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Speedster Green chasing rugby gold for Australia in Rio

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Ellia Green has been cutting her teeth as a rugby player for four years in the pursuit of an Olympic gold medal. It has cost her a couple of teeth along the way, too.

The so-called fastest woman in world rugby, for a long time Green trained in track and field and had competed at international level for Australia before making a sudden move into the rough-and-tumble sport.

Like so many players in the world series-winning Australian women’s squad, it was games of backyard rugby with a brother as a child that provided the only real hint about the physical demands of the game.

“He always tried to get me involved. He tried to tackle me in the backyard,” Green recalled of her brother, Mitchell, now 25 and still playing rugby union. “It helped. Growing up, we were sort of rough with each other. He told me `You should try rugby, you’d be so good at it.”‘

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That wasn’t exactly the unanimous family line. Her mother, Yolanta, wasn’t really sold on the idea at first.

“She was unsure about it – she was worried,” Green said. “`Ellia, can’t you pick a sport where you can’t get hurt?”‘

Four years later, by her reckoning, Green has had five operations.

“Finger surgeries, I’ve lost teeth, shoulder operations,” she said, running through her catalog of injuries. “That’s one thing (Yolanta) was worried about.

“But above all, she said opportunities like this don’t come often. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have gone on with it.”

Green’s initial contact with rugby sevens was as a driver – giving her cousin a ride to a “Pathway to Gold” talent identification tryout in Melbourne in 2012. There were women there from all kinds of sports, and from all over Australia.

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“I wasn’t planning on going at all. I was just taking my cousin,” Green recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was spontaneous. There were 150-200 girls. They only picked two.”

One of those was Green, who was born in Fiji and raised in Australia.

The team has several players drawn from other sports, including Chloe Dalton, who earlier had aspirations to be in Australia’s women’s basketball team, field hockey players Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams, who was a full-time auto mechanic, and Charlotte Caslick and Alicia Quirk from touch football – a non-contact form of rugby.

Having a squad of full-time contracted players paid off in the women’s world sevens series when the Australians broke New Zealand’s dominance of the competition,

Green made more clean line breaks than anyone in the 2016 world series and scored 17 tries – fourth on the list for the season – lifting her career tally to 61. New Zealander Portia Woodman led the try-scoring for the season with 24, followed by Green’s Australian teammate Emilee Cherry with 22 and Ghislaine Landry of Canada with 19.

Australia won the first three titles in the five-event series and reached the final on the last stop to finish with 94 points, 14 clear of second-place New Zealand and 20 clear of Canada and England.

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The convincing series win make the Australians favorites for gold in Rio, but Green and her teammates are conscious that New Zealand timed its preparations to peak for the Olympic tournament which kicks off Saturday.

Speed is one of the Australian team’s biggest assets, and Green knows she’ll be in the targets of defenders for that reason. She looks inside and outside of the game for motivation, recalling the posters of sprinters she had on her walls in her track and field days, admiring the likes of Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

From a rugby sevens perspective, she looks to the likes of U.S. men’s players Carlin Isles and Perry Baker.

“I do look up to speedsters,” she said. “I just like the power.”

Rugby is returning to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years, in the modified sevens version rather than the traditional 15-a-side game. Women will be playing for rugby medals for the first time, and Green sees that as an opportunity to break down some stereotypes.

“I want to be a tough girl who can do anything,” she said. “I’m into my cars. I love building – I did some construction work last year. I don’t think there should be any boundaries to what girls should do.”

Danell Leyva makes incredible save on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Danell Leyva
NBC
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Danell Leyva, a three-time Olympic gymnastics medalist, put those skills to the test in the “American Ninja Warrior” finals, saving himself from splashing out of the course.

In one obstacle, Leyva slipped and fell off one of four flexible boards positioned above water.

He faceplanted onto the last board, his lower body falling off. But Leyva held on with his arms and pulled himself back onto the apparatus and to the next obstacle.

The full Las Vegas Finals episode airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Leyva previously splashed out of the “Leaps of Faith” obstacle in the Los Angeles City Finals episode that aired last month.

Leyva, a 27-year-old who took all-around bronze at the 2012 London Games, retired with parallel bars and high bar silvers in Rio.

Other Olympic gymnasts have tackled ANW, including gold medalists Nastia Liukin and Paul Hamm.

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VIDEO: U.S. gymnast catches high bar with one hand at nationals

Kim Rhode triumphs over theft on road to record-breaking Olympic bid

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Kim Rhode arrived at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, missing a few things.

The six-time Olympic shooting medalist had nearly all her equipment stolen prior to her trip earlier this month after her bag was nabbed from her father’s car.

“I lost everything but my vest and my gun,” Rhode said in Lima (noting with a smile she has seen worse: her gun was stolen a few years ago, though it was later returned). This time, “we’re all frantically trying to piece it back together, somewhat. … At the end of the day, you just have to kinda roll with it.”

It would take more than theft to rattle Rhode, who remains one of her sport’s top athletes 23 years after her first Olympic gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

The continental skeet title she won at Pan Ams (new equipment in tow) built upon a string of strong results since the last Olympics, including a world silver medal in 2018. Earlier this year, she became the first woman to win four straight World Cups in shooting.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Rhode could do something unprecedented: win seven medals in as many consecutive Olympics.

Rhode remembered a lot from her first trip to the Games as a 17-year-old carrying a pager. She described the volume of the crowd chanting “U-S-A” at the Opening Ceremony and the hum of the audience watching her compete, “almost like they were helping us to pull the trigger each and every time.” She recalled the athlete bowling alley, where both the balls and shoes were adorned with an Olympic flame symbol.

After winning gold in double trap, Rhode went back to high school life in El Monte, Calif. She couldn’t have known then that five more Olympics would follow. That one day, she’d have an Olympic medal from every continent in which the Games have been contested. That at 40, she’d still be at the top of her sport.

“I don’t think you ever get over the Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get used to it. It really takes on a life of its own.”

Rhode has been a constant in a sport that continues to evolve and change, and noted the technological advances that pushed it forward in the last several years: “you are seeing a lot more on the technical side of the stocks, more of these specialized grips,” she said, and “more people going with multiple lenses.”

Her competitors changed, too. Rhode described younger teammates showing her how to take a live photo and set up an Instagram account. “I’m kind of archaic in that sense,” she said with a laugh.

Her competitive spirit remains unchanged. While Tokyo would mark a milestone, Rhode has no plans of slowing down.

“I think I still have a few more in me,” she said, noting she’d like to compete in front of a home crowd again when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. “I definitely don’t see a need to stop. … Some of the shooters tend to be a lot older than most of the other Olympians because we have no shelf life. That’s the great thing about us.”

Rhode competed at the London Olympics not knowing she was pregnant with son Carter.

What followed was what she described as a difficult pregnancy and recovery. Her bones separated during the pregnancy, and she had her gall bladder removed after the birth.

The complications affected her ability to walk and complete endurance-related activities, which she continues to face. These days, Rhode said she still can’t run a mile, but in preparation for Tokyo, she is working with a physical therapist and nutritionist.

After Pan Ams, Rhode planned to add more strength training. “At the end of the day, I’m slowly but surely making small strides to get back to where I’m at,” she said.

Carter, now 6, speaks three languages and sometimes helps Rhode during practice, pulling for her before she shoots and collecting shells. He was on hand when Rhode earned a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, but he isn’t overly impressed (yet) by his mom’s long list of accomplishments.

“I don’t think he grasps the whole picture of what it is that I’m doing,” she said. “I think that’ll come a little bit later.”

She stores Olympic mementos at her parents’ home, a collection of bags from each Games stuffed with clothing, pins and other paraphernalia, and vacuum-sealed.

“My family is running out of room with all the bags,” she said, noting she isn’t sure when she’ll open them up and go through what’s inside.

Maybe after she collects a few more.

“To have had that opportunity so many times is amazing,” she said of her Olympic career so far. “I feel very, very fortunate.”

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