Running To A Rio Rugby Dream: Part I

We know that California produces a large number of athletes. This is true in both rugby and for the Olympics. California produces ruggers and Olympians at a high rate.

California is a state that is made up of homegrown athletes and a great number of transplants, which is one of the reasons its talent pool is so deep. That and just the shear number of people who live here in the California Republic.

California is home to several of the top competition clubs for USA Rugby, top collegiate sides, the Olympic Training Center (OTC) and a general hotbed of rugby.  So you all know that. You also know that the summer games this summer in Rio will feature Rugby 7s (a return of rugby to the Olympic games). 

We were planning to let you all understand what it takes to make a run at Rio for these ladies with California ties, but after trying to develop the story we saw we’d leave out some really vital and interesting information on each of players we’d interviewed. So its our site and we did an editorial change and we are going to take a different approach. We will instead feature each of these outstanding athletes in seven individual features and then bring it all together for in the end.

Our effort will be covering current USA Eagles, Contract athletes, WPL standouts, club players, and even former Olympians.  We will find out what drew these ladies to the game we all love and what they are doing to try and play rugby in Rio this summer.  We will also try and share information that will hopefully inspire other girls to take up the game of rugby and or allow parents to let their daughters play rugby

Our feature will include the following players Kelly Griffin, Emily Azevedo, Victoria (Vix) Folayan, Nia Williams, Nathalie Marchino, Amy Naber, and Irene Gardner. Each  has been a stand out at every level they’ve played. Some have already achieved Olympian status, others have played in world cups, and others have been contracted athletes getting paid to play rugby!

So to start we are going to  start the feature with Kelly Griffin, who in addition to her many accolades including college national championships, WPL championships, and various 7s championships she’s also served as captain for the Women’s Eagles 7s squad. 

At 5’5” she doesn’t seem like what you’d think of as “rugby player” and that’s part of the myth people have bought into and that these ladies are shattering! Griffin is a winner and has been at just about every level. All that’s left is the Olympics, and this tougher than nails rugger is on track to add that to her list too.

While aware of the sport growing up Griffin a multi-sport athlete didn’t come to the sport until she was a freshman at UCLA. Griffin said “I was aware of the sport of rugby because there was a club rugby team at my high school. When I decided to attend UCLA, I knew I wanted to keep playing competitive sports and be apart of a team environment, I looked through a list of club sports offered and rugby just sounded fun. After just on practice I knew I made the right decision. It was so much fun!”.

Kelly Griffin of Team USA/USA Rugby 7s

Kelly Griffin of Team USA/USA Rugby 7s

Griffin had contemplated rugby while in high school but the season conflicted with basketball season which she’d already been playing, had it not she says she would have started playing in high school.

Griffin like nearly all ruggers had to spend much of her early rugby career balancing the demands of rugby (training, travel, etc) with school and later fulltime work and she still was able to excel. A few years ago as USA Rugby and Team USA began to offer the “Resident” program for ruggers. This Resident program placed players under a contract, which allowed them to be paid to train/play rugby for the USA. This included access and living at the USA Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, California.  While the contracts are not lucrative and they aren’t meant to be, they are meant to allow the athletes focus on their sport and training and relive some of the burden of training and working fulltime.  

Griffin’s take on the resident program is this “Being a resident at the OTC has totally transformed me as an athlete and rugby player. Before, coming to the OTC I was constantly in sleep debt due to working an 8hour day in a cubical on top of trying to train enough to compete for a national team spot. Now I can devote all my resources to becoming a better rugby player from spending time training, running, lifting, watching film, eating right and actually get the proper recovery and sleep”.

When Griffin told us the part about cubical we had visions of Bill Lumburg asking us about TPS reports when we’d rather be in the gym. The horror.

Griffin training at the OTC-Chula Vista.

Griffin training at the OTC-Chula Vista.

The residency at the OTC for Griffin is not all fun and games. She has a full day and with the HSBC 7s World Series in swing and the Olympics just down the road, there really isn’t much time to waste.  “I am at the OTC from around 7:15am to 5pm Monday through Friday” says Griffin.  The sessions and routines change deepening on where they are in the season.  Griffin explains, “Right now we are doing around 8 field sessions, 3 lifting sessions, a couple of extra conditioning sessions and two team film sessions. On top of that we do daily movement prep, individual recovery and individual film review. We usually get a couple recovery days per week (a weekend if we aren’t playing) where we don’t do stuff, but I catch up on recovery and film review”.  Next time you say you want to be an Olympian or wonder why you aren’t on the pitch as much as you think you should be maybe just look at what’s your training is schedule like, maybe you aren’t do the work like Griffin?

While it sounds great to be able to play rugby fulltime and train (especially if you are a gym rat), there are some challenges that come with the commitment to be a professional athlete.  Griffin told us “One challenge is accepting the limitations on my time. Being in a full-time training environment (like the OTC) is physically and mentally taxing. I have decided that I want to end every day knowing I did all I could to be the best rugby player I can be. This means that I often choose to go to bed earlier rather than spend time with friends”.  Griffin suggested that next time any of us go to the OTC (which you can tour for free) to pay attention to the video they play in the Visitors Center. “There is a line that says something like ‘thank you to all the part-time friends’. That line is so true” shared Griffin.

It’s not all sad, this is a great opportunity and Griffin and others know it’s a limited window.  We didn’t want to loose you with the grueling life that often happens at the OTC, so we asked Griffin about the reward and benefits that rugby has given her and how would life have been different without rugby?  Griffin exuberantly says “Rugby has taken my life on quite an adventure! First of all, I have made so many friends through rugby that I would not have met otherwise. There is definitely something special about rugby people“!

Going on Griffin says “Another big reward has been being able to play competitive sports beyond high school and college. So many people do not get the opportunity to play a game as their job! I love rugby and get excited to go to “WORK” everyday”!

Griffin has been with the Eagles for a few years and has even been the Eagles’ Captain. She has also had great success with her home club the Berkley All Blues in both 7s and15s campaigns.  Griffin who it not yet 30 is one of the senior and experience players in the Eagles’ program. We asked her if she saw her role with the Eagles as more of a leader now and if she felt that the newer/younger players may be looking to her for some leadership?

Griffin humbly responded by saying “I’m not the leader. I am on of the leaders on the team. Our team culture is one where even though we are competing with each other for sports, we know that the team comes first! We push each other and also help each other improve our rugby skills and knowledge”.

Griffin has played both 7s and 15s and at a high level. In the last few years she’s solely played 7s. She says because she’s been playing so much 7s that she considers herself more of a 7s player now.  “I’ve come to love and understand the spacing, fitness and strategy of 7s,” says Griffin.  She has not lost the love for 15s and still plays to play it again in the future, but the summer games only offer 7s so thus her focus.

All athletes dream of the Olympics. To not only be an Olympian, but to have a medal around our neck. Now with the inclusion of rugby 7s in the 2016 games, ruggers can have a realistic dream of Olympic glory too.  Griffin said, “The Olympics are the pinnacle of sports”. For Griffin the though of the possibility of winning a Olympic Medal would mean that her hard work, commitment, perseverance and the support they got from Team USA/OTC helped them play better then the rest of the world when it was on the line.  “I hope I get to experience that feeling” say Griffin.

Now this has been Kelly Griffin’s experience so far in her run up to Rio, but we wanted to also inspire others to also think of Olympic Glory. We wanted to pave the road for some of those girls who’s dream of a rugby medal may have a concerned parent in the way.  So we asked Griffin to explain to parents why they should let their daughter play rugby.

Griffin provided us with this, “I would recommend rugby to kids because it really is a fun sport. I grew up playing a lot of different sports and rugby is my favorite. I do think it is valuable to play a variety of sports and that the most important part of youth sports is enjoyment. Rugby is certainly enjoyable and it allows kids (especially girls) to work as a team and be proud of the physicality of their bodies”.

We want to thank Kelly Griffin for her time and the All Blues for connecting us.  Next time we will feature an athlete who is already an Olympian and looking to go back for more!