The USA Women’s 7s team is in Moscow, and in three days, the Eagles will kick off their World Rugby Cup Sevens campaign. It seems like only yesterday when the country inaugurated its first-ever professional rugby players, but in fact, it’s been nearly a year and a half. Coach Ric Suggitt has tinkered with the lineup and player combinations at every tournament, and so when the final roster was announced, there was bound to be some element of surprise.
Katie Dowty and Sadie Anderson were left off, Ryan Carlyle replaced the injured Bui Baravilala, and even Irene Gardner’s addition turned some heads. But none were so surprising as Katie Johnson. The longtime USA U20 captain has never played in an international 7s match, so how could she beat out athletes who were playing rugby as their career?
“I have been going to tryouts for the last year, but my fitness wasn't up to par until World Cup tryouts, with the help of my personal trainer, Bryan Everett,” Johnson said. “No, I’m not a capped 7s player but have had the opportunity to be coached by one of the best, in my opinion – Sam Robinson in Minnesota with the Youngbloodz.”
That’s when Johnson first caught our eye – in terms of 7s – during the club 7s championship last year with the Youngbloodz. Johnson had helped form the team and played alongside well-knowns like Christy Ringgenberg, Sylvia Braaten and Stacey Bridges. And yet she still managed to stand out. Long and lean, with nice speed and fantastic hands, Johnson was the epicenter of a team that would finish third at nationals, during its first year in existence. Having been known primarily as a 15s loose forward, 7s seemed to be a perfect fit for Johnson.
“Sevens in general has always been a goal of mine,” Johnson described how the 7s world cup fit into her rugby plans. “I love the field space and the speed of the game. A [professional 7s] contract would be ideal, because when you play with this much talent everyday, it forces you to get better. If it doesn’t happen, then I’m just going to have to work twice as hard at home.”
The fact that Suggitt picked Johnson without testing her on the international state speaks volumes of the confidence he must have in the youngster. Sure, she’s been playing international rugby longer than some of her contracted counterparts, but Suggitt has only seen her perform in camp or on developmental sides at domestic competitions.
“Having the experience with the U20s helps with the nerves of playing other countries and being able to pick up and play with the high level of my new teammates,” Johnson said. “I know most of the girls from playing against or with them on past teams. They have all been very welcoming and go out of their way to bring me up to speed.”
In reality, Johnson probably won’t see much playing time in Moscow. If the USA pulls away from Brazil or Fiji during pool play, then perhaps she’ll get her first 7s cap at the world cup. However this experience unfolds, one suspects Johnson will be grateful for it.
“I will play any position I am asked to play,” Johnson laughed. “I’m just excited to be on the field! I was so excited to get this opportunity to represent my country again, doing the thing I love most.”