"Ready For Rio" is a five-part feature series celebrating Team USA's top athletes and storylines in commemoration of the two-year countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The fourth part in the series covers the newcomers, those athletes looking to be part of their sport's historic reemergence on the Olympic program.
Zack Test hadn’t ever thought about competing in the Olympic Games.
The former University of Oregon wide receiver took up rugby in high school because it was great for offseason conditioning. Plus, it was a blast.
When he made USA Rugby’s Eagles Sevens team in 2008, he was excited to represent his country in international play, help raise the sport to a new level here and, he hoped, win some world cup tournaments and eventually a world championship.
“I thought rugby would take me, maybe not to the Olympics, but to some other countries around the world to play,” he said.
But when the International Olympic Committee voted in 2009 to add rugby sevens and golf to the Olympic program beginning in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, the sport suddenly took on a whole new significance for Test, who ranks No. 1 in U.S. sevens history with 44 international tournaments played and 98 tries, yet is only 24.
“It’s ‘The Games,’ you know,” he said. “Everyone can say, ‘Oh, this is world cup, this is the world championships.’ But the Olympic Games is The Games. … People write history books about Olympic athletes.”
Test is just one of many men and women rugby players and golfers who suddenly were given a path to the Olympic Games where none existed before.
The U.S. men’s and women’s rugby teams aren’t guaranteed a ticket to Rio. They still must qualify over the next year and a half. And the lineup of American golfers — likely to be four men and four women — won’t be determined until July of 2016.
But with two years to go before rugby and golf make their returns to the Olympic Games (15-a-side rugby was played in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, and golf in 1900 and 1904), what are the U.S. prospects in those sports? And who are some of the athletes in line to participate?
Men’s Rugby Sevens
Test certainly should be at the heart of the U.S. effort to qualify and play in Rio.
His combination of size (6-foot-4, 195 pounds), speed and football moves makes him a dangerous player in the open field, which is key in the smaller seven-a-side game. And he has plenty of experience. He began playing as a freshman in high school in Woodside, California, and played for the U.S. Under-20 team before joining the senior national team in 2008.
In 2011, he helped the United States win the bronze medal at the Pan American Games and was named Rugby Magazine’s Sevens Player of the Year for 2013. In the 2013-14 season Test led the U.S. team in tries (23) as the Americans finished 13th in the HSBC Sevens World Series standings.
“I can make people miss one-on-one or two-on-one,” he said. “I have very good feet under me and I know how to finish.”
Earlier this year, British broadcaster Nigel Starmer-Smith singled out Test as one of the top sevens players in the world and “a rare rugby jewel in America’s crown.”
“The best player in the U.S. squad by quite some distance is this man, Zack Test,” Starmer-Smith wrote for IRBsevens.com. He went on to write that Test “has fantastic game awareness, a rugby brain and will run and run.”
Test, however, would prefer to talk about his teammates and what he believes is a program on the rise under new coach Mike Friday and assistant Chris Brown. Now at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, with his team to prepare for the upcoming season, Test believes the United States can qualify for Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m very confident,” Test said. “I’ve seen this team place second in a tournament and place last in a tournament, and I know we have the potential to place second or first every tournament. We just have to all do it together and realize that final dream. I couldn’t have more confidence in what we’re about to do.”
To qualify for the Games, the United States must finish in the top four of the 2014-15 IRB Sevens World Series. But if the Americans fall short, they can also qualify by winning the 2015 IRB North America and the Caribbean (NACRA) Regional championship or a following final 16-team Olympic qualification tournament.
Among other U.S. players to watch heading toward the 2016 Games:
Nick Edwards: The veteran has twice led the team in season tries, with 20 in 2012-13 and 17 in 2009-10. The 27-year-old winger, originally from Australia, has served as team captain and been on the national team since 2009. Edwards is a strong two-way player, evasive and fast with the ball and tough defensively. “He’s going to make you pay for coming his way,” said Test.
Carlin Isles: The former track star and college football player (Ashland) is known as the fastest man in rugby and is a constant threat to score, especially in rugby sevens’ wide-open field. He’s scored 27 tries in 14 tournaments for the United States since taking up rugby in 2012. “He’s got jet shoes, man,” Test said. “He’s so fast.” Isles played this year for the 15-a-side Glasgow Warriors in Scotland.
Danny Barrett: The 6-foot-2, 225-pound prop from the University of California at Berkeley is a hard-hitting player with quick feet. At 24, he’s already been playing the game 10 years. In 2013, he scored a try to help a team of U.S. collegiate stars beat a team of New Zealand college players on a tour of that country.
Women’s Rugby Sevens
The U.S. women have the same qualification system as the men, but have historically placed higher in the Sevens World Series. Just two years ago, in fact, the U.S. team finished third. If it can repeat that, the team would automatically qualify for Rio without having to go through the NACRA or final Olympic qualifiers.
But after finishing third two seasons ago, the program has tried to boost itself even higher with an influx of new talent, seeking out gifted athletes from other sports to add to the players already on the national team.
“We took a really good look at where we were and then, basically, it came down to … do we have the right personnel to win the gold medal in 2016?,” said U.S. sevens coach Ric Suggitt. “And we felt we needed to make some changes so we did a complete overhaul.”
The Americans finished seventh in the World Series last year, but Suggitt believes it was just transitional growing pains.
“You have to give up something to get something, and that’s what we did last year,” he said.
Among the newer players in the program are 2014 bobsled silver medalist Elana Meyers-Taylor, former University of Wisconsin two-sport standout Alev Kelter (soccer and hockey) and Jessica Javelet, a former Louisville and U.S. national team field hockey player.
Now, says Suggitt, the program is filled with successful athletes.
Among the players to watch:
Kelly Griffin: The former UCLA rugby standout, 27, is an all-around talent who first played for the U.S. U-23 team in 2006 and was an All-American for the Bruins in 2007 and 2008. Suggitt says she’s a smart player and a leader. “She’s a diligent worker,” Suggitt said. “You get the people who can score the tries, right? For me, with Kelly, she’s the workhorse. She’s the one grinding.”
Jessica Javelet: She has limited experience in rugby, but her talent impressed Suggitt immediately. She scored three tries in one game vs. England, and Suggit says her scoring ability is excellent: “She has that sort of speed, that game sense, so she’s one that you will constantly see on the score sheet.”
Hannah Lopez: The 22-year-old wing/full-back comes from the San Diego Surfers Rugby Club and currently is playing in New Zealand. She made her debut with the national team this past season. “She’s just a very cagey, very fluid player and a great communicator,” said Suggitt.
When the IOC in 2009 approved golf for the Olympic Games, British bookmaker William Hill immediately made Tiger Woods the favorite to win the gold medal (6-1 odds). And Woods said he would look forward to playing at Rio.
“There are millions of young golfers worldwide who would be proud to represent their country,” he told reporters. “It would be an honor for anyone who plays this game to become an Olympian.”
But much has changed in the five years since, and there could be equally big changes in the two years remaining.
Woods, ranked No. 1 in the world in 2009, is now No. 10, and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy — No. 9 in 2009 — is at the top.
What matters, though, is where Woods — and other American men and women professionals — are on July 11, 2016, in the International Golf Federation rankings.
The United States will get to send the maximum four men and four women to the Games if it has four players in the top 15 of the IGF rankings, as it does now, says Andy Levinson, executive director of USA Golf.
If the roster were to be set today, the four men would be Matt Kuchar (No. 6), Bubba Watson (No. 7), Jim Furyk (No. 8) and Woods (No. 10).
The women’s team would consist of Stacy Lewis (No. 1), Lexi Thompson (No. 5), Michelle Wie (No. 6) and Christie Kerr (No. 10).
The Olympic tournament will consist of four 18-hole rounds (72 holes).Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.