In less than a week, Team USA will have a women's rugby team competing at the Olympic Games for the first time ever. The sport returns to the Olympic program later this week for the first time since 1924, though this marks the debut of the sevens version (as opposed to 15-a-side) and the debut for women.
With the moment they have waited seven years for quickly approaching, U.S. women's rugby head coach Richie Walker and team captain Kelly Griffin spoke to members of the media at a press conference on Monday to discuss the growth of their sport, the team's expectations and how they plan to land on the podium.
Kelly, how does it feel now that you're actually in Rio and about to compete in the Olympic Games?
Kelly Griffin: Being here so far has been really amazing. You know, as a kid, you dream of going to the Olympics, and then having the opportunity that rugby is back in the Olympics…just so far it’s been really great. The food’s been really great, we just trained this morning and the field is great, the weather is really amazing and I’m excited to be here and chill with these rugby [players].
Richie, how are the training facilities going and how is everything working so far for the team?
Richie Walker: Ever since we’ve been here, it’s been great. The Brazilian people have been so welcoming and very friendly in helping us with everything we need. Our training facility is awesome. Great fields, great venue, we have locker rooms and great food out there so we’re very thankful to the USOC for putting that on for us. The village has been really good… but we’re just looking forward to [playing] and we’re so grateful and honored to be here.
What do you think are the expectations here for the women and how do you feel about the team?
Griffin: We’re here to play the best rugby that we can possibly play and we’re aiming to get on that medal stand. We’re here at the Olympics to compete and to go for that gold. At the end of the day, you can’t think about the gold; you just have to think about whatever you have to do to execute and play your best.
Walker: They’re doing really, really well. Our women have been through a lot at the Olympic Training Center back in San Diego. We had a brief trip to Florida, and now being here we’ll just fine-tune our game. Our expectations are to be on the podium.
What country do you think will be the toughest to face? And what would it be like to face the Brazilian team?
Griffin: One of the great things about women’s rugby right now is that the game has elevated so much that every game is going to be a tough game. It’s [always] going to be a good match, so it can be really hard to pinpoint one team. In terms of the Brazilian team, we actually played them a lot on the [World Rugby Women's Sevens Series] and they actually came to visit us in Cali and we had some joint scrimmages and practices. They are always very scrappy, but they have really good sportsmanship and every game we play against them is very fun.
Could you talk about Jillion Potter and the role she plays on [the team]?
Walker: It is quite an honor to actually coach Jill. She’s been through a lot, but she has the biggest smile every single day. She trains really, really hard, works really, really hard… she’s just a joy to be around. Being that great presence has made our team stronger and she will help you out in any way that she can. With Jillion, you get someone that’s just passionate about the game, passionate about what she does and passionate about her teammates. So it’s just such an honor to have Jillion on our team.
Could you talk about the exposure that your sport is about to get around the world?
Walker: In the U.S., [rugby] is one of the fastest growing sports. But also, it’s the fastest growing sport as far as women’s sport in the world. So we’re really grateful and thankful for that. What we’re trying to see and to make sure is people that watch a game during this Olympics will see how safe [this sport] is, and to also see how much fun our women our having.
Griffin: For me, I’m really excited for rugby to get more exposure. Mostly because I love rugby so much, and it’s the most fun sport I’ve ever played. I’ve started getting noticed by national team coaches. I’m hoping that by having more people know about rugby, more people will have that experience of, ‘Oh, this game is awesome, I want to do this - I want to play.’
Kelly, hopefully you can become a role model for girls in America getting involved with rugby. Who are your role models within the sport?
Griffin: My role models within the sport of rugby probably are the 1991 World Cup team who won that World Cup. A lot of those women have gone into coaching and other roles in the United States; they’re really inspiring because they had very little support, paid their own way, and they won that first Women’s World Cup. So hopefully we can follow in their footsteps.
What do you see as the integral thing that you need to do in order to be on the podium in Rio?
Griffin: I mean the tangible answer is we need to score more points than the other teams in all of our games. But I think the intangible thing is just to make sure that everyone is playing their role and to just play together as a team.
Walker: You have your top teams, but even they can be beat and sevens is such a quick sport. If you get behind really, really quickly, it’s hard to come back. Our girls know that if they all play together and enjoy themselves out there, and are on the same page, they can be on that podium in a heart beat.