Fourteen-year-old Nia Tolliver is only a freshman in high school, but already shows speed, strength and endurance worthy of competing in the Olympics for rugby someday, her coach Stuart Krohn said.
“She’s a phenom. She’s our fastest, strongest girl,” said Krohn, director of the Inner City Education Foundation’s rugby program. “She’s also a scholar.”
Tolliver is one of about 200 students who play competitive rugby for ICEF Public Schools, a K-12 charter school system centered in South Los Angeles that seeks to prepare students to attend top colleges and universities.
"That’s how she expresses herself ... through rugby," Krohn said of the View Park Prep Accelerated Charter High School student. “You just can’t keep her off the field.”
Tolliver and 19 other ICEF Rugby players are scheduled to compete in the Hong Kong International Youth Sevens tournament, which attracts hundreds of teams to China from around the globe. The 10 boys and 10 girls on the trip are competing in the U-18 varsity division of the tournament from March 22 to 24.
Although the trip is ICEF’s first time visiting Asia, the rugby program has traveled overseas for competitions since 2006, playing in countries such as New Zealand and South Africa.
Students must apply for the program, now in its 10th year. Players are selected to travel after submitting a letter of intent, along with grades and teacher recommendations.
“They have to be doing their best with everything and just show exceptional character as well,” Krohn said.
In addition to sport, ICEF’s rugby program focuses on building character and developing the students into leaders, allowing the students to positively represent South Los Angeles, a community plagued by negative stereotypes of crime and violence, Krohn said.
“You think you’re taking these kids around the world to change their own hearts and mind, but they end up being ambassadors for change,” Krohn said. “The most powerful thing is always that everybody else’s view changes of South L.A."
During this year’s weeklong trip to China, the students have planned to stay with Chinese families and visit Shanghai and Beijing, meeting other student as well.
The program began with a grant from the LA84 Foundation, a non-profit institution that uses surplus funds from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games to develop youth sports programs.
Grants, fundraisers and snack bar sales have continued to help fund ICEF Rugby, which reaches more than 4,000 students each year through physical education and after-school programs.
Krohn called the program's growth and success in the past decade "a dream come true."
He hopes the program can soon establish an endowment and obtain its own field. The team now practices at Jesse Owens Community Regional Park and plays games at the Jackie Robinson Stadium in South LA.
As for bigger dreams, Krohn hopes to prepare some players to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.