After qualifying for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games last month, the U.S. rugby sevens squads turn their attention to the Pan American Games in Toronto. All of the games will take place on July 11 and 12.
Men’s rugby sevens made its debut at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Team USA earned bronze. The men are slight favorites in the Pan Am tournament as the highest-ranked team in the field, having finished the 2014-15 Sevens World Series at No. 6, but they will be without four regulars. With fresh faces implemented into the lineup, the men have worked on their chemistry in the weeks since returning from the NACRA Sevens Championships last month in Cary, North Carolina. That work mainly includes a great deal of game-like situations to help everyone get acclimated to playing with one another within the U.S. system.
Perry Baker, who was on the team that won in North Carolina, said the process was not very difficult because they all train together already year-round.
“These are not new guys; they’ve been here, they just haven’t gone on tour with us,” Baker said. “It’s a little different training and practicing than actually going on tours.”
The U.S. men’s program has come a long way in a year, but winning the Pan Am Games would only solidify the Americans’ place in the world. The eight-country field for the tournament includes Canada, which the U.S. team beat in the NACRA final and was ranked No. 9 in the world series standings; Argentina, ranked No. 8 in the standings; and Brazil, which finished 16th in the season.
The Americans received a fortunate draw and avoid their main rivals in their four-team pod for the round-robin phase. The teams will then be matched up by rank within the group to create the quarterfinals matchups.
Despite the easier group, Baker said the trip to North Carolina reminded the players that they must remain focused on the next opponent and stay in the moment.
“It’s all about competing, you can’t take anybody lightly,” Baker said. “We just need to take one game at a time. We don’t want to get caught up in the hoopla of, ‘Can USA do it?’ or ‘The USA is the favorite.’”
Unlike the men, the women will face much steeper competition in Toronto than they faced in North Carolina. At the top of the list is the host, Canada, which is ranked No. 2 in the world this season, followed closely by Brazil, which finished 10th in the recent World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. Team USA was in fifth place.
The women’s tournament includes only six countries that will compete in a round robin. The top two teams will play for the gold medal, while the third and fourth will battle for bronze, and fifth and sixth will play a consolation match for classification purposes.
Coach Ric Suggitt said he is excited for his team to test itself against some of the better teams in the world and build up the toughness required to win a gold medal in Rio, where rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut.
“When you play against the better teams, it inspires you to play better, challenges you to play better and play at a different speed,” he said.
With women’s rugby making its Pan Am Games debut, Toronto will mark a new experience for most of the women’s players, who have never participated in a large, multi-sport event. Kelly Griffin said it would be a test run for the Olympic Games, and the U.S. players will have to remain focused and not let the logistics and scene take them out of their game.
“It’s going to be more exciting because the environment will be much bigger … and there will be more excitement and more electricity,” Griffin said. “It will be really good (for) us to learn how to get some positive energy from that to improve our game, and not be distracted.”
One player who already has experienced the buzz of a multi-sport event is Richelle Stephens. Stephens competed on the U.S. team at last year’s Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, where she was chosen as the U.S. flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony.
The Pan Am Games are an opportunity for the U.S. teams to continue to grow. Both Suggitt and men’s coach Mike Friday are quick to point out how much work is left to be done ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games.
But Griffin said a successful showing in Toronto would breed confidence in the players that their efforts are worthwhile.
“As a U.S. (women’s) team, it’s been awhile since we’ve won a final,” Griffin said. “Winning gold at Pan Am would mean proving to ourselves and proving to everyone else the work we’ve put in has been paying off.”
Josh Walfish is a North Carolina-based freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.