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Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

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Nate Ebner is playing his fifth season with the New England Patriots, but it was a moment on the rugby pitch that he considers the most memorable of his athletic career.

“It was pretty exciting to score a try at the Olympics,” Ebner said in a phone interview last week. “I can’t say that I’ve ever done anything comparable to that.”

Ebner became the first active NFL player to compete at a Summer Olympics when he played for the U.S. rugby team in Rio. The Americans finished ninth of 12 teams, as rugby sevens made its Olympic debut.

His first Olympic try helped the U.S. blank Brazil 26-0 on Aug. 9. That morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick wore a USA Rugby shirt to practice with Ebner’s name on the back. Belichick then gave his players a break from training camp to watch the match against Brazil.

“Hopefully it gave them something to rally around,” Ebner said.

In the same match, Ebner received a yellow card and spent two minutes in the sin bin for a jarring late hit.

“I’ve hit people like that before,” Ebner said. “That’s what we do in rugby, that’s what we do in football. We hit people.”

Ebner returned to Patriots training camp days after his final rugby match in Rio. The biggest readjustments were getting used to the stop-and-start movements of football, as well as the weight of a helmet and shoulder pads.

“It was pretty easy to get back in the swing of things,” he said.

Ebner also had to put on weight after getting in shape for rugby, which he believes is as physically demanding “as anything else in sports at that level.” Rugby is seven-minute halves of continuous action, unlike football, which has breaks after every play. Rugby players also have to cover more ground, since the sport is played with four fewer athletes on a pitch that is nearly 25 yards wider than an American football field.

“I came in here with a very high tolerance for cardiovascular training,” Ebner said. “My ability to run long distances is as good as it’s ever been.”

Ebner used rugby teammate Carlin Isles as an example of the speed in the sport. Isles, who is considered the fastest man in rugby, is listed at 165 pounds. Ebner believes that Isles would have to put on weight to play in the NFL, but at his current weight, Isles has quickness that Ebner never encountered on a football field.

“Of course he is faster than anybody in the NFL,” Ebner said of Isles, a former practice-squad wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. “He’s as fast as anybody I’ve played sports with.”

Several football players approached Ebner with questions about rugby. Even quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, was curious.

“[Brady] said it was exciting to watch,” Ebner said. “He had never really seen it before.”

Ebner is not sure when he will return to the rugby pitch, saying, “we’ll see where my body is at” when the NFL season is over. He has not ruled out trying to make the 2020 Olympic team.

“Sure, I would think about it,” Ebner said. “But that’s so far away, it’s not on my radar at the moment.”

Ebner might not be the only NFL player who attempts to compete in Tokyo.

“A lot of guys out here would make good rugby players,” Ebner said. “It would all come down to how well they adapt to the flow of the game and if they could pick that stuff up. But you can’t tell until you start playing.”

As Ebner discussed his Olympic rugby experience on a call with NBCSports.com, Patriots teammate Patrick Chung stole his phone.

“Damn right I can play rugby,” Chung said. “Yeah boi!”

MORE: Fiji Olympic rugby coach given 3 acres of land, special name

Bernard Lagat reminded of Atlanta Games at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

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ATLANTA — As 45-year-old Bernard Lagat sat inside a hotel overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, he spoke one sentence that prefaced the start of his Olympic journey more than two decades ago.

“We are doing this in a special place,” he said of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which finish at the park on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Lagat is an underdog, but has a chance to make a sixth Olympic team by placing in the top three. He can break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.

Lagat was reminded this week of the Atlanta Olympics that got away.

In 1996, the Kenyan-born runner was coming off his freshman year at Jomo Kenyatta University Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. He studied mathematics and computer science.

Lagat debuted at the Kenyan Olympic Trials. He remembered finishing seventh in the 1500m, having exhausted himself by clocking a 3:37 semifinal.

“They had fancy shoes, nice clothing,” he said of the pros. “Me, I was like hand-me-down spikes.”

Lagat’s coach at the time, Nganga Ngata, arranged for him to transfer to Washington State later that summer. But first, Lagat watched on TV the Olympic 1500m final — famous for then-world-record holder Noureddine Morceli and current world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj making contact at the bell; El Guerrouj fell, Morceli won.

Days later, Lagat headed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. He was to fly to the United States for the first time, embarking on a journey that would lead to U.S. Olympic teams in 2008, 2012 and 2016 after he represented Kenya in 2000 and 2004.

Before a 21-year-old Lagat boarded his flight, he encountered a reception. The Kenyan Olympic team was arriving back from Atlanta after collecting eight medals, including in every men’s distance-running event.

“They had all these celebrations, traditional milk and the gourds,” Lagat said. “Oh, it was amazing. … That fire, seeing them coming home with medals, and I thought, I want to be like those guys.”

Lagat went on to earn eight combined Olympic and world championships medals between the 1500m and 5000m. Lagat qualified for one last Olympics on the track in 2016, going from sixth place at the bell to win the trials 5000m. He was fifth in Rio.

Then he turned to the marathon. Lagat has raced two of them. He clocked 2:17:20 in New York City in 2018, saying he was “running blind” with inexperience. He ran 2:12:10 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, ranking him outside the 20 fastest Americans in this Olympic cycle.

Lagat went back to Kenya last month to train for the trials with the likes of world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Lagat soaked up so much that he likened it to a six-week school term.

At one point, Lagat was part of a 30km training run with Kipchoge. By the end he rounded a bend and saw the Olympic favorite just 60 seconds ahead.

“You think about Eliud being 60 seconds ahead of you in a 30K?” an incredulous Lagat said. “I thought, I’m done. Now I can buy my flight and go back to USA. I’m ready.”

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MORE: Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Chris Lillis, after missing Olympics, back atop aerials podium

Andrey Kulagin
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U.S. men’s aerials skiers had gone four years between World Cup victories. Now, they’ve won back-to-back events.

Chris Lillis prevailed in Kazakhstan on Friday, six days after Justin Schoenefeld ended the U.S.’ longest men’s victory drought since aerials became an Olympic medal sport in 1994.

Lillis, the 21-year-old brother of 2017 World champion Jon Lillis, landed a double full-full-full in the super final to score 121.27 points. Full results are here. He beat a field that included Schoenefeld (sixth place) and his older brother (14th) but lacked the world’s best from China and Russia.

“That was definitely one of the best jumps of my career,” Chris Lillis said. “Moving forward I’m feeling deadly.”

Chris has earned back-to-back World Cup podiums, his first top-three finishes since missing the PyeongChang Olympics with a torn ACL.

Also Friday, American Megan Nick finished second in the women’s event for her second runner-up this season. The last U.S. woman to win a World Cup was Kiley McKinnon on Jan. 6, 2018.

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MORE: Olympic aerials champion retires to coach