How can you get inside the Eagles program without being player or coach? One way is to be part of the support staff. In rugby support staff is very much in the inner circle. Some support staff include doctors, sports psychologists, multiple strength and conditioning experts. Each team has at least one physio, a manager, video analysis, doctor and either their own massage therapist or bring people in, or they have them on staff at the 7s tournaments.
That is where Sarah Sall comes in. She is the Massage Therapist for both the USA Rugby Men’s 15s and 7s teams. Those who follow the Eagles know who she is, but if you don’t know her she has been working with the 15s team for over eight years and going on her third year with the 7s team. You likely saw her with the team during the opening ceremonies of the Rio games. She was the only female who walked in the with the entire team and was part of the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad in England as well as the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
But who is Sarah? How did she become a part of the Eagles staff? And what does she do that is so vital to the Eagles’ success?
Sarah is a massage therapist, former coach and administrator as well as a former rugby player.
Sarah didn’t start out with plans to be part of the USA Eagles; she started playing rugby in college while she also trained off campus every day as a Show Jumper and Horse Trainer, went on to play for several women’s club teams, Territorial Sides (15s and 7s) as well as being selected numerous times to represent the USA internationally for Atlantis Select Sides 7s team. After college she started the girls high school program in the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, coached girls high school rugby, became the women’s club coordinator, served on the Delaware Rugby Foundation Board and started her own 7s tournament in the Philadelphia area! Her only playing injury turned into six surgeries which ended her playing career. After she could no longer play she helped manage some of the Atlantis and Tiger tours while also helping as medical staff. Sarah is an integral part of Atlantis Rugby.
This is important. Atlantis Rugby was developed by Emil Signes and according to his website emilito.org “Atlantis has multifaceted goals. At the domestic level, we are trying to improve the levels of sevens in US by mixing sides of experienced players and novices”. For the top international tournaments the Atlantis Rugby site says they“sought to assemble teams that represented the best players the US has to offer”. Over 185 Eagles have played with Atlantis Rugby (116 men and 69 women) and over 30 of the players went on to be national level coaches, Al Caravelli, Jules McCoy and Alex Magleby to name a few. Sarah says that she was lucky to have the honor to be selected to play with Atlantis on numerous international tours which is quite an honor.
Sarah says “I got to play with some of the top players in the county and go to some of the best tournaments in the world and most my closest friendships were formed on those trips even thought they live all around the county and the world. He (Emil Signes) is really my hero, so much so I had him honored in Vegas a few years back, had the invitational trophy named after him, and put a men and women honorary team in the tournament made up of the past players and ex-Eagles.”
It was while she was playing with Atlantis in San Diego at the Invitational 7s that ran long side the USA 7s leg of the World Series that she first got the opportunity to use her massage therapy skills with the Eagles 7s Team. “Emil was working as an analyst while Al Caravelli was coach and they asked if I would volunteer to help work with the team during the tournament” said Sarah. It was there that she met USA Rugby’s Medical Director Mike Keating who asked her to help out at a few 15s test matches which then led to her becoming a member of the staff!
Coaches and teams are all aware how corrective massage is vital for their player’s recovery, performance and preventing injury noted Sarah. “It is difficult because not all massage therapist can handle the workload that is required with working with these high performance athletes and the volume of corrective work that needs to be done as well as all the other daily duties that come with being on staff, or the amount of travel. Thankfully Scott Johnson, Eddie O’Sullivan and Mike Tolkin value how important this type of recovery is and had me as a staple on tour, also because I was use to the demands that come along with touring.” explains Sarah. “It was only two years ago that I started touring full-time on the HSBC 7s World Series, and only one other team travels with a therapist. Mike Friday and Chris Brown are extremely aware of how important rest, recovery and keeping athletes free from injury is to their success which is why they brought me along” said Sarah. That tells you something about how valuable she is to the team!
The science is quickly catching up with the practice of massage therapy and research can now demonstrated the benefits of massage therapy. “I think that many people may thing of massage as a tool to relax, but not in the sports world. It is 100% NOT pampering and none of my players would say it was relaxing. All Olympic teams use massage for the performance benefits it provides, as well as USA Rugby and the USOC, most have people come in weekly and its is a built in part of their recovery program. Most the 7s stops have therapist for all the teams to use, its just hard to know a players body by working with them once” explained Sarah.
Now massage therapists like Sarah can apply a wide range of therapies depending on when it is needed and why. Sarah noted that she works with some of the players before a training session to help warm-up the muscles and stretch as to avoid injuries. Or during a session if she sees that something is starting to occur which may be restricting or impacting a player’s performance. At the end of a session or a match, it is uses as a way to reduce soreness, increase flexibility and speed up the body’s recovery. Mainly she likes to do work during the week to prevent injuries.
We did ask Sarah which was the most common type of massage she employed and she said “it totally varies on the player and what their needs are at that time. Pre-training or pre-match will be different than post and recovery or any off training day. It also depends if its an acute injury or something that had been an imbalance for years”. Sarah says some of the guys have a routine and that is what they stick to. “Some like a flush just before matches or during a tournament. Some come in everyday, which I encourage. And others I have to remind them to come in for maintenance” explained Sarah.
Sarah has been with the Eagles teams now for more than two World Cups, as well as training camps and the yearly grind that is the HSBC 7s series circuit. The 7s series is really taxing mentally and physically.
“You are traveling sometimes over 15-hours in coach, going thru multiple time zones, which causes their bodies to lock up, disrupts their sleep, upsets their recovery and nutritional intake. Then they have to perform at the highest level, fly somewhere else the next week and do it again. The three day tournaments are especially tough. It takes a lot out of you mentally and physically” says Sarah.
“While it is a great experience to work with world class athletes, travel and see placed all over of the world it is not as glamorous as people may see“ shares Sarah “It is nonstop work, 19 hour days, seven days a week”.
Sarah brings a unique aspect to the team. In part because of her own rugby background, and in part how well she knows the team. She knows them so well, observing and knowing the players behaviors and habits she can see when they are out of sync, or starting to develop imbalances.
Sarah told us before she became a massage therapist that she was a horse trainer where everything depends on the horses bio-mechanics and movements and observing their behaviors. Sarah said it wasn’t until later that she saw a bit of the correlation, which is why she may have fallen into massage therapy. You are taking about muscular beings (both the players and horses) that are high level athletes who have to generate speed and power at a highest level.
“Lot of times it is during a training session where I notice someone’s stride might be off, or they are favoring one side, sometimes even before the athlete notices” shared Sarah.
Some of the stress is the travel, trying to meeting expectations, playing rugby at the highest level, but some of it is off the field as well. “These guys are together everyday for months at a time away from home. It goes beyond a team and is really like a family. So in addition to the performance work, I try and make sure that we celebrate things like birthdays (as they are often on the road for these), or celebrate achievements or accomplishments, anything to feel like they aren’t just on the road, they are with part of their family” says Sarah.
“I have worked really hard and been fortunate enough to work under several different head coaches, Scott Johnson, Eddie O’Sullivan, Mike Tolkin and Mike Friday and hope to continue with the programs as they grow. They have all treated me as a vital part of the staff, which I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them all” said Sarah.
Since Sarah has been with the teams for so long she has seen players start their international careers and grow to the top, to players winding down their careers. “That’s really a hard part; I get to see guys who really developed over the years. When players leave the program, its very difficulty, you build such a bond with them through all of these experiences, you become part of their families. I feel very lucky I try to keep in touch and see past players as much as possible” shared Sarah.
“What will amaze you is how down to earth these guy are. They really have perspective that in the end are lucky to play rugby. They have sacrificed to much and put in so much work, its hard not to love working with people that are truly passionate about something” said Sarah. She didn’t have anything negative to say about her years with the team. In fact she said “It is a great group of men, it can be hard being the only female on tour sometimes, but they have always treated me with respect, because in the end we are family, and we all have the same goal”.
Sarah was on a bit of an R&R when we spoke to here, which made sense as she had a busy summer and had just gotten back to the States. She had assisted the 7s team at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista in preparing for RIO! Before that the last two seasons contained two 7s World Series, a November tour in Europe, a domestic player South American tour, Olympic Qualifiers, Pan Am Games, warm-ups for the World Cup in July and August, and then the Rugby World Cup in England in September thru October, it was a long two years!
Sarah’s work is not always as the massage therapist, as she will say she helps with anything; logistics, helping set up practices, taking photos, whatever needs to be done. “I believe in the program so much, I have sacrificed a lot of things in my personal and professional career because I always put the team first. I believe in them, and the program, and am very proud to be a part of it”.
Sarah was able to travel with Team USA to Rio and be part of the historic rebirth of rugby at the summer games! We asked here about the experience and she shared how cool it was, in the end it can be summed up as “quick”. It really is quick when you thing of the years of work, planning and preparation are down to just a few days and then its over.
Initially, not all the staff were going to be able to participate in the opening ceremonies, but the women’s rugby tournament was set to start the next day, and to be optimal (for that game the women’s Eagle team opted to not participate in the event “so that opened it up for more of us to be able to participate” said Sarah. So if you watched the opening ceremonies of the games, Sarah was on the screen as the coverage broke away at the end of the USA procession. She totally got to maximize that opportunity to participate in the opening ceremonies we’d say.
She shared that during the time in Rio they were busy as the 7s event was at the start of the games. While the Eagles didn’t get the results they had really hoped for and felt they could have achieved, she noted that just having rugby in the games was a huge boost for the sport and for rugby in America. “I think USA Rugby’s website got three million hits on their website during Rio” said Sarah. Sarah said that one of her nephews who is now playing rugby in college would text her ruing the matches. For Sarah seeing people take interest in the game either as fans (let us point out Mathew McConaughey is now a fan) or like her nephews opting to play rugby, the summer games rally gave rugby a boost.
We spoke to Sarah for close to an hour and covered so many other topics from the future of rugby in America, to developing coaches, Atlantis Rugby, to Blue Brain, etc. However, we opted to focus on the work she has done for the Eagles and to try and open up the minds of younger/newer rugby players to understand massage therapy. There is so much work that goes into having a top performing teams and players and so many people that make things happen, and so now hopefully you all see it really is a team effort on and off the field.
We are so grateful for Sarah’s time and sharing her rugby experience. She is a great rugby mind who could provide us with insights on the game and the state of the game. So this will not be the last you hear about Sarah (at least not from us). We hope to be able to pick her brain on rugby and other topics in the future. Again we thank Sarah for all her help and time in making this story happen!
Check her on Twitter @Sarahsall7 and @Sarahsall on IG.