Kris Thomas breaks away for a try during the match between Australia and USA at the 2020 HSBC Sevens on Jan. 26, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand.
Kristen Thomas remembers the exact date of when she last gathered with all of her U.S. women’s rugby sevens teammates. It was March 13.
The Americans had just scrimmaged against teams from Jamaica and Mexico at their training facility near San Diego. They were wrapping up when Thomas, who plays multiple positions for the Eagles, heard that their plans were changing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Madison Hughes, a 2016 Olympian who’s the captain of the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team, has also gone four months without seeing his teammates in person. They were expected to take a few days off after competing in the Canada Sevens tournament in early March.
After leaving Vancouver, the Americans had planned to reunite and start preparing for another tournament. However, that never happened because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“When (the pandemic) started hitting in March, that was when it was a big shock,” Hughes said. “I remember leaving the field in Vancouver and really had no idea that was going to be the end of the season.”
The World Rugby Sevens Series announced in late June that it was cancelling the remainder of its season because of the coronavirus.
With the Olympic Games Tokyo pushed back until 2021, Thomas and Hughes have been forced to stay away from their teammates during the pandemic. They’ve been keeping in touch with their respective teams through text messages and video calls.
Thomas and Hughes have spent the past few months training on their own. They’re also trying to stay positive now that they have another year to fix the things that didn’t go as well as they had hoped during the World Rugby Sevens Series season.
Coming off a program-best second-place finish in 2019, the U.S. women got off to a strong start to the 2020 season but stumbled down the stretch and finished fifth. The American men placed seventh after also posting their best season ever in 2019, which included their first-ever No. 1 ranking and a final ranking of No. 2.
“There are very few times in life where you get to do the year over, and I think for us we’ve essentially been given a chance to do the year over,” Thomas said, laughing. “So we’re going to try to make the most of it and actually do the things that if someone said, ‘(You could) prepare for the Olympics any other way,’ we actually have the opportunity to do that.”
Neither rugby team has to worry about qualifying for the Tokyo Games, which comes as a bit of a relief during the long layoff. Both the U.S. men and women secured their places in the Olympics by finishing in the top four of the World Rugby Sevens Series in 2019.
Madison Hughes of United States makes a break against England during day one of the 2019 Hamilton Sevens on Jan. 26, 2019 in Hamilton, New Zealand.
Thomas and Hughes said they weren’t surprised by the news that the World Rugby Sevens Series had called off the remainder of its season. Rugby is an international sport, and players could have potentially exposed each other to COVID-19 by traveling around the globe to compete in tournaments.
While many of his teammates are socially distancing in San Diego, Hughes is living with his family on the opposite side of the country in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He has been training in his home gym and tossing the rugby ball around with his brother.
He also built himself a kicking net to practice on during the break.
“As an athlete, you love going out on the field and competing. I’d love to be able to do that right now, and there are things going on in the world that has made that impossible unfortunately,” Hughes said. “And that’s kind of the way it is, and we will adjust to that reality. But I definitely miss being able to go out there and play with my teammates and represent the USA because that’s what I love doing.”
As the men’s team captain, Hughes said he feels he has the additional responsibility of trying to keep his squad connected during the pandemic. However, that can be both difficult and time-consuming since there are 15-25 men who are apart of the Eagles.
Thomas, meanwhile, has been limited in how much she can see her teammates — even though she lives near them in San Diego. She might go with a few teammates on a run or a hike around California, but for the most part she has been forced to train by herself.
Thomas said she enjoys it, though. As a former high school track and field athlete, she said she’s accustomed to training alone and that the quiet time is good for her mental health.
“I just really try to take it day by day. I think it can be kind of overwhelming looking at the large picture all the time,” Thomas said. “Like for instance, someone posted (online) a countdown for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics when it was like 400 days out, which was kind of daunting to think about. But for me personally, I just try to take it day by day and really enjoy the process.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.