The U.S. women's team prepare for a game against China at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 29, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — The first time was the test. Round two of rugby sevens at the Olympic Games was going to be the next step. That was the plan at least.
The U.S. women’s sevens team wrapped up Olympic play Saturday with a 17-7 loss to Australia in the tournament’s fifth-place game at Tokyo Stadium. The placement was actually one spot lower than in 2016, when the sport was making its Olympic debut and the U.S. had a relatively green program.
“On any given day, any team can top the pool,” co-captain Abby Gustaitis said. “And we just got outdone a few times this tournament.”
It’d be easy to look at the Tokyo result and conclude that the U.S. is pretty much in the same place as five years ago. Those close to the program would tell you otherwise.
They’d point to the sport’s growing participation numbers, to their full-time training center in Southern California and, most importantly, to their results. Coming into what was supposed to be the Olympic year, the team had its best-ever finish in the World Rugby Sevens Series, finishing second across the six-tournament circuit in 2018-19. Then it started the next season with the program’s first outright tournament victory.
Everything looked primed for a run at the podium.
Then, a year after scheduled, the Americans finally arrived in Tokyo and finished sixth.
“It’s a whirlwind, sevens,” Gustaitis said. “Brutal game.”
Sevens is inherently fickle. An entire contest lasts just 14 minutes. The field is the same size as in traditional rugby, but sevens teams have less than half the players to fill it. All of this creates exciting games with rapid momentum shifts and little downtime. As the Americans saw firsthand on Friday, though, if you wait too long to get something going, time runs out before you know it.
“That’s sevens,” coach Chris Brown said. “It’s the best sport for representing life.”
Team USA showed up strong in the preliminary round, winning all three games Thursday and Friday by a combined score of 59-33. However, things unraveled quickly in Friday evening’s quarterfinal, when Great Britain jumped out to a 21-0 lead before ultimately winning 21-12. Just like that, Team USA was out of medal contention.
“Great Britain showed up, they shut us down, they played us to a T,” Gustaitis said.
The Americans responded on Saturday morning by beating China 33-14 to secure a spot in the fifth-place game for the second consecutive Olympics. They were ready to go home on a high note.
“We’re here to show how resilient and powerful we are,” Kristi Kirshe said.
Coming back for the evening session, however, Team USA ran into a roadblock in the form of the defending Olympic champions.
Unlike their first meeting in group play, when the U.S. beat Australia 14-12, the Americans struggled to get going in the rematch.
Though Team USA held Australia deep in its own end for the first quarter of the game, the Australians maintained near universal possession of the ball in the half.
“You’re just working side to side, you’re tracking your players,” Gustaitis said. “It’s absolutely exhausting.”
Australia finally broke free with a long kick downfield. Although it went out of bounds, giving the U.S. the ball for the first time with 2:40 remaining in the half, Australia soon got it back on a scrum, then scored a try on an end-around play, with Faith Nathan touching the ball down in the far corner with 1:14 remaining.
The U.S. started the next possession back with 30 seconds on the clock, but Australia took the ball back and, with time expired, traversed from sideline to sideline twice before Madison Ashby ran the ball into the near corner for a try, making it 10-0 at the half.
“First half we played a lot of defense, and when we got the ball finally made errors,” Gustaitis said.
The U.S. started with the ball in the second half, and just before the midway point Naya Tapper found a hole near the far sideline, then passed to a sprinting Kirshe, who ran untouched for a try beneath the uprights. Nicole Heavirland converted the kick to make it 10-7.
Any hopes for a comeback were quashed a little more than a minute later. The Aussies took the ball deep into U.S. territory then whipped a series of passes across the field that ended with Demi Hayes running it in for the try. Following the conversion, Australia went up 17-7 with under two minutes left.
A late drive led again by Tapper got the Americans back across midfield. Once again the Australians snuffed out the attack, and just like that the game was over.
“Whoever ends up with the ball longest in sevens, they’re going to win the game,” Gustaitis said. “And Australia did that. They starved us of the ball.”
The American players were emotional after the game, some of them crying. Sixth place clearly wasn’t where they wanted to finish here.
That’s rugby sevens, though. They had some bright spots, they had some struggles, and then it was done.
“The character, the fight — we made the Aussies work for every point,” Brown said. “And that’s what I’m proud of. Earlier on in the tournament, I wasn’t happy because I felt that our character was questioned — the way we do things was in question — and the way we finished off to today, I’m extremely proud of how we did that.”
The balanced U.S. team, with only two holdovers from the Rio squad, didn’t blow anyone away statistically. Kirshe led the squad with five tries, which was good for 11th in the tournament. At the same time, nine players had at least one try, and Heavirland’s 11 conversions in the kicking game tied for second.
Later on Saturday evening, New Zealand defeated France for the gold medal, while Fiji won the country’s first medal in a women’s sport in defeating Great Britain for the bronze.
While an Olympic podium will have to wait at least three years, until the 2024 Games in Paris, the U.S. players have reason for optimism. The program made significant leaps during the last quad. Another milestone arrives this fall, with the start of a new semipro league called Premier Rugby Sevens.
Now they head home with their heads still head high.
“I think we brought light to rugby in America, and I think we have a lot of new fans,” said Gustaitis, who was a high school basketball player before picking up rugby at the University of Maryland. “I’m really proud of the showing and the fight throughout the entire tournament. We lost a game (against Great Britain), we got up to win (against China) and made it into the fifth-place (game) again. Didn’t end on a W. But at the end of the day I think the girls showed incredibly respect to the game of sevens and rugby, and I hope we have a few more fans in America and a few more eyes on these girls going forward.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.