The USA Women’s 7s team is on the brink of making history, as eight athletes make their way to Chula Vista’s Olympic Training Center this week and next. They’ll spend the next year eating, breathing, playing rugby, and will be paid to indulge in their passion.
We still don’t know who the exact eight players are, but we have a good idea of the most likely candidates (read more). Updates since this article was published include the exclusion of Amy Daniels, Beth Black and Pam Kosanke, and the additions of Kaelene Lundstrum and Vanesha McGee.
It was a tough decision to omit some of the country’s greatest 7s athletes from the residency program, but they were made carefully with an eye toward the future.
“When Nigel [Melville, USA Rugby’s CEO and president of rugby operations] and Alex [Williams, USA Rugby’s women’s high performance manager] put in the application for funding, we acknowledged that players like Beth Black, Pam Kosanke and Amy Daniels are really fit and knowledgeable, but 30-34,” Suggitt said. “We’re not worried about their know-how or fitness because they’re dedicated athletes, but they have good careers. If they were all 20-24, they would have been asked to come.”
Players like the aforementioned will be able to sample some of the OTC lifestyle, however, as they’ll comprise the taxi squad that will visit Chula Vista for two weeks at a time to train and play for spots on the various traveling squads.
But the difficult decisions won’t end there or anytime soon. These contracts are renewed every year, and while the staff is invested in every player, changes will inevitably occur.
“Those are tough decisions,” Suggitt said. “As you develop coach/player relationships, you have to draw a line in the sand and say: You’re not performing; we’re going to have to let you go and let someone else in. There will be quarterly reviews with the group and individuals, so they know how they’re progressing, where they’re at in the program and in their career. We have to make sure that what we’re doing is going to make them successful in the long run – make it worth their time and effort – so there can be no surprises for the team or individuals. If you check with the girls, they’ll say I’m honest and blunt as to what has to happen. No secrets.”
The USA is following in the footsteps of Canada and the Netherlands, both of which have contracted players. Canada was the undisputed 7s champion in 2011, winning four major international tournaments (Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Dubai), while the Netherlands has had 14 professionals for the past four months, though the squad has been practicing together much longer.
“They’re a year ahead of us,” Suggitt said of 2011’s top 7s team. “Canada had On The Podium inject 2+ million into their program. They held lots of training camps and went to every tournament out there, and it was all covered financially. It’s the recipe for success as long as all the Is are dotted and Ts crossed.
“It’s good that we’re heading into residency now,” Suggitt said. “We’ll start to close the gap.”
Eagle fans will see firsthand how the USA stack up against some of world’s best 7s teams, as Canada, Netherlands, France, Japan, Brazil and Canada’s Maple Leafs convene at the Women’s International Invitational 7s in Las Vegas, Feb. 10-12. In addition to the USA, Suggitt will enter a developmental Stars & Stripes side, which will include three of the eight professional athletes.
“I talked to the girls this weekend and they’re all excited,” Suggitt said after the High Performance camp last week. “This is a huge move for us. It’s going to be a lot of fun along the way. There was some apprehension, packing up, leaving schools and jobs, but how nice is it to be moving to California?”
And so the road begins. Be sure to head to Las Vegas for the Women’s International Invitational 7s to see the country’s first professional women’s rugby athletes.