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Journey to Tokyo: Rugby player Lauren Doyle aims for spot on Olympics roster, gold

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CHICAGO (KXAN) — Lauren Doyle knew she did not want to run track in college so when she got a packet in the mail all about rugby, she decided to switch gears.

“I was like, ‘Mother, father — I am going to play rugby,” she recalled, laughing.

​The Illinois athlete-turned-USA Women’s Sevens team member and 2016 Olympian didn’t know a thing about the sport when she first started, but she quickly turned heads. 

“Pretty much just got recognized for being fast,” the former track star said, smiling.

Today, she’s aiming for gold all while working to get the sport in front of more eyes. 

“Around the world, it’s quite big almost everywhere else. New Zealand has a huge culture there based solely around rugby,” she explained. “Here in the United States, they’re starting to get the pro leagues off the ground.”

She encourages people to talk with rugby players to learn more about the sport, and to go see a game for themselves. She said reading about something is one thing, but watching it helps people better understand how the game works and how exciting it can be.

Like many athletes, training during a pandemic has come with its challenges.

“We stayed physically fit to a degree but obviously we weren’t getting touches with the rugby ball so that was the suckiest part for me,” Doyle said.

Nonetheless, she remains hopeful, and she’s ready and patiently waiting for her opportunity to shine.

“We all want the Olympics to happen, we all want to follow the rules and be able to participate,” she said.

Doyle said her goal right now is to make the Team USA’s women’s rugby roster. Officials will announce who made the cut this summer. 

This interview was conducted by WGN NewsNation’s Ryan Burrow as part of his Quest for Gold podcast. You can listen HERE.

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Who is Ilona Maher? How rugby player turned a TikTok sensation even before her Olympic debut

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Ilona Maher became a star of the Tokyo 2020 Games even before playing her first match as part of the US women’s rugby sevens team. She has garnered quite a following on TikTok after posting from the Olympic village and talking to the camera in her favorite Team USA bucket hat.

Despite the US losing in the quarterfinals to Great Britain on Friday, July 29, Maher is being called one of the breakout star athletes of the Olympics. The 24-year-old sensation gained millions of views on her entertaining TikTok videos that captured behind-the-scenes and goofy incidents in Tokyo’s Olympic village.

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Maher’s hilarious take on life as an Olympian in Japan took social media by storm in the past few weeks. One of her videos showed her eyeing up “a hot Olympian in the dining hall.” Strutting around in her beloved bucket hat, the American athlete appears to be a big fan of the food spread being offered around the Olympic village for athletes. She has also been busy reviewing sleeping arrangements and the special cardboard beds made for them.

“Honestly, TikTok has been great to keep my mind off the Games,” Maher said after USA’s 28-14 win over China on Thursday in the rugby sevens. “It’s been a good way to share me with the world in a really genuine, authentic way and give people an inside look into the Olympics,” she added.

Ilona Delsing Rosa Maher of the USA in action on day one of the Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens – HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series at The Sevens Stadium on November 29, 2018, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Who is Ilona Maher?

An all-around athlete, Ilona Maher lettered in field hockey, basketball and soccer before starting rugby at the age of 17 at Norwich University. She fully transitioned into the sport after transferring to Quinnipiac University, where she earned All-American Honors and led her teammates to three titles in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA). In 2017, Maher was honored with the MA Sorenson Award, delivered to the best women’s rugby player in college athletics, according to USA Rugby.

In 2018, Maher helped Scion Rugby Academy earn the Las Vegas Invitational’s Elite title, before making her international debut at the 2018 Paris Sevens tournament. She was subsequently picked to compete at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, in which she helped the Women’s Sevens finish fourth at the first-ever US-hosted Rugby World Cup, according to USA Rugby.

Ilona Maher of the USA in action during the match between USA and Russia at the 2020 HSBC Sevens at FMG Stadium Waikato on January 25, 2020, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“I keep feeling like I’m gonna start crying because I’m so proud of her,” said Maher’s childhood pal Anna Cote-Wurzler told VTDigger.org. “She’s been working for this our entire lives.”

Austin Hall, a former coach of Maher at Norwich, recalled the first time he saw her play. “I could tell she was going places. I mean, just the way she moved versus everyone else on the field,” Hall said. “She just had a spark to her.” 

Ilona Maher, Kris Thomas, and Abby Gustaitis of Team United States share a laugh as they prepare to take the field for the Women’s pool C match between the Team United States and Team Japan during the Rugby Sevens on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 29, 2021, in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Her mother Mieneke Maher told the outlet that she and Ilona talked most days despite the 13-hour time difference. Meanwhile, she also kept up with her daughter’s Olympic journey through TikTok. “She just has an incredible knack for projecting kindness and inclusiveness and just, you know, normalcy through the TikToks, which is incredible,” Mieneke Maher said of her daughter’s antics, adding, “When I watch them, even I giggle.”

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2 Tempe ruggers on U.S. team shine spotlight on sport in Tokyo Olympics

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Brett Thompson, formerly of Marcos de Niza High and the University of Arizona, and son of legendary Hall of Fame rugby coach Salty Thompson, scored for the U.S. against Great Britain in the Tokyo Olympics quarterfinals. — Atlantis Rugby photo

As the hulking figure thundered toward the U.S. goal line toting something resembling an oversize football, Brett Thompson was epitomizing what it’s all about in the sport of rugby sevens: Try.

Thompson, who turns 31 on Aug. 17,  had been trying for some time. And trying some more.

And on this 50-meter jaunt for the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics last week, he had to try especially hard as two Great Britain players caught up to him and attempted to tackle him about 10-meters from the goal. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Thompson, looking like a U.S. football fullback on a dive play, dragged them both in and scored, which in rugby is known as a “try” and counts 5 points.

Thompson is from Marcos de Niza High. He has been on the U.S. senior national rugby team for nine years, although sidelined by injuries for four of them. Repair of torn anterior cruciate ligament. Both knees. Reconstruction of a shoulder. Foot injury. And he’s back.

Pads and helmet? Meh. Those are for the high-priced prima donnas in American football. These guys mix it up with only shorts, shirts and cleats, pounding, blocking and tackling with no protection in a physical, collision sport that is not for the weak or anyone with a low tolerance for pain.

Thompson initially was selected to the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate but was promoted to the active roster for the Games in early July after teammate Ben Pinkelman’s lingering back injury required surgery.

So there he was for the whole world to see. Among those tuned in at 2:30 a.m. Arizona time was his dad, Salty Thompson, who is among the most-noted rugby coaches in the country and a 2021 inductee into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame. Salty and his wife still live in the same South Tempe house near Kyrene and Guadalupe where he raised Brett.

A few days earlier, Salty Thompson had been in Salt Lake City at a youth-rugby tournament and snuck away to watch the Olympics opening ceremonies.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Salty Thompson said. “I was watching, and then there was Brett. I thought, oh my God, this is happening.

“Then he took the field and played really well. How often does this opportunity come, especially at his age after what he went through to get there? There are only about 600 U.S. Olympians in a country of about 300 million.”

Another of them is Maceo Brown, 25, a Corona del Sol High graduate, who played two years on the club rugby team at Grand Canyon University and now is a starter on the U.S. Olympic team.

Maceo Brown, formerly of Corona del Sol and Grand Canyon University, was talented but needed discipline to thrive in rugby. He grew into a starter on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo. — Grand Canyon University photo

The U.S., while not yet a world power in the sport, true to rugby gave it a try. It won its first two games in Olympics pool play last week, over Ireland and Kenya, before falling to South Africa, still reaching the quarterfinals and needing a win there over defending silver medalist Great Britain to play for a medal.

The U.S. roared to a 21-0 lead and appeared headed for a monumental upset. Then, Great Britain scored with 10 seconds left in the first half and in the second got two quick, easy scores enroute to a 26-21 comeback victory.

The U.S. team’s sixth-place finish was an improvement on its ninth place in the Rio Olympics in 2016.

“We were all looking to bring a medal home,” Brown said in Tokyo in an interview with USA Rugby.

“The experience was great, amazing, coming in and seeing all the athletes everywhere, all the flags in the village, getting in some sightseeing, the opening ceremony. It’s a great experience.”

Salty Thompson coached both Tempe Olympians.

Who knew that Tempe was such a national hub of rugby?

It’s a well-kept secret, but the emergence of Brown and the younger Thompson coupled with the legendary coaching and administration of the elder Thompson has put the area on the rugby map.

“It’s a quiet amateur sport but we have nurtured quite a lot of top-level players here over the years,” Salty Thompson said. “Tempe Rugby has been around since 1980. We get them started. It’s unfortunate that they then have to go somewhere else to develop. We just export them. But we do have a really, really strong youth program, and (coach) Hal Morgan has taken them to the high school national tournament.”

Salty Thompson

Thompson, 66, was soccer and cross-country coach for nearly 23 years at Westview High in Avondale. He has coached numerous U.S. national teams in all age groups. He now is director of Eagle Impact Rugby Academy in Tempe,  where he identifies and develops the next generation of young American players who continue to close the gap on world leaders in the sport. He has coached 45 All Americans and sent more than 40 players on to U.S. national teams.

A native of Ireland, Thompson came to the U.S. to get his master’s degree at Arizona State, where he played on and coached the club rugby team. Before that, he played rugby at Loughborough University in England, where he also ran the 400 meters on the track team with middle-distance Olympic medalist and world recordholder Sebastian Coe.

“We’re a nation that loves our medals, and when we fall short it’s disappointing,” Salty Thompson said. “But the Olympics is great exposure for our team. The culture of the sport sells well to the public. And there’s curiosity. Kids see it and say to themselves, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at that.’”

Rugby sevens, for men and women, is in the Olympics for only the second time, having made its debut in Rio in 2016. Rugby, with 15 players to a side in an 80-minute game of two 40-minute halves — also known as rugby union — was in the Olympics until being discontinued after the 1924 Games in Paris.

Rugby sevens is seven players per team in a 14-minute game of two 7-minute halves, but played on a regulation-size field. It is faster and more free-flowing than rugby union, requiring speed, which is a reason why the U.S. team nearly reached the medal round.

And that’s what makes Brown, a multi-sport player while at Corona, valuable.

“He’s a talented guy, but he wasn’t the easiest kid to coach,” Salty Thompson said. “We joke about that now.”

Brandon Thompson, who is no relation to Salty or Brett, but who played rugby with both of them as well as with Brown, takes it a step further.

“Instantaneously, his talent really showed,” Brandon Thompson said of Brown. “What Maceo really needed was a mentor within the rugby community. A lot of times, being polished and being disciplined are two different things. Salty really steered Maceo, really encouraged him, sometimes redirected him and really pushed him in his rugby career.”

Maceo Brown

Brown, at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, quickly drew the attention of national and international scouts while on the Grand Canyon club team. During his senior year at GCU, he took online classes while preparing full-time with the USA Development Team.

“It’s an honor to be selected as one of the lucky few representing this great country,” Brown said. “There have been so many ups and downs on this journey to becoming an Olympian, but one thing that never wavered was my faith in God, in humanity and, most importantly, in myself.”

Brandon Thompson and Brown played on the 2018 national championship team together.

“Now, I’m a fan of Maceo like everybody else,” Brandon Thompson said. “Maceo is highly competitive and he has a deep desire to succeed, and that’s what pressed him forward.”

Brandon Thompson, 41, is an English teacher as well as cross-country and soccer coach at Tempe High. He also is director of player development at Tempe Rugby Club.

“We are not a tier 1 rugby nation yet,” Brandon Thompson said. “But the nice thing about sevens is its only 14 minutes long. So is it possible for the U.S to make a run? Absolutely, because it’s more of a free-flowing game and we do have a fair amount of speed on that team. That’s the great equalizer in every game.”

It’s still a physical game, too. That’s what makes Brett Thompson valuable.

On his twitter page, he describes himself as “half human, half robot.” He made his point with that brute-force finish for a try against Great Britain that left the NBC-TV commentators aghast.

“Join the party,” Salty Thompson said. “He’s just so big and strong. He’s healthy for this Olympics, which is fantastic since he missed the last one. I’m very proud of him. But my wife has a rule: We don’t talk rugby over dinner. When it comes to Brett, I’m just dad.”

Brett Thompson went from Marcos to the University of Arizona as a preferred football walk-on, recruited by former coach Mike Stoops. After two seasons playing special teams, Thompson shifted his focus back to rugby.

Brett Thompson

“I’ve known Brett since he was a little boy,” said Brandon Thompson, the Tempe High teacher-coach. “I watched him grow up and I was his teammate for a while. He was a wonderful football player, just a great athlete. He always had rugby on the back burner.

“With Salty as his father, Brett is a real student of the game. He’s very hard working but very coachable. Now, he pops in on our youth camps when he comes back. He has worked himself into being one of our country’s best rugby players.”

Seeing successes like those of his son and Brown keep Salty Thompson going at 66.

“It’s the possibilities and the character development in the sport,” he said. “It takes a certain mentality to even want to play rugby.”

For Brandon Thompson, it’s the humility and camaraderie.

“Honestly, all the wonderful things in my life came from rugby,” Brandon Thompson said. “I met my wife. She played. Salty became my coaching mentor. He coached soccer and cross-country, and now that’s what I do.

“In rugby there is no real showboating. These guys push themselves. They’re willing to work hard. I honestly think rugby is one of the greatest team sports in the world. It is a wonderful outlet for physicality, for speed and then for community. Afterward, you hang out with your opponent and talk to each other. We play this physical, almost violent, sport all these minutes and we still get together and respect each other as human beings. You belong to something greater that builds positivity rather than negativity. That’s really what draws all of us to it.”

 

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Team USA Falls in the Olympic Rugby Sevens Quarterfinals

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After a delay due to thunderstorms, the USA Eagles and Whitefish’s Nicole Heavirland faced Great Britain in the quarterfinals of the women’s rugby sevens tournament at the Tokyo Olympics where their medal hopes ended in a 21-12 loss reports 406mtsports.com.

Great Britain scored less than a minute into the match and had jumped out to a 14-0 lead by halftime while also preventing the U.S. from advancing more than halfway up the pitch. They scored again shortly after halftime to go up 21-0.

Midway through the second half, the U.S. made enough progress to move up the pitch and Kristi Kirshe scored a try with two and a half minutes left to make it a 21-5. On the final possession as time expired, Naya Tapper scored a try for the U.S. and Heavirland converted to make the final score 21-12.

Jasmine Joyce scored two tries for Great Britain, Abbie Brown added another and Holly Atchinson converted three.

Great Britain will advance to the semifinal round to face France. On the other side of the bracket, New Zealand and Fiji will face off in the other semifinal for seeding into the medal rounds with three of the pre-tournament favorites being upset earlier.

With the loss, the U.S. will drop into playing for fifth through eighth place and will not play for a medal. They finished fifth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio and had been hoping to better that finish.

In Tokyo, the Eagles went 3-0 in Pool C to start the tournament with an emotional victory earlier in the day over defending champions Australia (14-12), and hosts Japan (17-7) and China (28-14) the day before.

Heavirland and U.S. Win Pool C of Tokyo Rugby Sevens Tournament, Defeat Olympic Champions Australia

The U.S. Eagles defeated Australia, the defending Olympic champions, 14-12 in the final game of the pool play portion of the Tokyo Olympics women’s rugby sevens tournament at Tokyo Stadium. They finish pool play undefeated 3-0.

But after falling behind 12-0, the U.S. had to come back in the second half as they found a way to win Pool C and earn its top seed into the medal rounds.

Cheta Emba started the comeback with a try with just over four minutes remaining, but captain Abby Gustaitis’ try with under three minutes left brought the Eagles back even with Australia. Whitefish’s Nicole Heavirland converted on both tries to earn four points, including the deciding margin.

Both teams will advance to the quarterfinals by virtue of their top two finish in pool C (which also included China and host Japan). The U.S. defeated both yesterday 28-14 (China) and 17-7 (Japan).

The U.S. is aiming to improve on a fifth-place finish from the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

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