Captain Madison Hughes reflects on best-ever season for U.S. rugby

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HARRISON, N.J. — Madison Hughes did not have much time to celebrate the best-ever finish for the U.S. at the World Rugby Sevens Series. Less than 24 hours after the season-ending tournament in London on May 21, he was back at the Chula Vista (Calif.) Olympic Training Center, preparing to join the 15-a-side program for its June matches.

“It’s been a long year with sevens and going into 15s,” said Hughes, adding that he will “hopefully” have time off in July and August.

Hughes’ season began in August 2016. He captained the U.S. to a ninth-place finish at the Rio Olympics, where rugby sevens made its Olympic debut.

By December, he was back on the pitch for the first of 10 tournaments of the 2016-17 World Rugby Sevens Series. The U.S. finished fifth, its best result in the Series’ 18 seasons, after being ranked sixth the two previous seasons.

“We showed that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “The top teams in the world are well within our view.”

Perry Baker became the first U.S. player to lead the Series in tries, after finishing second last season. He also paced the Series with 285 points (a try is worth five points). Hughes finished third with 279 points.

It was only the third season of top-level rugby for Baker, who played two seasons in the Arena Football League as a wide receiver.

“I really think Perry’s been the best rugby sevens player in the world this year,” Hughes said. “He’s still learning rugby, and every year he has gotten better and better. I think next season he can be even better.”

Carlin Isles, who scored more tries than any other player at the Rio Olympics, missed eight of the Series’ 10 tournaments with various injuries. Isles, who is known as the “fastest man in rugby,” and Baker, who is not far behind, are nicknamed “The Slow Bros” because they are two of the fastest players on the pitch, but two of the slowest off of it.

The speedsters have traditionally played alternating halves. But with Isles sidelined, Baker was often asked to be the focal point of the U.S. attack for the entire 14 minutes of matches.

“It’s been tough being without Carlin, because he is a unique talent,” Hughes said. “But Perry really stepped up in Carlin’s absence.”

A knee injury sidelined Hughes as the No. 17 U.S. 15-a-side program lost to No. 4 Ireland, 55-19, in the Emirates Airline Summer Series opener on Saturday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. But he expects to be available for the Emirates Airline Summer Series finale on June 17 against Georgia, as well as the 2019 Rugby World Cup Qualifier series beginning June 24.

Hughes only made his 15s debut in November. The 24-year-old was named captain of the sevens squad in 2014, when he was the team’s youngest player, but has deferred as a leader to veteran 15s co-captains Nate Augspurger and Todd Clever.

“I’m the new guy,” Hughes said. “I like seeing what other people are doing, and how that will affect my leadership style.”

Hughes is hoping to play in the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, 2019 Rugby World Cup (15s) and 2020 Olympics (Sevens). Three U.S. players—Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua and Zack Test—competed in all three of rugby’s most prestigious quadrennial tournaments leading up to the 2016 Olympics (NOTE: the Rugby World Cup Sevens was last held in 2013).

“It’s definitely a goal of mine to pursue the 2018 World Cup Sevens and the 2020 Olympics,” Hughes said. “With 15s, I’m still seeing how it goes. It’s still very new, and I haven’t established myself at that level. If it works out to continue to be involved [for the 2019 Rugby World Cup], I would love to do that, but I am just going to enjoy the experience.”

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MORE: U.S. rugby concludes best-ever season

U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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Five women’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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As Rio gold medalists decide on their futures, this week’s P&G Championships mark the first showcase for a new class of U.S. women’s gymnasts.

For the first time since 2008, nobody in the nationals field in Anaheim has competed at an Olympics. Usually, a gymnast or two carries over into the post-Olympic year, like Bridget Sloan in 2009 and Kyla Ross in 2013.

But this year, the feeling is akin to 2005, when no woman (or man) from the 2004 Athens Games chalked up at nationals.

Back then, a 15-year-old Nastia Liukin, who had already starred in a commercial during the 2004 Olympics, made her senior nationals debut and won the all-around. Three years later, Liukin won the Olympic all-around in Beijing.

There will be talk this week of finding the next Liukin, or Gabby Douglas, or Simone Biles, who, like Liukin, won her senior nationals debut the year after the Olympics.

“Some of them [from Rio], hopefully Simone, will be coming back, but I think this is a great opportunity for some of these girls to go out there and prove that they’re just as ready to compete at a world championships,” said Liukin, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “They have to step up a little bit and kind of become the leaders.”

MORE: P&G Champs broadcast schedule

Gymnasts this week are vying to impress new U.S. national team coordinator Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father). The four-woman roster for October’s worlds, where there is no team event, will be named after a selection camp later this summer.

Five gymnasts to watch at the P&G Championships:

Ragan Smith
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 AT&T American Cup champion

The Texan performed admirably in her first senior season in 2016, placing fifth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials. Her best events are balance beam and floor exercise, but the U.S. needed uneven bars help in Rio. So she went to the Games as an alternate at age 15, making headlines for this photo with 6-foot-11 basketball player DeAndre Jordan.

Smith, coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, emerged this year as the U.S.’ most reliable all-arounder and clear favorite this week. She won the American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. A definite all-around medal favorite at October’s worlds.

Ashton Locklear
Rio Olympic alternate
2014 World team champion

Locklear was beaten for the Olympic team bars specialist spot by Madison Kocian after nearly matching Kocian in scores in four routines between last year’s P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old is not considered an all-around threat this week but is favored to make the world team based on her bars ability. She was fourth in the event at 2014 Worlds.

Riley McCusker
2017 Jesolo Trophy all-around winner

McCusker, who has the same coach as Laurie Hernandez, struggled at the American Cup in her first senior competition, falling on bars and beam. She rebounded to win Jesolo a month later and remain in the mix as the No. 2 U.S. all-arounder (Smith wasn’t at Jesolo).

However, McCusker was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July and said she expected to be back to peak form in September, not August.

Morgan Hurd
2017 Stuttgart World Cup bronze medalist

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, was adopted from China as a toddler and now lives with her mom in Delaware.

Liukin, asked to name gymnasts to watch this week, started with Hurd, whom she says has the highest floor exercise start value in the world. “She could be capable of winning a world all-around medal and possibly become a world champion on floor,” Liukin said.

Jade Carey
2017 U.S. Classic vault winner

The U.S. has a tradition of sending a vault specialist to worlds, but neither of the top vaulters from the last Olympic cycle — Biles nor MyKayla Skinner — is competing this week. Enter Carey, a 17-year-old who wasn’t an elite gymnast before this season.

Carey performed the difficult Amanar vault at July’s U.S. Classic, where she was the only gymnast to perform two vaults, which is required to compete for medals on the event at worlds.

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