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.
“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.
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.”