When the 2016 Summer Olympic Games begin Aug. 5 in Rio, both men’s and women’s Rugby Sevens will be included on the schedule of events for the very first time. In honor of the sport’s big debut on the ultimate international stage, Examiner connected with USA Women’s Rugby Team Captain Kelly Griffin on March 29 for an exclusive interview. The Berkeley, California native shared her thoughts on a number of different topics, from the identity of her biggest fan to how to combat gender-based inequality in sports.
Sherry Wight: I want to go back in time a little bit. When did you start playing rugby?
Kelly Griffin: I started playing rugby my freshman year at UCLA, which was in 2004.
SW: What kept you going back to the sport after you started?
KG: Rugby is definitely the most fun sport I’ve ever played, and that’s really what’s kept me going back. You get to run and tackle and pass, it’s really fast-paced, and the team environment is really great. I’ve made great friends and it’s super fun.
SW: Rugby gets very little attention in the US, compared to other sports. How do girls who are interested go about getting involved with it?
KG: Rugby’s growing really fast in the United States, and hopefully with its inclusion in the Olympics, it’ll grow even more. There are a lot of youth programs; when I was… at Berkeley High, they had a team…. If you’re willing to look, there are youth programs out there.
SW: What do you consider to be the most important character trait for anyone who plays rugby to have in order to be successful?
KG: Having a really good attitude and being willing to work hard because if you enjoy it and work really hard at it, success will follow.
SW: I’d like to know a little about your game-day mindset. What does your pregame routine look like? Do you have one?
KG: I do have a pre-game routine. I put on my cleats, my socks, my jersey, and I like to take my time to do it a certain way: I tap my shoes three times each, and then in the team locker room we usually play music so I like to swing back and forth a little bit to the music and just visualize getting low, making hits, the ball coming into my hands, get my mind right, and get ready to go.
SW: What kind of music do you guys like to rock out to?
KG: It’s all over the place; depends on who controls the speaker. Sometimes it’s country, some days hip-hop, some days pop. I usually just defer to my teammates.
SW: So what does it mean to you to be not just a member but the Captain of the US Women’s Rugby team that’s headed to Rio the first time Rugby Sevens will ever be played at the games?
KG: It’s really exciting to be a part of this team. There are a lot of really strong women, really strong leaders on this team which makes it a really enjoyable experience. We really just want to show the world that the US is a force in rugby and we want to show she United States that rugby is a thing. We want to represent our country well and make them proud of us and really contend for a medal; go for the gold.
SW: I don’t know a lot about the selection criteria for the Rugby Sevens Olympic team. When will the team actually be finalized?
KG: The team will be finalized mid-July. We play the first three days of the Olympics in the beginning of August, so when you hear the games are starting, look for us.
SW: Looking at what you’ve seen internationally, which teams do you think will be your toughest competition in Rio?
KG: One of the exciting things about women’s rugby or the sport in general is that there’s a lot of good teams. Any game could go any way. The top teams right now are Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but then Russia’s in the mix, England’s in the mix, France is in the mix, we’re in the mix. So it’s going to be really exciting at the Olympics.
SW: Sounds like anyone could win! Now of course you’ll be playing your own events and focused on those, but what other events do you think you might keep your eye on while you’re there?
KG: We train at the Chula Vista Olympic training center with some other sports so I’m looking forward to seeing some of the other residents here [compete], like track and field, archery, BMX. I’ve also been following the women’s water polo team, they just qualified for the Olympics and I’m excited to watch them. I played soccer growing up so I’m a fan of the women’s national team, too.
SW: Are any specific individual athletes you’d like to come across in the Olympic village?
KG: Oh, that’s a good question. It’d be pretty cool to see [Golden State Warriors super star] Steph Curry. That’d be awesome.
SW: The Olympic Games are obviously huge, but looking back over your life, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
KG: That’s a hard question. I think I’m most proud of my time here at the OTC with the national team so far. I try to end every day knowing I did everything I could to become a better rugby player and to have that shot at the Olympics.
SW: I feel like we don’t know a lot about you, so I have a handful of simple questions to close it out here to give fans a better idea as to who Kelly Griffin is. Your fellow athlete who inspires you the most?
KG: My teammate Jillion Potter is really inspiring. [We’ve] played together since our college days and she just has loved the game and overcome a lot of things in her life to be able to play. She’s amazing.
SW: What’s the best thing on TV right now?
KG: Oh, so the other thing that I like to do other than play rugby is bake, so I really like watching “The Great British Bake-Off,” which is not on mainstream American television. It’s my guilty pleasure.
SW: What’s your favorite thing to bake?
KG: Recently I’ve been making a lot of scones.
SW: Oh, that sounds good! Who’s your biggest fan?
KG: Probably it would be a fight between my parents and my wife. My wife would say she’s my number one fan which is probably true because she makes a lot of sacrifices in her life so I can train as much as I do.
SW: Love that. Okay, before rugby [became the main focus], what was your day job?
KG: I was a consultant at a company called Stat Revenue in Emeryville. I helped audit insurance payments to hospitals to make sure hospitals were being properly reimbursed.
SW: Last one. What is your absolute top priority when you’re not on the field?
KG: Sleeping, recovering, making sure I’m doing everything that I need to do so that when I’m on the field I can be at my best.
SW: Okay, I lied. One last thing popped into my head just now. Looking at funding that’s allocated to men’s sports versus women’s sports, how do you think, over time, we can address the flagrant inequalities between the two?
KG: Well that’s a good question, and if I knew the answer to it, maybe there wouldn’t be so much inequality. I think part of it is just exposure. When we say ‘what’s the issue?’ people say ‘well, the men get more attention and more marketing.’ Okay, then we say ‘let’s get us the attention and marketing and maybe that’ll help.’ I know there’s people out there who would love watching women’s rugby if they turned on the channel and it came on the TV, but they just don’t know about it. [We hope] the Olympics will help give us that exposure.
For more information on the US women’s rugby program, check out the official USA Rugby website. Interested parties can donate online to help provide equipment and additional opportunities for Griffin and the rest of the team.