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That. Just. Happened. After sweeping the North American Caribbean Rugby Association Championships, both the men's and women's national teams will be representing the United States in the 2016 Olympic Games, defending the back-to-back gold medals won by the USA men in Belgium in 1920 and France in 1924.
It’s hard to put this moment into historical context, but I think it’s fair to say it’s the greatest accomplishment in the history of American rugby. Yes, back-to-back Gold Medals in the roaring ‘20s are pretty tough to top, but the ’20 Games had just two teams competing and ’24 just three. For the women, the 1991 World Cup will never be forgotten, but the modern Olympic Games are the sporting world’s greatest spectacle, and both programs have overcome threatening trials and tribulations to make qualification a reality.
On the women’s side, coach Ric Suggitt made the radical decision to churn his player pool and start practically anew following a fourth-place finish at the inaugural Women’s 7s World Series. It came with a lot of heat, as crossover projects and new names filled jerseys during a rebuilding 2013/2014 season which saw the Eagles plummet all the way to seventh.
This season started off slow, too, with sixth- and seventh-place finishes in Dubai and Brazil, and critics climbed out of the woodworks. When the most dazzling athlete, Jessica Javelet, and a former locked-in starter and captain, Amelia Villines, left the team mid-season, the questions being asked of Suggitt’s leadership grew in numbers and volume.
However, critics were muffled as the Eagles came within a point of finishing fourth on the Series and becoming one of the first four nations to qualify for Rio, losing 15-14 to England in the Cup Consolation at Amsterdam 7s.
Suggitt made the decision to shake things up in 2013 because he didn't want a team that could just qualify for and medal in Rio. He wanted a team that could beat the best in the world and maybe win Gold in Brazil. In Amsterdam, he had one, as the Eagles beat Series champs New Zealand 34-5. Just a couple of months earlier the same Black Ferns had beaten the Eagles 57-0. Any remaining murmurs after Amsterdam were silenced in North Carolina on the weekend, as the women looked invincible en route an 88-0 defeat of Mexico in the final.
It’s been a multi-year slog through highs, and mostly lows, for the men’s team, too. Since it was announced in 2009 that 7s would be joining the Olympic program, the men have gone through four coaches, three of whom have stood watch for just a year.
Alex Magleby worked wonders in the 2012/2013 season, his first and only full campaign as head coach, helping the Eagles to previously unreached heights. His departure and the hiring of player/coach Matt Hawkins saw the USA backslide the next year, and a mass player exodus was avoided by the hiring of Mike Friday.
Still holding onto his job with the London Scottish and retaining residence in London, Friday left America’s rugby public wondering if the man who had turned Kenya into a credible contender and led England to successful seasons was commited to the job. He also threw out previously held beliefs that players needed to reside at the Olympic Training Center to be involved, brought in Chris Brown to train those at the OTC on a full-time basis, folded in longtime confidant Phil Greening and was blessed with the re-engaging of Magleby in a role akin to that of an NFL general manager.
Friday led the Eagles to their best ever season, by some distance, and the USA’s first-ever Cup win on the World Series. He helped the likes of Carlin Isles, Maka Unufe and Perry Baker unlock their talents. He picked the college kid with an accent who lived 3,000 miles from the OTC as his captain, and it all paid big dividends.
This journey has been a long one for everyone involved but longest for the players. Maka Unufe had a full-time contract, gave it up, and returned to be a revelation.
Carlin Isles skipped the chance to sprint at the 2012 Olympic Trials to pursue a new sport in rugby. He’s come a long way from being that fast kid wearing a headband in Aspen, gaining fame but eventually falling out of favor and growing disenfranchised, to deliver a very substantial defensive performance in Sunday’s final.
Garrett Bender and Nate Augspurger, two kids who grew up playing on the same club team no one had heard of in South Minneapolis (nearly leading it to a national championship), ended up teammates on the Eagles and qualifying for the Olympics. Both endured significant injuries and were in and out of OTC contracts the last few years.
While his former teammates were getting overseas looks or moving on from the unsure, often thankless world of high performance rugby entirely, Zack Test never gave up on his Olympic Dream, becoming the nation’s all-time try leader. For a few years he was the only guy who could consistently make something from nothing for the USA, and this weekend he returned from a nasty ankle sprain to come off the bench and help deliver a win over a team he’d struggled against most of his career in Canada.
The great story lines are abound, and they don’t stop with the players. People like Brian Green, Sarah Sall and Paul Golding, and many others, have been there all along as members of the support staff.
USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville, often a lightning rod for complaints running the entire gamut but especially those questioning the high performance plan for the national teams, has overseen a massive boom in rugby’s participation, record-shattering crowds and now Olympic qualification for the women AND men.
Former players and coaches and managers and liaisons and trainers should be grinning, too, for it’s on the backs of your efforts the current teams stand. Sunday’s qualification is a win for all of American rugby. (By the way, what an incredible inspiration has Jill Potter been?)
We’re a unique community here, and American rugby isn’t without its many flaws, disagreements and even lawsuits, but there’s at least one thing you can’t take away from us – we’re all passionate about our Eagles.
We get up at absurd hours of the morning to watch them play in Dubai and Wellington, we purchase ads on the Jumbotron in Hong Kong to tell the team to pass the ball (I’m looking at you Bill Gardner), we create development teams and pathways when we don’t see them elsewhere (Tiger, Atlantis, APRTC, Atavus, Northeast Academy), we invest millions to popularize and lend credibility to the sport (thanks Jon Prusmack), and we find every possible way to distort the American flag into wearable clothing in which we cheer on the Eagles at events in Las Vegas or Paris or even Cary, N.C.
Enjoy this great victory and watershed moment, American rugby, it’s been six years in the making, and in many ways much, much longer. In 417 days, we get to show off our teams for the whole world, and for the first time ever that includes the United States, to see.