U.S. rugby teams can qualify for Rio Olympics this weekend

Carlin Isles

The U.S. men’s and women’s rugby sevens teams are favored to clinch 2016 Olympic berths at a North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) qualifying tournament in Cary, N.C., this weekend.

Rugby returns to the Olympics next year for the first time since 1924. The U.S. won the last two Olympic rugby tournaments in 1920, when there were two nations competing, and 1924, when there were three.

Back then, the Olympic rugby format was 15 players per side, without a separate women’s tournament.

In Cary, only the men’s and women’s champions Sunday will earn Olympic berths. The second- and third-place teams in Cary advance to a later last-chance global Olympic qualifying tournament.

The U.S. men go into Cary with unprecedented momentum, having won their first World Series leg title in London on May 17 in the season finale. The U.S. finished sixth overall in the World Series, with the top four nations earning Olympic berths (Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and England (Great Britain for Olympic qualifying purposes)).

“We are feeling confident, they’re a confident group, but at the same token our environment and our culture is about humility,” U.S. coach Mike Friday said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re under no illusions of what’s at stake.”

The U.S. men will be favored in Cary, not only because of the home-field advantage but also because the next highest-ranked North American nation in the World Series was Canada, three spots below the U.S.

“We are the underdogs coming into this,” Canada coach Liam Middleton said, according to the Canadian Press. “There’s no question about that.”

“We’ve been the most consistent team, but this isn’t about consistency,” said Friday, who took over the U.S. team last year after stints with Kenya and his native England.

The U.S. defeated Canada 29-10 in their last meeting in London on May 17, after Canada routed the U.S. 40-0 in Glasgow on May 9.

“We were slightly off, and we got punished by Canada,” Friday said. “We gifted them possession, and it became a downward spiral. We made unforced error after unforced error.”

The U.S. women will be bigger favorites than the men in Cary, given top North American rival Canada is already into the Olympics via its second-place finish in this year’s World Series.

The U.S. women placed fifth, missing out on the last Olympic berth available via a tiebreaker to England.

In Cary, the U.S. women are the only team in the field that competed in this season’s World Series.

USARugbyTV.com will air all men’s and women’s matches live Saturday (full Saturday schedule) and Sunday (full Sunday schedule). The finals are at 5:04 (women) and 5:34 p.m. ET (men) on Sunday.

Here’s the U.S. men’s schedule in pool play in Cary:

vs. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — Saturday, 1:22 p.m. ET
vs. Barbados — Saturday, 3:44 p.m. ET
vs. Mexico — Saturday, 6:06 p.m. ET
vs. Jamaica — Sunday, June 14, 9 a.m. ET

Here’s the U.S. women’s schedule in pool play:

vs. Jamaica — Saturday, 11:44 a.m. ET
vs. Barbados — Saturday, 2:06 p.m. ET
vs. Cayman Islands — Saturday, 4:28 p.m. ET

Jillion Potter done with cancer treatment, eyes U.S. rugby return, Olympics

Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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