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New-look U.S. women’s rugby team on verge of Olympic qualification

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Four years ago, the U.S. women’s rugby team missed its first chance to qualify for the Rio Games by tiebreaker and was forced into an extra continental tournament to earn a place in the sport’s Olympic return.

The Americans are taking care of business early for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

They are ranked third in the world going into the penultimate World Series leg in Canada this weekend. It would be their best finish ever in the series’ seven-year history, after being fifth or sixth each of the last four years (and losing in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals).

The top four in this season’s standings — once it concludes in France next month — become the first Olympic qualifiers along with host Japan.

The U.S., the only nation to finish in the top four in all four legs thus far, will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot this weekend by finishing two places ahead of France, which it did in three of the first four legs.

“This is by far the best situation that the group has found themselves in,” first-year head coach Chris Brown said. “We are excited to hopefully achieve it this weekend, but we’ve also never won a tournament.”

It’s a new position for the program. One perhaps overshadowed by the U.S. men, who like the women were fifth or sixth the previous four years but currently lead their World Series standings.

The U.S. women have a new leader — Olympic coach Richie Walker resigned in August and was replaced by Brown, who had been an assistant for the men’s team. And a new roster. Only three of this season’s 12 primary players were on the Rio Olympic team (six of the U.S. men’s primary players are Olympians).

The oldest is 28. Four of the 12 players in Rio were in their 30s.

“We have the strike power, the playmakers in the middle, the distributors,” Brown said. “We should be building up these next 18 months to be in a space where there’s nothing inside of us to think it’s not highly possible that we’ll have a good opportunity [at an Olympic medal].”

The team does not have a single defining superstar, like Perry Baker for the U.S. men. None of its players rank in the top eight in the World Series in points or tries. Its most written-about player leading into Rio, stalwart and cancer survivor Jillion Potter, has retired.

“The team previously had a lot of strike power individually,” Brown said. “I’m asking them to play a little bit more collectively on the offensive side and playing for each other, rather than just giving the ball to this player or that player.”

The new nucleus is led by converts.

Scoring leader Alev Kelter failed to make the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey team, then switched to rugby after receiving an out-of-the-blue call while snowboarding from the late Ric Suggitt, former U.S. coach. Nicknamed “Chips,” she broke her front tooth at least three times before the Rio Games.

Naya Tapper, a 24-year-old, led the U.S. in tries the last two seasons. Tapper was a high school state championships 100m finalist sprinter before joining the University of North Carolina’s club rugby team.

Cheta Emba and Tapper are the only Americans to appear in all 24 matches this season. Emba played rugby and soccer at Harvard, where she was an all-Ivy League goalie and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology.

Emba and Nicole Heavirland were the two traveling alternates for the Rio Olympic team. Heavirland has captained the U.S. at every World Series leg the last two seasons after playing in the 15-per-side game at the 2017 World Cup. She originally enlisted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a guard for the basketball team before converting to rugby as a freshman.

“They want to be known as rugby players not individual athletes that are learning to playing this game,” Brown said.

The new coach emphasized two points in his first months in charge — shoring up the team’s self-belief and its defensive strength. He said defensive effectiveness is up 20 percent from last year.

The belief came, too.

It began at the first World Series leg. The Americans were on the verge of an embarrassing bottom-four finish at home in Glendale, Ariz., down 28-0 at the half in their last group match against New Zealand.

Two key, late tries made it a digestible 35-12 defeat. The Americans advanced by one point in the differential tiebreaker with Spain. Then they upset Olympic champion Australia, beating the Aussies for the first time since 2015, and finished second overall.

“They are confident,” Brown said. “There’s a belief they can do a job, make a statement and challenge for that championship.”

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David Boudia wins U.S. title, qualifies for worlds after break from diving

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David Boudia, after a year away from diving, two more children, a concussion and a goodbye to the platform, is back in familiar territory. He’s on the U.S. team for the world championships.

Boudia, a 30-year-old, four-time Olympic medalist, outscored fellow Rio Olympian Michael Hixon to win the springboard at the U.S. Championships on Saturday.

The top two per individual event by cumulative score at nationals go to July’s worlds in South Korea. Boudia was in third place going into the finals but had the top Saturday score by 23.35 to leap onto the team with Hixon.

“It’s relieving, but in my mind, as an athlete, there’s a lot of work to be done before 2020,” Boudia said on NBCSN. “I have to learn new dives if I want to contend with the best in the world.”

Later Saturday, Rio Olympian Amy Cozad Magaña and Delaney Schnell made the world team in the women’s platform, with Schnell helping knock out Rio Olympian Jessica Parratto. Competition concludes Sunday with the women’s springboard and men’s platform.

Boudia, whose 72 career Olympic dives all came off the platform, switched to the more forgiving springboard after a February 2018 concussion.

He considered retiring after a third Olympics in Rio, where he earned synchro silver and individual bronze after an individual gold at London 2012. He even began a real-estate job in Indiana. But he announced a diving comeback in September 2017, saying he didn’t want to have any “what ifs” later in life.

Boudia then beat Hixon at the 2018 Winter Trials, proving he could master the new event. The other Rio Olympian on the springboard, Kristian Ipsen, has retired.

Boudia has competed at every Olympics and world championships since 2005, except in 2017 of course, and is the only U.S. diver to earn a medal in an individual Olympic event at either meet since 2009.

“I don’t think I have been that nervous since 2005,” Boudia said, according to TeamUSA.org. “Hix and I are going to have a lot of training to do if we want to be even close to cracking that top five.”

Cozad Magaña, 28, placed seventh in synchro at the Rio Olympics and plans to retire after 2020. Schnell, 20, was sixth individually at the 2016 Olympic Trials and second at the 2017 world trials before placing 27th at her world debut two years ago.

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U.S. men’s rugby team qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

U.S. men's rugby sevens team
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The U.S. became the first men’s rugby team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, clinching its spot Saturday during penultimate leg of this season’s World Series.

The Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, mathematically secured a place in the top four of the World Series final standings by advancing out of pool play in London. The knockout rounds are Sunday, but a top-eight finish was all that was necessary for Olympic qualification.

Now the U.S. can focus on a goal it didn’t have at the start of the year: winning the nation’s first World Series season title. It entered London with a slim, three-point lead over Olympic champion Fiji, one that would be erased if Fiji and the U.S. advance to Sunday’s final and Fiji wins.

Regardless, the season champion will be decided at the 10th and final World Series stop in Paris next weekend.

The Americans held onto the standings lead despite being without two stars — two-time World Player of the Year Perry Baker and Danny Barrett — the last three World Series stops. Baker and Barrett returned from injuries for the London leg.

Four years ago, the U.S. needed to go to a continental qualifier to earn in its place in Rio. Rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in 2016, 92 years after the traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games. The Americans ended up ninth in Brazil, missing the quarterfinals on a tiebreaker.

World powers Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa are in position to join the U.S. as Olympic qualifiers through the World Series.

Seven more nations will qualify via continental tournaments later this year and a last-chance event in June 2020. Japan received an automatic spot as host nation.

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