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Years of hard work and sacrifice culminate for more than 20 athletes this week, as final selections for Mike Friday’s Team USA draw near. They’ve been in camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. for a month, and this week the competition has ramped up to include more live game play.
“This week we’re starting to see the results of what they’ve been putting in,” said Friday. “There’s been a lot of rugby going on. It’s moved from being very technically focused and unit specific to now decision making and game understanding and putting context into those changes in habits we’ve tried to instill. We’ve got live scrimmages this week and a lot of live-game orientation, mixed in with conditioning.”
Friday the players will break for five days, enjoying a night out at a San Diego Padres game with the rest of the athletes at the OTC, and this weekend they’ll be told their fate.
The last several weeks have seen dozens of athletes across multiple sports make or miss out on the Games. Earlier this week, the women’s gymnastics team was chosen on live television. After the trials, head coach Marta Karolyi bunkered into a room with her fellow coaches and selectors to pick the five-woman team to go to Brazil. NBC put 12 minutes on the clock, and cut from the nervous faces of the athletes’ parents to the door of the room in which the decisions were being made, and back, until the coaching staff emerged. The team was named, bouquets were waived, tears shed and confetti flew in the air.
Friday’s selections won’t include the pomp and circumstance. He, assistants Chris Brown and Phil Greening, physio Brian Green, video analyst Paul Goulding and the rest of the staff which helped prepare the team will meet privately, away from any lens, and hammer out the squad. They’ll then send out an email to all the players in consideration at a determined time announcing the team internally.
He does it this way for the HSBC World Series, too. Friday likes to let players discover their fate in the comfort of their own homes so they may deal with elation or disappointment in their own way. The following morning he’ll be available for one-on-ones for those who want an explanation. USA Rugby will announce the team externally next week.
Once the selections are cemented, the only way a change can be made is through injury. With more preparation to be had at the OTC and four full-on scrimmages with New Zealand on tap in Florida later this month, there’s still plenty of opportunity for that. Friday will take 16 players to Florida, and likely 14 or 15 to Brazil, but the full group will stay in camp together, helping those selected prepare.
“It will be a selection process like we’ve always done, because ultimately our environment it’s not just about the 12 that go," said Friday. "The 12 are the guys that are given the responsibility and the accountability. But this is a true squad effort.”.
Once Friday sets the 12, he’ll determine if he needs to take two or three players to Brazil as traveling reserves, making sure he has the right replacement for any potentially injured player. Each team is allowed to replace one, and only one, injured player between days of competition.
Peter Tiberio has already been ruled out because of injury, as has Nick Edwards. Kevin Swiryn, Brett Thompson and Matai Leuta are coming off injury and still trying to prove they’re fit. The staff will decide at the end of the week if they’re healthy enough to be considered.
This weekend will either smash dreams or make them come true. Five years ago, Carlin Isles rerouted the course of his whole life to have his name included in that email. Kevin Swiryn came out of retirement for it. Thretton Palamo dropped an overseas contract. Chris Wyles retired from international 15s and is trying to defy the effects of age. Nate Ebner asked Bill Belichik for a leave of absence to make a run at the team. Madison Hughes put off his studies at Dartmouth, and Zack Test has given seven years to this team.
For some, those sacrifices will be rewarded with a spot on the team. Others will have to swallow their disappointment and give a little more.
“There are 25-26 guys that have been emptying the tank for the last six months in order to get us in this position," said Friday. "Yes, the 12 will be given the jersey and the responsibility, and that will leave another 12-14 guys who are disappointed they have not been given that responsibility. But they’ve still got the responsibility to make sure that the 12 are where they need to be. So they’ve almost got a bigger responsibility. They’ve got to be more selfless themselves and give even more. That’s going to be an even bigger ask by me of them.”