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U.S. men’s rugby sevens team conquers all with world’s best player sealed shut

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In one of the remarkable Olympic sports rises this four-year cycle, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team didn’t just break into the top five in the world. They are ranked No. 1 in the World Series standings with two tournaments left this season, poised to clinch a Tokyo 2020 berth in London this weekend.

Rugby of course has a history beyond its Olympic revival. Sevens debuted in Rio, some 92 years after the more traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games in Paris in 1924.

Rugby was born in the eponymous England town in 1823. Rugby sevens in Scotland later that century. The World Series, a season of global tournaments, debuted in 1999. New Zealand’s All Blacks won 12 of those first 15 annual titles. Then Fiji’s men captured gold in Rio.

The U.S.’ best finish in the first 15 World Series was 10th.

When Englishman Mike Friday was hired as head coach in October 2014, the Americans appeared long shots to qualify for the 12-team Rio Olympic tournament. They were coming off a 13th-place season. It looked like Canada, ranked sixth in the world, would likely grab the lone automatic North American Olympic berth.

The U.S. immediately moved into the top 10 under Friday, supplanted Canada and did get to Brazil.

But the red, white and blue exited the Olympics in heartbreaking fashion. Captain Madison Hughes missed a late two-point conversion attempt from out wide against Fiji in the group finale. Had he made it, the Americans still would have lost to the Fijians, but they would have been in position to sneak into the quarterfinals by one in tiebreaking point differential. Instead, they finished ninth.

Perry Baker was helpless in those defining moments, on the sideline for that last minute against Fiji while still adjusting to his new full-time sport.

Baker was previously, briefly, a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver. They agreed to terms in July 2011, but Baker was let go after it was discovered in a physical that he had been playing on a torn meniscus. He dabbled in rugby as a teen and after college, too, but didn’t take to it until meeting U.S. director Alex Magleby. It didn’t take long for Magleby to issue this ultimatum: Quit football to join the national team.

Baker accepted, and migrated to the program officially in 2014 at age 27. Fellow football convert and best friend Carlin Isles garnered the lion’s share of the team’s pre-Olympic press, and rightfully so as its leading try scorer in 2014-15.

But Baker, lean for rugby at 6 feet, 1 inch and a listed 180 pounds, boasted a 4.32-second 40-yard dash time of his own and was on the rise. In his second tournament, Baker scored a game-winning try in an upset of Fiji.

By the Olympic season, Baker was the U.S. leader in tries. Then Baker was named the World Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, becoming the first man to earn the honor twice and completing a rise from sharing a two-bedroom apartment with so many guys that he sometimes slept in his truck. He scaled the rugby world while the U.S. was stuck in fifth and sixth place in the World Series standings, plateaued after the initial leap under Friday.

The U.S. tops the table this season through eight of 10 legs, but Baker can’t pick a turning point for the ascension. His favorite moment actually came last season, when the U.S. won a World Series leg for the second time in history, at home in Las Vegas (and without the injured captain Hughes). Baker had the viral score of that event, an end-to-end sprint in a 19-7 semifinal victory over Fiji.

“That try is going to go down as one of the best of all time,” NBC Olympics analyst Brian Hightower said.

But Baker points earlier in that match, when he ran down fleet-footed Alasio Naduva and prevented a Fijian try. He shared a World Rugby video of the play, which registered Baker’s top-end speed at 23 miles per hour.

Numbers say the low-water mark for the U.S. under Friday came at the start of that 2017-18 season. Baker, after spending part of his summer with the NYPD SWAT team, was kneed in the side of the head in the opening moments of the first match. He was forced to sit the rest of that first tournament following concussion protocol. The U.S. went winless in four matches, its first 0-fer in the World Series in Friday’s four seasons.

Baker also missed the last two tournaments of 2017-18 with a shoulder injury, essentially suiting up for just 60 percent of the season.

He still finished in the top 10 in the World Series in points and the top five in tries. He also proved his worth to fellow players, match officials and commentators who nominated him for World Player of the Year a second straight season. A six-person panel, including selectors from world powers Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and England, ultimately chose Baker for the award.

Baker remembers competitors from New Zealand and South Africa congratulating him at the next World Series stop to open the 2018-19 season. It made him reflect on the last five years.

“Coming from those types of guys from those teams, it was a step back for me, like, wow, I guess I do have more respect than I thought,” said Baker, the third-most-accomplished wide receiver in his family after older brother Dallas (2006 NCAA champion at Florida) and uncle Wes Chandler (four-time Pro Bowler). “You look at my body size. To this day, everyone says you don’t look like a rugby player. Then me being a crossover athlete — I won’t be able to play the game. Things like that. I’m too small. The usual stuff. America doesn’t have a real rugby team. We won’t be good. Just getting to the Eagles [the U.S. team nickname] was really hard. I went through two coaches before Mike Friday came in, and I never got a chance.”

Baker encountered another obstacle at this season’s third World Series stop in New Zealand in January: Tana Fotofili. Baker, carrying the ball, collided violently with the Tongan captain with 44 seconds left of what would be a comfortable 29-7 U.S. win. He curled up on the pitch and was tended to for two minutes before being escorted off.

“I kind of blacked out for a few seconds,” Baker said after watching the replay dozens of times. “All I know is my jaw was in pain.”

He suffered a double broken jaw, but Baker said there was no concussion. Screws and a rubber bracket were drilled into his mouth, which was essentially sealed shut by thick rubber bands. He would be fed by straw the next two weeks. When he first tried to swallow solids, frustration fell over him trying to chew mashed potatoes.

After another two weeks, Baker forced down tiny pieces of chicken, soggied after about 50 chews.

“What would you would feed a baby with two teeth, that’s how I was eating,” he said.

Baker returns to competition Saturday for the start of the World Series stop in London. The U.S. fared well without him and Danny Barrett, its two players who made the all-World Series Dream Team in 2017. Barrett missed the last three tournaments with an injury.

The Americans enter famed Twickenham Stadium leading the World Series standings by a slim three points over Fiji but are 38 points clear of fifth place. The top four after the following stop in Paris clinch Olympic spots. The U.S. would all but seal its Tokyo 2020 berth by advancing out of pool play Saturday.

Baker will trot out eager for contact in his first match action since that broken jaw.

“I’ve talked to his high school football coach several times. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that Perry was always reluctant to tackle. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to be in the contact area,” Hightower said.

Baker’s first rugby tackle in a club event years ago was a football-style dive at the legs, an equivalent of an illegal cheap shot in his new sport. He didn’t know any better.

“That really is one of his biggest areas of growth,” Hightower continued. “He’s not going to be the crunching, dominant, drive-you-backwards, highlight-reel hitter, but he’s going to make his tackles now.”

The Americans began the season with a goal of top four and automatic Olympic qualification. Now, Perry says it’s “a burning desire” to be world champions for the first time in the sport’s history.

“There would have been times in the past where they were a little cocky, a bit brazen,” Hightower said. “Now you can just tell the way the players carry themselves. They’re not as boisterous. They quietly go about their job. There’s confidence there when they step on the field. They believe they can win every match they start. That’s a big difference between now and a few years back.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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A 1983 world champion will become the oldest Olympic table tennis player ever

Ni Xia Lian
European Table Tennis Union
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Ni Xia Lian, a 55-year-old, Chinese-born table tennis player for Luxembourg, is set to become the oldest Olympian ever in her sport.

Ni earned Luxembourg a quota spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games by bagging bronze at the European Championships on Wednesday. Ni will fill that spot and compete at her fifth Games next summer, according to Luxembourg’s table tennis federation.

Ni’s first senior medal at a global competition came with China at the world team championships in 1983.

Ni moved to Luxembourg in the 1990s, running a hotel with her husband. She kept competing, with a five-year break between 2002 and 2007, and set a record in 2017 for the longest table-tennis match at 1 hour 33 minutes.

She would already be the oldest Olympic table tennis player if not for He Zhiwen, who was born in China and competed for Spain with the nickname Juanito at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He retired after Rio at age 54, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Ni will be 57 next summer, older than any previous female Olympians outside of archery, equestrian, shooting and art competitions, according to the OlyMADMen. Her best Olympic finish was ninth in Sydney in 2000.

Chinese-born players represent many countries in table tennis, including European Games gold and silver medalists, Fu Yu of Portugal and Han Ying of Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Phil Dalhausser, tempted by retirement, partner switch, forges to final Olympics

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
AVP
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At one point last summer, Nick Lucena made an unusual move for an Olympic beach volleyball player. He suggested to his partner, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the best American for the last decade, that Dalhausser might be happier playing with somebody else.

“I thought, man, Phil’s not enjoying this, he wants to retire,” said Lucena, who at the time was sidelined by a minor injury. “The last thing I want to do is slow you down. I was like, if he’s going out, it’s not going to be on my account.”

Lucena even offered a replacement: the up-and-coming Taylor Crabb, who at 27 is 12 years younger than both Lucena and Dalhausser, Floridians who paired at the Rio Olympics (lost in the quarterfinals), for the last four years and to start their careers from 2003-05.

“Taylor is a special player,” Lucena said. “Them together, I thought they’d be a special team.”

Dalhausser agreed to an extent. Crabb is the best defender in the world, he said. But Dalhausser, the bald, 6-foot-9 blocker known as the “Thin Beast,” waved off Lucena’s humility.

“If I were to rate a defender one through 10, Taylor being a 10, say Nick is a nine,” Dalhausser said earlier this month. “But we’re buddies. We get along. We’ve been friends for 20 years. That just adds a point value to him, so now he’s a 10.”

Crabb, based in California, sensed from afar that Dalhausser might be interested in a change last year. So, he called him.

“I’d be crazy not to ask Phil or for us to talk,” said Crabb, in his third season with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb. “We had talked a little bit, but at the end of the day … “

Crabb cut his answer short in a Midtown Manhattan hotel breakfast booth as Lucena walked by.

Even though they didn’t split, Lucena worried that Dalhausser’s heart was not in the sport anymore. Dalhausser isn’t one to show emotion on the sand, but it was clear that 15 years traveling the world took its toll. He’s married now with 4- and 6-year-olds, but he spends more time every summer with Lucena, a fellow 39-year-old father of two.

“I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to become happy with making a change in volleyball or whatever,” Dalhausser said. “It had to come from inside.”

An epiphany came last offseason. Dalhausser dived into self-help books: Jack Canfield‘s “The Success Principles,” Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins.

“One day, I was walking around the kitchen, thinking aloud, what the hell is my purpose?” he said. “I said, I guess it’s volleyball. My wife [former beach volleyball pro Jennifer Corral] was sitting right there and said, you’re an effing idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.

“Since then, I was like, all right, I guess I’m going to make a run.”

An Olympic run. Dalhausser and Lucena are about to start a crucial stretch of international tournaments in Tokyo 2020 qualifying. It begins this weekend at the world championships in Hamburg, Germany.

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A maximum of two U.S. pairs can qualify for the Games. Dalhausser and Lucena are outside the world top 25, but, more importantly, third among Americans about halfway through qualifying. They’ve only played four events; most have played at least six. Each team’s 12 best finishes in the two-year qualifying window count when the Olympic field is determined next summer.

“Results wise haven’t been great up to this point,” said Dalhausser, who won at least one international event each of the previous 13 seasons, but none since Olympic qualifying began last June. “I feel like we’re going to hit our stride here, the more we play consistently and get into a rhythm. I think we’ll be fine. I’m not really worried about it.”

Come next summer, Dalhausser and Lucena will both be older than all but one previous Olympic beach volleyball player. Dalhausser said this is his last Olympic cycle and that he will not play internationally after the 2020 season, but could continue on the domestic AVP tour.

“You see these grays here?” Dalhausser said, pointing to his chin stubble. “Obviously, when I was 28 in Beijing [the 2008 Olympics with Todd Rogers], that was probably my peak as far as vertical goes. But I’m not so sure I’m that far under it.”

Still, injuries are creeping up. They withdrew from a recent event in Poland, citing Dalhausser’s ab injury that has limited his jump serving.

While Dalhausser and Lucena were arguably medal favorites going into Rio, there is no debate about the new No. 1 going into worlds.

“Hands down,” Dalhausser said. “Norway.”

Anders Mol, 21, and Christian Sørum, 23, have won eight of their last 11 international events together. Norway has never put a men’s or women’s team into an Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinal. But the Beachvolley Vikings, who honed their skills at a Hogwarts-like academy called Top Volley Norge in a village named Sand, are unlike any team Dalhausser has ever seen.

“They just don’t have any holes in their game,” Dalhausser said.

It was about this time five years ago when Dalhausser was part of the world’s hottest team. He and Sean Rosenthal won three Grand Slams in a four-event stretch in the summer of 2014. But Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury at about this time in the last Olympic cycle, and they plateaued. Lucena emailed Dalhausser about his availability, and they reunited a year before the Rio Games.

Dalhausser actually wanted to retire after he and Lucena lost to eventual gold medalists Alison and Bruno in the Olympic quarterfinals. He spoke with his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Had the school started a beach volleyball program, he would have left for a job there.

Even up until this past January, Lucena said he was trying to talk Dalhausser into playing this summer’s world championships. Finally, Dalhausser was asked by his agent and USA Volleyball for a 2019 season schedule. He submitted one with 15 events, mostly international ones, and shared it with Lucena.

“It kind of told me, oh damn, we’re going to try to make a run, which I was not ready for, but I was kind of excited,” Lucena said. “I still felt like I had a lot left in the tank. Maybe not a lot, but enough to make a push.”

Lucena said he’s seen a change in Dalhausser’s demeanor. They won for the first time in seven events together this season at the AVP New York City Open earlier this month, rallying past Crabb and Gibb in a three-set semifinal. Lucena, known more for his defense, earned the AVP’s Hammer Award, given to the top offensive player of the tournament.

“A wise man once said,” Dalhausser deadpanned, sitting next to Lucena at the event, “a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Lucena and Dalhausser came up together in the early 2000s, playing for a few hundred dollars a tournament and holding part-time jobs, including as substitute teachers. When Dalhausser left to pair with Rogers, Lucena spent nearly a decade with the motivation to become a strong enough player to get Dalhausser back as a partner.

It didn’t surprise NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong that Lucena would willingly let Dalhausser leave for another partner in the middle of their last Olympic cycle.

“Those guys are lifelong friends,” Wong said. “Nick’s that guy who can see the bigger picture, life outside of volleyball. The crazy thing was last year on tour, Phil never told me this, but there were two or three different people saying, hey, we think Phil’s going to retire after this year. His motivation, his energy were pretty low and so the question was, is this like a little lull, recharging the battery before one last Olympic push? Or is this the swan song?”

Now Dalhausser seems firm in pushing ahead for one more year.

“It was tempting [to switch partners], but, again, at the end of the day, family then volleyball,” Dalhausser said, noting that sticking with the Tallahassee-based Lucena allows him to spend more time at home in the Orlando area. Most elite beach volleyball players live in California, including Crabb.

“I guess I can be like, hey, Taylor, you want to make a run? It’s not too late,” Dalhausser said. “But my gut’s not telling me that’s the right thing.”

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