboarding if not for the encouragement of the late Bob Pollard, who opened Levitate Surf and Skate, a shop in Marshfield center that has since been renamed Luminate.
“Because skateboarding is relatively new as a competitive sport, there just weren’t a lot of people to talk to about it when I was getting started,” she recalls. “He was really enthusiastic and supportive about my skating and surfing and would talk to me for as long as I wanted to.”
Similarly, Vasconcellos now gives her time and expertise freely to beginning skaters, some which are as young as 8 years old. “It’s really fun. We all watch each other and develop our own styles. That’s one of the things I really like about skateboarding: there’s really no wrong way to do it.”
The water in the lap pool at The Weymouth Club churns with swimmers: 24 teens propelled by the power of their own fluidity. In each lane, they form a seamless succession of arcing arms and flutter-kicking feet, flowing from one end of the pool to the other.
Among the steady stream of swimmers is Colleen O’Neil, a 16-year-old Abington native, who slices through the water at such astounding speed that it’s nearly impossible to track her. After a somersault turn at the wall, she pushes off and becomes quickly immersed in the froth of her own rapid rhythm. Within seconds, she’s already halfway across the pool. And this is just the warm-up.
O’Neil, who learned to swim as a kindergartner, joined the regional Weymouth Waves swim team, which practices at The Weymouth Club, at age 11. Now a junior at Abington High School, she’s one of the fastest female swimmers on the South Shore, as well as the entire New England region.
Over the course of a single year, O’Neil managed to skim 12 seconds off her personal best time.
“She’s made a quantum leap in a short period of time,” marvels Weymouth Waves Head Coach Marshall Goldman. “It’s been an amazing year for her.”
Goldman, who is also the Aquatics Director at The Weymouth Club, has seen this breakneck pace of progress only a handful of times before, and those were swimmers with Olympic aspirations. Now, O’Neil is one of them.
Her ticket to the Olympic Games is the 200-yard Individual Medley (200 IM), a race that consists of four swim styles—butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle—over four consecutive pool-lengths.
In July, she swam the 200 IM during the New England Championships at Harvard University and qualified for the 2012 Team USA Olympic Trials with a time of 2:19.42, which is just under the Olympic standard of 2:19.49. That same race landed her a spot in the record books: she broke the New England 18-and-under record of 2:20.02, set by Olympian Elizabeth Beisel in 2008.
Ironically, O’Neil’s success has happened so fast that she hasn’t quite absorbed the reality that she has a shot at becoming an Olympian herself.
“I knew my time had improved, but I didn’t expect to break the New England record and qualify for the Olympic trials,” she reflects.
Coach Marshall credits O’Neil’s winning performance to her relentless work ethic. “Colleen has met every goal we’ve set. I keep having to raise the bar, and she keeps rising to the occasion.”
She never misses a practice—and there are eight over the course of six days, every week. In addition to laps in the pool, she and her teammates perform dry-land drills, as well as cross-training and strength-building exercises in The Weymouth Club’s fitness center. In her spare time, she helps coach the younger swimmers on the Ripples team.
In preparation for the Olympic trials in June, when she and her coach will travel to Omaha, Nebraska, O’Neil has been competing in national-level events, including the USA Swimming 2011 Speedo Junior Nationals Championships at the University of Austin, Texas, in December. She placed first in her heat with a time of 2:01.38. In addition, she’s been named to the USA Swimming Scholastic All-American Team for combined academic and athletic excellence.
“I really enjoy competing, and I’m going to try not to get nervous about the Olympic trials,” O’Neil says. “I’m going to keep working hard and keep trying to get better.”
For professional soccer player Nicole “Niki” Cross, the timing couldn’t have been better to pursue her particular career path.
“I realize how fortunate I am to have this opportunity. Women in the generations before me never had the option to play soccer for a living,” says Cross, who most recently played for the Boston Breakers.
Growing up in Pembroke, soccer became something of a family tradition. As Cross, her sister, and two brothers joined the local youth teams, their parents also took an interest in the sport, eventually becoming coaches in town. At the age of 5, she joined a coed team with her brother Matthew, who also pursued a professional soccer career and, later, played on the New England Revolution reserves team. Throughout elementary and intermediate school, she played soccer in both the fall and spring seasons. At Notre Dame Academy, where she attended high school, she made the varsity team all four years. Though she’s played multiple positions over the years, she typically takes the field as a midfield defender.
As Cross kicked up her game, notch by notch, women’s soccer continued its rise to prominence. Its big break came in 1991, when the U.S. women’s team won the first-ever women’s World Cup championship. The popularity of women’s soccer continued to soar as the U.S. team scored the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal and another World Cup title in 1999.
In 2003, the Boston Globe named Cross the Division 1 Player of the Year and she won the Boston Sports Award for Female Athlete of the Year.
“I saw the importance of what soccer could do—it got me to college on full scholarship and now I’m a professional player,” Cross observes. “Some people sit at a desk in an office; I get to play soccer all day.”
During her freshman year at the University of Connecticut, she scored a goal and made two assists in the NCAA Quarterfinal, as she helped lead her team to the championships. That same year, she was honored as a Soccer America Freshman All-American. Throughout her collegiate career, she played 92 games, scoring 13 goals and making eight assists.
As a professional, she’s been drafted to both local and international teams, including the Boston Breakers, St. Louis Athletica, Umea Sodra in Sweden, and Newcastle Jets in Australia. Most recently, she traveled to Norway and Germany to explore playing internationally again.
“I’ve traveled to more countries in one year than most people do in a lifetime. I’ve been very lucky,” she notes.
She’s also enjoyed the opportunity to coach aspiring young players, through soccer clinics and camps, and to help promote the future of women’s soccer.
Even though it’s her job to play soccer, Cross, now 26, never passes up an opportunity to play—even in her spare time. When she returns home from her travels, she can often be found teaming up with family and friends.
“Playing in a game is the most exciting thing, whether it’s with my mom or a championship game,” she says. “That rush you get from the competitiveness of playing in a game is incomparable.”
As with any career, there are occasional drawbacks: physical stress and pain; increased potential for injury; exhausting travel schedules; being away from family and friends. “Last year, I missed Christmas with my family. I was in Australia and it was 90 degrees out.”
Still, Cross made the best of it: “Instead of making snow angels, I went to the beach and made sand angels.”