Ben Pinkelman began playing rugby at age 14 and later earned All-America honors three times competing for Colorado State University. He made his World Rugby Sevens Series debut in 2016, just months before being selected to compete at the Olympic debut of rugby sevens, and has been a mainstay on the squad ever since. Last year he was part of the nation’s best-ever Rugby World Cup Sevens performance, placing sixth. In his TeamUSA.org blog, Pinkelman provides a behind-the-scenes look at Team USA’s record-breaking 2018-19 season, which included Olympic qualification, seven medals and a best-ever season ranking of second.
The U.S. men’s national team in rugby sevens just finished its best season of all time. We finished in second place in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series by winning seven medals, and that was good enough for us to automatically qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games along with the other top four teams.
It hasn’t been long since our last match in Paris, but I think I will always look back on this season with a lot of pride and joy. At the same time, I will feel disappointment and sadness with the opportunity that we let slip.
The year had a lot of personal struggles, but I ended up on one of the best journeys of my life; and in the last two weeks we won Olympic qualification and lost the world series title. We came into this season with two goals. The first goal was laid out in the locker room after we had just taken a beating at the hands of Argentina in front of our family, friends and fans at our home World Cup in San Francisco last summer. We lost in the quarterfinals a day earlier in extra time to England and, overall, it had been a rough weekend.
After that final loss I sat with my head down in the corner of the locker room feeling sorry for myself – worried about the back injury I picked up right before the tournament that kept me from performing my best and moping about not getting the results I knew we were capable of. All was quiet when Folau Niua spoke up and said, “We can win the world series next season.” We had never finished higher than fifth in the rankings and were almost relegated out of the series by finishing last just five years ago. In fact, only five countries had ever won the whole series and the U.S. was never looked at as a contender.
It wasn’t something new for him to say. He always talked about how confident he was in the team and what he believes we can achieve, but it was received differently this time. This time everyone looked at each other and just nodded; we all knew we could achieve that goal and we were all angry enough to chase it. I knew it was a longshot for us to win the whole series but I also knew that I was sick of the underachieving performances, feeling sorry for myself, and not living up to the talent we had.
That goal was laid out quietly, in the back of all our minds, after one of our most crushing defeats, and it was rarely talked about.
After that tournament we all went our separate ways for the offseason and spent some time away from rugby, but that second goal was already planted in our minds. We all knew what the next season would bring. The top four teams would automatically qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. For the countries that don’t, they try to qualify through regional qualification tournaments or a last-chance tournament that comes after. I was not on the team in 2015 when we beat Canada in the regional qualifier to book our ticket to Rio, but most of the team was and I know no one wanted to go through that stress again.
In our first preseason meeting, it was all we talked about.
We have to get top four. We have to get the summer off. The formula was simple: get out of our pool and win the quarterfinal game. Do that every time we play, and we are guaranteed to finish in the top four. Perry Baker coined the phrase that helped get us through preseason and stuck with us all year – “top four, only option” – and it really felt like it was the only option for us.
We needed to show progress. We had gone backwards in the standings, moving from fifth in the world in 2017 to sixth in 2018, we tasted defeat at our home World Cup and faced the disappointment of missing the medal rounds of Rio by one point. We are not just trying to win for ourselves but to help drive the sport we love forward in our country. To do that we needed to finish higher than the USA has ever finished (fifth), we needed to break into the powerhouses of rugby sevens, we needed to break the mold. Top four was the only option, not because that was the only way we could qualify first but because we had to prove to the world and to ourselves we could do it.
We started getting asked what the difference was between this season and the previous series after the first tournament in Dubai where we finished second after going 0-5 the year before. It was a tough question to answer because we didn’t work any harder on the field. We learned to execute basics while dead on our feet and to fight through those dark places from years ago. There was way less conditioning and film study this year than in any previous year. However, at the time, I was not personally thinking about that question at all.
During our first two tournaments I was dealing with the end of a long-term relationship and I could not sleep, eat or focus on rugby in the slightest. Before Dubai I even went to our coach Mike Friday and told him I was considering walking away from the team after this tour as I felt like a broken man. It took a while but with the help of my teammates and staff I was able to pull myself back up and to me that was one of the biggest differences for our team. We felt like a true brotherhood that could lean on each other, support each other and help each other through anything. So, when my grandpa passed away a couple of weeks later and I felt lost all over again, I knew where I needed to go.
It was a very long season and everyone on the team faces a lot of personal challenges – especially with all the travel we do – so having brothers with me everywhere we went lightened some of the load I was carrying. It was not just off the field where we supported each other, but also on it. We learned what motivates each other and what frustrates each other. We learned how everyone communicates so we could each give and receive feedback from any individual in a beneficial way. So, when Martin Iosefo is yelling at me and throwing his mouth guard around, I don’t get bent out of shape about it; I just take what he’s saying at face value and analyze it.
We know we both got what we needed out of the conversation because he was able to vent, and I was able to take his feedback and move on to the next thing. When everyone understands each other and has the same goal, it becomes easy to back each other up and work to cover each other instead of getting worried or angry about mistakes.
The other big difference to me was our change in mindset. Our mindset entering tournaments shifted to where we went into every game with one very clear short-term goal: get out of our pool, win the quarterfinal. Before every quarterfinal match, we’d say, “this is our final,” and we were going to do whatever it took to win that match.
When playing a game as grueling as rugby sevens – where your body never feels right, and you’ll be looking for your lungs two minutes into the game – having the “one game at a time” mindset is crucial. Everyone wants to say they have that mindset, but when you can barely walk it becomes hard to not consider some form of self-preservation for what’s ahead.
Truly buying into the belief that the quarterfinal was everything, and any match after that was playing with house money made it mentally easier to leave it all out there every time we took the pitch. In a game of such small margins, that can be the difference.
Things had changed in our play and in our minds. Heading into Sydney, we had three second-place finishes in the first three tournaments of the year. And you could sense that the feeling around other teams and people who followed sevens was: “They can’t keep this up,” and, “How long until they fall off?”
It started to feel like us against the world.
Fortunately, that same week the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the AFC championship game and Tom Brady dropped one of the best Instagram videos of all time. He and Gronk walked out of the locker room to “Bad Boys for Life” by Diddy with big smiles on their faces. Now, we are not the Patriots. We were the underdog, not the dynasty, but that song and the idea resonated.
Everyone was waiting for us to lose the same way they have been waiting for old Tom to fall off for years. We listened to that song before every game, we had it as our walkout song in Vegas. It became our anthem.
While everyone was waiting for us to fail we weren’t going anywhere. No one really believed in us and it was obvious because even at our home tournament in Las Vegas, with everything in our favor and the hot start we had, we were given the third-best odds of winning. Needless to say, we won gold there.
Even going into the last two tournaments of the season ranked No. 1 in the world, we still felt like the underdogs no one really believed in. And that underdog mentality will never leave this group of guys that have fought so hard to get to this point.
Heading into the last two tournaments we knew we only needed 7 points to mathematically clinch our Olympic qualification, and that meant we just had to get out of our pool. In the clinching game we just tried our best not to blow a 16-point lead against Wales, but barely escaped with the win to earn our official Olympic qualification.
At this point in the season, our eyes and minds had shifted to finishing first place in the world.
Our standards and goals had gotten so high that we knew a performance like the one we just put together against Wales was not going to do us any good going forward and we were pissed off about it.
It took about eight photos before we finally got one behind the qualification sign for Tokyo where we all looked happy and even then, you can see Kevon Williams still “focused” front and center. We finished that day and beat Australia to go undefeated in our pool and righted the wrongs of almost blowing a lead to Wales by mounting a comeback of our own and that’s when qualifying really sunk in.
Reaching a goal that you put down eight months prior and poured everything into is one of the best feelings the world. Knowing that USA Rugby will have a shot at the Olympics means everything to me – it’s the platform where we can show the country what an amazing game this is. It is the goal that you set out with as a little kid when I would pretend to be an Olympic ice skater sliding up and down the hallways of my house in my socks.
That night we were all smiles, all jokes. Nothing could bring us down that night, but we had a quarterfinal to win the next day.
That’s the thing about competitive sports, it never stops until the final whistle. Qualifying is a stepping stone for the real thing, and getting top-four this season had become a stepping stone to finishing first in the world because we learned if you win every quarterfinal all season – like no other team but the U.S. did this season – you will have a shot to be No. 1 in the world.
We had our shot. After 10 tournaments it came down to a semifinal game with Fiji and they beat us. They were the better team this season and it knocked us all straight down off the high of qualification.
On one hand, we did what we set out to do. We broke the mold, broke into the powerhouses of our sport and knocked teams like Australia and England down into the regional qualifiers. We passed some of the experts in the world of sevens in New Zealand and South Africa. It felt like we were finally getting the rewards of all the hard work we put in for years and years. We were the best USA team to ever take the field and it showed every time we took the pitch.
For a bunch of guys who always hear that our team is the “sleeping giant” and how good we could be if all those “top tier” athletes played, it meant a lot to prove we are among the best of the best. It was one of the most fun and rewarding years of my life, but there will always be that opportunity we let slip.
We could have been written in the history books as one of the most unlikely champions of all time and missing that chance is a tough pill to swallow. There was an overwhelming sense of disappointment and failure in the locker room after that final Fiji game.
That’s the thing about rugby sevens though, it’s all about standing back up after you have been knocked down; because even if you lose, you’re going to have another game in about two hours.
We got knocked down in the championship this year, and it feels a little like fate looking at my old trophy cabinet that my wonderful mom keeps and seeing three second-place football trophies, three second-place baseball trophies, 12 second-place rugby trophies, and of course a second-place trophy for a boy scouts racing derby.
I’ve been knocked down a hell of a lot in my sporting career. But over the years, I’ve been able to sprinkle a couple of golds in that cabinet as well.
I can’t help but believe this team can put another gold in that cabinet.