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It’s been a long time since February, when Mark Bokhoven injured his knee during the USA 7s in Las Vegas, but every day he had a reminder of how much work he had to do, and on what timeline, to get back.

The loss of the big, rangy 7s forward, along with that of Nu’u Punimata, put the Eagles in a difficult position in that tournament, and thereafter as his versatility and knowledge of Al Caravelli’s system were sorely missed.

But as important as the IRB World Series was, and is, the Pan-Am Games is perhaps more important. Bokohven made it back just in time for the recent Pan-Am preparation camp – he was not even named to the pool because Caravelli wasn’t sure he’d be ready – and just in time is good enough for everyone.

A player dedicated to his fitness, Bokhoven has been injured too much in the last few years to be a consistent star for the Eagles 7s team. But now he has to be. Matt Hawkins is still working his way back from injury, and suddenly Bokhoven and Zack Test are the two most experienced forwards trying to make the team.

“I had surgery on February 24, and spent the time until about June rehabbing and getting healthy,” said the Denver Barbarian. “I needed to keep my legs strong for when I could run. And starting in june I was able to run and I just ran more and more and more, getting back into shape.”

The biggest concern was his ability to change direction, and once he could do that, his confidence soared.

“I started with controlled cutting and then by August I could do it fully,” he explained. “You know you think about it when you are going to do it for the first time. I was nervous, but then you go out to play and you just do it and when I was playing, it didn’t cross my mind.”

Bokhoven joined his club in practice in the summer, playing touch and still easing his way back. It wasn’t until he went to Caravelli’s camp in September that he went back into full contact.

Caravelli was very pleased, saying Bokhoven had obviously been working hard to get ready and looked fit and strong. Just in time, too, as his leadership as well as his athleticism will be needed at the Pan-Am Games.

“Being in more of a leadership role is fine for me,” he said. “I have captained at Denver and with the West before. We have other guys with experience, and I think Zack Test is a good leader; Shalom Suniula is a quiet guy off the field but really vocal and a good leader on it. So we’ve got guys. What I’d like to do is take more responsibility with the ball. I would like to attack more, use my speed and fend some guys off before hitting support. That’s something I know I’m capable of doing but I haven’t done it as much for the USA.”

Caravelli feels the same way, having showed Bokhoven film of the 7s prop outflanking defenders for tries – just not often enough.

If he can return to the Eagles with the right kind of fitness and form, and combine all that with confidence, Bokhoven could have a breakout year. And if he does, the Pan-Am Games is the place to start.

“If I get to go to the Pan-Ams I think it will be the highlight of my career,” he said. “I know I will probably be too old for the Olympics in 2016 – we keep joking about who can get on the team support staff to be there. So to be part of the first Olympic-type, multisport event, and I hope win a medal, maybe gold, is a dream come true. When I did my knee I put on my fridge a note showing how many days until the Pan-Am Games. It was motivation for me. Every day I woke up, got ready for my workouts, and looked at that. I know only wanted to be fit; I wanted to be a better rugby player, and I wanted to be part of Team USA, that Olympic team. To be part of that would be unbelievable.”