By Gary R. Blockus | Aug. 30, 2017, 1:50 p.m. (ET)
Kelli Smith (C) and Devin Short (R) celebrate after winning "The Next Olympic Hopeful" on July 16, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

Kelli Smith went from long and high jumping at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to playing women’s pro football in the Women’s Football Alliance.

Devin Short ran the gamut of sports from football, baseball and wrestling to volleyball and track. Oh, and he also played clarinet in the marching band.

It was no stretch for either of them, then, to take a shot at rugby — and what a shot they took.

Smith and Short emerged as the winners for rugby in “The Next Olympic Hopeful,” the talent search documentary that aired on NBC Sports Network last week. The show next airs on The Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 30. As winners, the athletes earned a shot to play for the USA Rugby women’s and men’s sevens teams, opening up the door to potentially competing in the Olympic Games. Rugby sevens was added to the Olympic program for the 2016 Games in Rio.

“I’m excited,” said the 5-foot-5 Smith, whose track career continued even after a torn Achilles’ tendon in 2013. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around it. I always felt like I could do more. I always wanted to go to the Olympics, and I always thought it would be in track, and here I am with the chance to be able to do it in rugby.”

Winners on the show also earned spots at national team camps in bobsled, skeleton and track cycling. 

The 25-year-old Smith gravitated from track to women’s tackle football for the Alabama Fire in 2015, playing cornerback and linebacker on defense, and running back on offense. The Fire didn’t field a team the next year, but Smith was recruited to play for the Central Cal War Angels.

She didn’t mind the hitting at all.

“In my mind, my theory is you can’t tackle what you can’t catch, and I try to outrun everyone,” said Smith, who works for the Jefferson County (Ala.) Sherriff’s Office.

Short, just 19, couldn’t believe he won the prize on a realty show that gives the contestants a chance to train with the national teams.

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“I was overwhelmed,” Short, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas, said of being chosen as the men’s winner. “When they told me, I couldn’t talk. I was shaking. Coming back from what happened in college, having to come back home and jump-start everything, this was like redemption for me. I feel I pushed myself to redeem what happened in college, and now I’m going on to bigger and better things.”

While Smith had a learning curve going from football to rugby, Short was already into the sport.

“I played a little my second semester of my senior year in high school with a first-year club,” he said. “We were going to tournaments. I was doing good, learning the sport and doing my best.”

His athleticism showed as he was one of 20 high school players from the western region selected to play for an All-American team in a tournament held in Canada.

Testing for rugby included sprints, the beep test, a yo-yo sprint test and doing sprints with a rugby ball, along with weighted vest pull-ups, squats, suicides and other measurements.

And then they got to hit the rugby pitch, which both co-hosts for “The Next Olympic Hopeful” show — Olympic beach volleyball champion Dain Blanton and NBC’s Carolyn Manno — found fascinating.

“To ask a track athlete — we had someone who was an ice skater — to go onto the pitch and play rugby, the rules are quite complicated,” Manno said.

“The freedom for rugby is kind of cool,” Blanton added.

Short fit right in.

“I was just amazed by the amount of athletic ability the people there had,” he said, “and how big a deal it really was to be there, because ultimately, that’s where the best of the best have been, and I was training there just like them, being in the same place as them.”

Smith didn’t seem to mind her lack of rugby knowledge.

“We learned the fundamental of passing, catching and did a couple of tackling drills on a dummy,” she said. “We scrimmaged rugby, and that was my second time touching a rugby ball ever. I had no clue what was going on when we started, but I caught on fairly quickly.”

And the big plus for the rugby candidates was the presence of mentor Carlin Isles, touted as the fastest rugby player ever, who played for Team USA at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

“He was really cool,” Smith said. “He got us pumped up and motivated. He brings out the fight in you. He gave us pointers and wasn’t shy about telling is what we could do to get better.”

Both Short and Smith are invited to residency camps that begin later this week at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California.

Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.