My Experience Playing Rugby at the Rio Olympics

Madison Hughes

By Madison Hughes | December 27, 2016

I had an unbelievable time at the Olympics as captain of the USA rugby team. Yes, we were disappointed in our performance, we came in expecting to do much better than we did and we didn’t live up to our own expectations. However, the wider experience of being in the Olympics is really what I’m going to take away: being part of Team USA, marching in the opening ceremony, meeting athletes from all over the world. Overall, it was an amazing experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

One thing that surprised me about the Olympics was the sheer size and scale of it. The dining room, for example, served three meals a day to 10,000 athletes from every country in the world. It was an enormous tent, with athletes coming and going constantly. Additionally, the attention of the world is on the Olympics. At the start of the games, three of us participated in a press conference and the room was filled with reporters. That’s something I’d never seen before for rugby 7’s. You’re ready for the experience of the Olympics to be at a high level, but it’s beyond what you could possibly imagine.

Using the Olympics to Get U.S. Rugby to the Next Level

The Olympics were a great stage for US rugby, exposing millions of people to the game. The preview story in Sports Illustrated was an early indication that the attention rugby would receive from American media was going to be unprecedented. When we returned to the U.S. after the close of the games, I learned that people had been watching our games closely. During a family dinner in Massachusetts, a waitress told me how she watched rugby during the Olympics; I think it was her first time watching a game. You just wouldn’t have seen that sort of thing before.

I hope we can capitalize on the attention and that we keep moving the game forward. I especially hope that we have inspired younger kids to pick up the sport. Personally, I grew up in England so I started playing rugby when I was seven years old, but many of the U.S. players didn’t start playing until high school or even college. While you can become a very good player even with such a late start, as many people have proven, I think there is something about playing rugby as a youngster that improves your play on the field. Your situational awareness of the game and your ability to make the right decisions are much more instinctual.

The growth of collegiate rugby and the return to the Olympics have given us great visibility, but I believe it is the growth of youth rugby in the U.S. that we must focus on, as this will increase the level of play at all levels. This will have a snowball effect, where high-level play in the youth leagues will lead to better high school programs, and then to better college programs, which will result in an increase in the level of play overall.

The U.S. is definitely an emerging country in the rugby world. We’ve had some success over the past several years with our rugby 7s team, where on any given weekend we have a chance at beating any team in the world, but our next focus is to perform more consistently. We have a few areas where we are right up there with anyone in the world. Our aerial ability is amazing. We have speed on a level that no other country can produce. I think our coaching staff is incredible as well. Our progress depends on building on those strengths while improving in other areas. For our national 15s team, I think it is an even more difficult task. The nature of 15-a-side rugby is much more technical. We have promising elements in place now though, and I’m hopeful that the U.S. 15s team will soon knock off a Tier One national team and really make those top teams a bit more fearful of playing the U.S.

Penn Mutual Loves Rugby

Penn Mutual’s involvement in rugby has had a tremendous impact. The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship has grown to become the biggest tournament in college rugby, the one that most teams really focus on and want to win. Having a company like Penn Mutual as a sponsor also helps legitimize the sport, making people across the country take notice.

The way that Penn Mutual has embraced rugby is also significant, because they’re able to pursue things that other parts of the rugby community might not be able to do as effectively. To me personally, Penn Mutual’s interest in rugby is incredibly important, as I wouldn’t be able to focus solely on rugby without their sponsorship. I’m excited to be a part of this wider growth of rugby, and my relationship with Penn Mutual has helped me see the bigger picture and realize how important it is.

Post Olympic Goals

Right now, post Olympics, my sole focus continues to be on rugby. Penn Mutual’s sponsorship allows me the opportunity to concentrate on improving my play in 7s and expand into the 15s game. I look forward to participating in the rest of the HSBC 7s World Series this year and continuing to pursue a spot on the 15s national team.

As for my long term plans, I haven’t exactly seized upon what they are as of yet, but, for now, I’m enjoying rugby. It’s truly is a great thing to be part of.

1 Comment

  • Avatar Cyndi Messina says:

    I was in Rio to watch USA Rugby. I have gone to the Las Vegas tournament the last 2 years and plan to go in March again. My family living in Europe and my boys got interested in rugby in Jr. High. We moved back to the U.S. and it was very hard to find clubs to play on in Nebraska. I agree that there needs to be a push for educating parents of younger parents. Japan is educating all children in rugby in schools to help teach their parents in advance of rugby tournaments there…and the next summer Olympics. It is a terrific sport that both my boys have carried on to play in college. Although the U.S. didn’t do as well as they wanted, neither did several other top tier teams. It was still wonderful to see you all play and feel the excitement and friendship that only ruggers and their fans share. We had a blast and we thank you for it!

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