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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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U.S. Olympic women’s tennis qualifying already looks intense

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Serena Williams is in strong early position to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic team. For everyone else, including older sister Venus Williams, every set of ranking points could be crucial over the next 10 months, including at the upcoming U.S. Open.

The U.S. has seven women in the world top 36 — not including 52nd-ranked Venus — but only four singles players can go to an Olympics from any one country come the rankings cutoff next June.

Serena Williams leads the way for Americans in second place overall in Olympic qualifying — which counts WTA rankings points starting after the 2019 French Open and running through the 2020 French Open. She has 1,885 points despite playing just two events the last two months, taking runner-up at Wimbledon and the Canadian Open.

Only Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who has already been named Romania’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer, has more Olympic qualifying points (2,395).

After Serena, three more U.S. women are in the top 10 in Olympic qualifying — Sonya Kenin (No. 5), Madison Keys (No. 8) and Alison Riske (No. 10).

Keys, a quarterfinalist or better at all four Grand Slams in her career, jumped from outside the top 20 among Americans to the No. 3 American by notching her biggest title in Ohio last week.

Notables who must improve their ranking start with Venus Williams, who moved from 18th on the U.S. list to eighth by reaching the Cincinnati quarterfinals. She turns 40 before the Tokyo Games and could become the oldest Olympic singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. She already owns the modern-era record of five Olympic tennis medals from her five previous Games and could still get to the Olympics in doubles if she doesn’t qualify in singles.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is 12th in U.S. Olympic qualifying, winning a total of three matches among four tournaments in the window.

The veterans Williams sisters, Keys and Stephens, who made up the 2016 U.S. Olympic singles team, must fend off an emerging class.

Kenin, 20, backed up her French Open upset of Serena Williams by winning a lower-level event in June and then beating the world Nos. 1 and 2 the last two weeks.

Riske is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age 29. She beat world then-No. 1 Ash Barty to make her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon, a week before her wedding.

Then there are two of the phenoms of the year. Coco Gauff, 15, is ninth in U.S. Olympic qualifying after a run to the Wimbledon fourth round. Gauff was granted a wild card into the U.S. Open, after which she can’t play in more than five senior tournaments (and possibly no more than three) until her 16th birthday in March due to WTA age restrictions to keep young teens from burnout.

Amanda Anisimova, 17, is 13th in U.S. Olympic qualifying. Her best results this year — French Open semifinal, Australian Open fourth round — came before the Olympic qualifying window.

It’s looking like the toughest U.S. Olympic women’s singles team to make outright since 2004. Back then, the U.S. had Nos. 4 (Lindsay Davenport), 7 (Jennifer Capriati), 8 (Venus Williams), 11 (Serena Williams) and 18 (Chanda Rubin). Davenport, Capriati and Serena didn’t play at the Athens Games, opening the door for Lisa Raymond to play singles and doubles in Athens.

In 2000, Serena Williams didn’t make the Olympic singles field despite being ranked eighth in the world. A max of three players per nation were taken to Sydney, and the U.S. had Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in Davenport, Venus Williams and Monica Seles.

An Olympic rule mandating a minimum of Fed Cup appearances could affect Tokyo 2020 eligibility. However, the fine print allows for that to be bypassed in discretionary exceptional circumstances.

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U.S. Olympic Women’s Singles Qualifying Standings (Max. 4 can qualify)
1. Serena Williams — 1,885 points
2. Sonya Kenin — 1,081
3. Madison Keys — 972
4. Alison Riske — 802
5. Jennifer Brady — 356
6. Jessica Pegula — 348
7. Madison Brengle — 344
8. Venus Williams — 302
9. Coco Cauff — 298
10. Bernarda Pera — 280
11. Lauren Davis — 245
12. Sloane Stephens — 238
13. Amanda Anisimova — 230

U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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The U.S. Olympic team roster for the 2020 Tokyo Games will eventually reach more than 500 athletes. It is currently at seven.

Qualifying competitions and Olympic Trials events dot the schedule from now into early summer 2020.

Athletes qualified so far:

Modern Pentathlon
Samantha Achterberg
Amro Elgeziry

Sport Climbing
Brooke Raboutou

Swimming
Haley Anderson
Ashley Twichell
Jordan Wilimovsky

Triathlon
Summer Rappaport

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