When Richelle Stephens made her debut with the U.S. women’s rugby sevens national team this year, she had every reason to be nervous.
There she was, an 18-year-old barely graduated from high school, starting for the Women’s Eagles Sevens at fly half in the first game of the NACRA Sevens Championship against Jamaica on June 13.
“I was kind of shocked,” she recalled. “I was like, OK, I’m going in. Here we go!”
But Stephens, from Fallbrook, California, quickly showed she belonged. Playing every minute of all six games in the tournament, Stephens played well at a crucial playmaking position, making correct decisions and strong passes offensively to set up her teammates for scores as the Eagles went 6-0, didn’t give up a point and earned a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut.
Her transition proved to be seamless, thanks to her skills and her teammates. Though she was the youngster on the field, none of them treated her as such.
“Everybody’s super supportive, and so it’s like whatever decision you make is the right decision, just do it 100 percent and we’ll back you,” Stephens said. “It’s very welcoming. … I came on, I’m this kid and everyone knows I’m a kid and don’t have a bunch of experience at a super-high level, and everyone had open arms. That helped a lot.”
Ric Suggitt, the U.S. team’s coach at the time of Stephens’ debut, said Stephens earned her opportunity. He praised her field sense and rugby IQ and the things she’d done in youth rugby and for the U.S. team at the Youth Olympic Games in China in 2014. He predicted big things for her.
“She’s been coming out to the (U.S. Olympic) Training Center since she was 15 years old and has been performing quite well at all of the camps,” he said. “She has really good vision, a good pass, she’s a good kicker and a great tackler.”
Shortly after NACRA Championship, Stephens picked up more valuable experience at the Pan American Games in Toronto, where the Eagles went 4-2, losing only to Canada (twice), including in the gold-medal match.
Losing wasn’t pleasant, but to Stephens getting the chance to face Canada — one of the world’s top teams — was educational. She calls it her “first big-girl game.” The Canadians showed they were superior, but Stephens said it’s a level the Americans can reach.
“I was like super nervous, crazy nervous, and we got out there and the hits were really hard and they were a really good team but, oh my gosh, we can do this,” she said. “It was like a turning point for me.”
The matchups with Canada inspired her to work even harder to help make herself and the Eagles better by the time of the Olympic Games.
On To A New Season
Stephens, 19, is now a resident athlete at the Chula Vista, California, Olympic Training Center and taking online classes from Lindenwood University in Missouri, where she eventually hopes to play on a rugby scholarship. As 2015 winds to a close, she is part of the U.S. 25-player roster of new national coach Jules McCoy.
The women will kick off their 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series on Thursday at the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament.
Stephens is looking forward to the season as an opportunity for the U.S. team to get sharper for the Games and for her to improve her game. She wants to become more patient on defense — staying in control while in pursuit — and work better off the ball on offense and defense.
McCoy will select 12 players for the Olympic squad, and Stephens is hoping to make the cut.
“I’m just trying to gain as much experience as I can and trying to become a player that is necessary, do things that are really needed on the team,” Stephens said.
If she eventually is selected, Rio would be her second Olympic experience. She was on the U.S. team at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, that finished fourth.
She called that a “mind-blowing” adventure, from getting her uniform shipped to her home (“It’s like Christmas”), to the games through the Closing Ceremony, when she was selected as the U.S. flag bearer. Carrying the flag, she said, was “pretty incredible.”
But it was her time on the field in China, against the top players in the world in her age group that stoked her desire to play for the Eagles Sevens national team.
“I think that’s what helped me find the confidence in myself,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ The competition was hard, but it wasn’t impossible. It kind of fueled the fire, like, ‘I’m going for it.’”
Stephens first played rugby when she was 14, when a friend invited her to go to rugby tryouts with her in Fallbrook. Though her friend never showed up, Stephens immediately was hooked by everything the game offers. Eventually she got her twin brother, Rickey, hooked as well.
Now, rugby may take her to the Olympics.
“I’ve got to hope and hope, but I’ve got to do,” she says of the upcoming season. “I’ve got to perform.”
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.