Zack Test hadn’t ever thought about competing in the Olympic Games.
The former Oregon Ducks wide receiver took up rugby in high school because it was great for offseason conditioning. Plus, it was a blast.
When he made the USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Sevens team in 2008, he was excited to represent his country in international play, help raise the sport to a new level in the U.S. and, he hoped, win some international 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. history with 121 tries and 611 points in the HSBC Sevens World Series, yet is only 25.
“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 have come on strong in recent years and recently qualified to compete in Rio. The lineup of American golfers — likely to be four men and four women — won’t be determined until July 2016, just before the Games.
But with a year to go before rugby and golf make their returns to the Games — 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 has been 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. 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 U.S. team win the bronze medal at the Pan American Games and Rugby Magazine named him Sevens Player of the Year for 2013. In the 2013-14 season Test led the U.S. team in tries (23) as the squad finished 13th in the HSBC Sevens World Series standings. In 2014-15 he again had 23 tries, but finished behind teammates Carlin Isles (32), Perry Baker (28) and Madison Hughes (24) as the U.S. team climbed to sixth.
“I can make people miss one-on-one or two-on-one,” Test said. “I have very good feet under me, and I know how to finish.”
In 2014, 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 coach Mike Friday and assistant Chris Brown. It’s based at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, as is the women’s program.
“I know we have the potential to place second or first every tournament,” he said. “We just have to all do it together.”
Test was on the 12-man roster in June when the United States clinched its berth in the Olympic Games with a 21-5 victory over Canada in the championship game of the NACRA Sevens Championships in Cary, North Carolina. Baker, Danny Barrett and Maka Unufe all scored first-half tries, with captain Madison Hughes converting after each, in the victory.
“They’ve grown as rugby players over the last 10 months,” Friday said after the victory. “It wasn’t easy for them, but I’m immensely proud of them right now.”
The U.S. team also won the bronze medal at the recent Pan American Games in Toronto, downing Uruguay 40-12 in its final game.
The United States joins powers Fiji, South Africa, England and New Zealand, plus Argentina and Brazil, as nations to already have qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament.
Among the top American players to watch heading toward the Games:
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 got jet shoes, man,” said Test. “He’s so fast.”
Danny Barrett: The 6-foot-2, 225-pound prop from Cal is a hard-hitting player with quick feet. At 25, he’s already been playing the game 11 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 qualified for Rio on the same day in the same tournament as the U.S. men, defeating Mexico 88-0 in the final. In the six matches of the tournament, the American women outscored their foes 369-5.
“The really satisfying thing is that we’re now qualified to go to Rio, which was the plan at the start of the year,” said U.S. coach Ric Suggitt. “We knew we were the favorites (in the tournament), but you never take anyone lightly in any sport. We came here, we stayed disciplined and we played very good rugby. We moved the ball well, we attacked the outside edges really well and we used our fitness.”
The U.S. finished tied for fourth with England this year in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. Fourth place would have earned an automatic trip to the Olympic Games, but England held a tiebreaker, forcing the Americans to qualify through the NACRA tournament.
Later, in July, the U.S. women won the silver medal at the Pan Am Games, losing to Canada 55-7 in the final.
In recent seasons, the U.S. program has brought in a wave 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?” Suggitt said. “And we felt we needed to make some changes, so we did a complete overhaul.”
The strategy has worked. Among the newer players in the program are 2010 Olympic bobsledder Emily Azevedo and former Wisconsin two-sport standout Alev Kelter (soccer and hockey). Now, Suggitt said, the program is filled with successful athletes.
Among the players to watch:
Kelly Griffin: The former UCLA rugby standout, 28, is an all-around talent who first played for the U.S. Under-23 team in 2006 and was All-American for the Bruins in 2007 and 2008. Suggitt said 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.”
Victoria Folayan: The former Stanford standout, 30, who has both speed and power, led the U.S. team in tries with 32 and points (160) during this year’s Women’s Sevens Series.
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 six years since, and there could be equally big changes in the year remaining.
Woods, ranked No. 1 in the world in 2009, is now No. 286, having plummeted from No. 10 a year ago. American Jordan Spieth, winner of both the Masters and U.S. Open this year, is No. 1.
What matters, though, is where American men and women professional golfers stand in the Olympic Golf Rankings on July 11, 2016.
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.
If the roster were to be set today, the four men would be Spieth (No. 1), Bubba Watson (No. 4), Jim Furyk (No. 6) and Dustin Johnson (No. 7).
The women’s team would consist of Stacy Lewis (No. 3), Lexi Thompson (No. 8), Brittany Lincicome (No. 11) and Cristie Kerr (No. 12).
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.