U.S. Women’s Sevens Riding The Roller Coaster Into Los Angeles This Weekend

by Drew Silverman

Members from the women's rugby team pose after their match during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 04, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

The road to Paris has been filled with plenty of bumps for the U.S. women’s sevens rugby team.

Sure, the Eagles have already qualified for this summer’s Olympic Games. But following a disappointing fifth-place finish at last weekend’s event in Vancouver, the squad finds itself searching for consistency heading into a much-anticipated tournament in Los Angeles this weekend.

The Eagles have yet to medal in this season’s first four HSBC SVNS events — a trek that’s taken them across four continents — and they are entering the Los Angeles SVNS tournament tied for fourth in the world rankings.

It hasn’t been ideal to this point, but the Americans are focused on the silver lining: now they’ll be battle-tested by the time they compete in Paris.

“I kind of think it’s good for us to have these ups and downs throughout the season,” said co-captain Lauren Doyle, a native of Boody, Illinois. “It’s helpful to feel those emotions, understand them, and then when we get to the big stage, those types of things won’t phase us anymore and we’ll just be able to perform. I think we are on a good trajectory.”

As one of the team’s veteran leaders, Doyle has 42 SVNS caps and has played in two previous Olympics for Team USA. But even the younger players, like Sarah Levy, have grown to appreciate the long-term vision of the squad.

“I think putting the pressure on us to do well in LA creates a little bit of a microenvironment for the Olympics,” said Levy, a wing who has seven SVNS caps with the sevens in her young career. She’s coming off a strong performance in Vancouver in which she scored three tries.

“I’ve never been (in the Olympics), but I’d imagine the pressure is exponential, compared to regular season. So, trying to put pressure on us now is a way we can see how our brain works through the make-it-or-break-it moments and coming back from mistakes or losses that were so close.”

(left) Lauren Doyle evades her defenders in a women't rugby sevens match during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 04, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

One of those close losses was a 12-10 defeat to Canada last weekend in which the Americans scored late but missed the conversion. The Eagles came away with 12 standings points in Vancouver despite the losses to Canada and Australia.

Last weekend’s tournament served as a reminder that nothing will come easy this season for the Eagles, but the intense competition is something the team relishes.

“The competition is really cutthroat, which is great for women’s rugby,” Levy said, “and it also gives us the hunger to improve. As women’s rugby is getting more and more competitive, so many teams have the potential to medal or win the whole thing.”

The Americans bounced back from the loss to Canada with a 29-7 rout against Fiji in the fifth-place game. Doyle hopes that could serve as a springboard for this weekend’s competition in front of home fans.

“We dominated that last game and got a really good win. I think we bounced back and really found ourselves,” said Doyle, 33, who has battled a calf injury for most of the season. “Hopefully that’ll propel us into the weekend in LA, where we are very excited to play on our home soil.”

In fact, this will be the first time the U.S. has hosted a women’s sevens tournament in five years. The team earned a gold medal in Glendale, Colorado, back in October 2019 and would certainly welcome a similar result this time around.

“This is a pinnacle tournament for us,” said Levy, a 28-year-old from San Diego. “We really are looking to have a podium finish — win the whole thing, really. We’re just coming in with that same fire, especially after the performance in Vancouver and coming just short of getting into the top four. This time, we’re really looking to change the outcome.”

(left) Naya Tapper sheds a defender in a women's rugby match during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 04, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Given the team’s talented roster and strong off-the-field chemistry — “we’re like a family,” noted Levy — the Eagles believe they are capable of accomplishing great things in Los Angeles, and beyond.

“I think we have all the potential in the world,” Doyle said. “We have pure speed. We have power. We have strength. And I really think we’ve been jiving with each other — reading things better, being on the same page. If it all comes together at the right time, it could be magical, honestly.”

Of course, an Olympic medal would be the most magical outcome for the U.S. players, not to mention a potential popularity boon for rugby in the United States.

“Americans just don’t get (our sport),” Doyle said. “We’ve got football, and that’s what we love. It’s definitely hard to get people to flip to rugby.”

That is why a strong performance in Paris could potentially be so impactful for the Eagles — and the sport in the U.S. as a whole. Since rugby sevens became an Olympic sport in 2016, the sevens have finished fifth and sixth, respectively, and even those results had a positive impact on U.S. enrollments in the sport.

So if the Eagles can make the medal stand this time around, all the bumps in the road will be worth it.

“This is my ‘why’ — this is why I play,” Doyle said. “I love competing at the highest level and constantly challenging myself. Changing my game, evolving how I play. It means a lot that I’ve been able to do it for so many years. And it’s not just about me. It’s about the whole sport, the whole legacy. You’re just trying to leave things in a better place than you found them and make our country proud.”