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American Rugby’s Secret Weapon at the Olympics Is British

A profile of Madison Hughes, who plays today.

Madison Huges Gear Patrol Lead Full
Michael Lee for USA Rugby

Madison Hughes sits in front of a Starbucks, smoothie on the table in front of him, his hair tussled in that Southern California way, dark and wavy. He has a frat-boy smile, big white teeth. He’s walked here from his apartment to meet me on a rare day off from training. Right now, he’s in the middle of preparing to lead the United States Rugby team to the Olympics.

Rugby enchants like a demolition derby. When two teams of 15 men collide, banging nonstop, it’s not beautiful to watch. There’s grappling and pushing, sweating and grunting. It’s far from the beautiful game of soccer or the choreography of basketball, but it’s enthralling. The game is fluid, not stopping for anyone to catch up. It’s unrelenting in its brutality, but not in the same way that football is. There are no head-on collisions. No pads that make men into missiles.

Then there’s the slimmed-down version of the sport known as rugby sevens, where seven players hurl themselves around the field instead of 15. Sevens is rugby on steroids. It’s 14 minutes of Vin Diesel action. Bodies thrust across the field. The open space leads to more one-on-one breakdowns and tackling. It’s a game of speed played with brute force instead of a game of strength played at pace.

Hughes and the US rugby sevens team train three times a day, almost every day of the week, to deal with the pressure and pace of the games. Rugby sevens requires some of the best conditioning in sports. It may only be two seven-minute halves, but they’re unforgiving minutes. Players will run two to three miles in successive sprints while tackling and being crushed on the ground, over and over again.

This summer, rugby returns to the Summer Olympics. The last time rugby was in the Olympics was the 1924 games in Paris. The United States beat France in the finals that year to claim its second consecutive gold medal. But after Pierre De Coubertin stepped down from his position as president of the International Olympic Committee, the sport was removed from the summer games as the games moved towards more individual sports.

To reintroduce the sport, the International Olympic Committee decided to showcase sevens, the faster and more stripped down version of the sport to allow for more countries to compete and make it more appealing for television viewers. Twelve teams will play two games a day for three consecutive days in Rio.

The US sevens team is on the rise. A few years ago, the team had plenty of talented and gifted players, but underachieved. The United States has some of the most athletic athletes on the sevens circuit, including Carlin Isles, a sprinter who who ran a 10.15 in the 100-meter dash, and Perry Baker, a former NFL wide receiver who had his pro football career cut short by injury. In the 16 years of the World Rugby Sevens series, the United States finished outside of the top ten 14 times. The current crop of players are the same ones who finished 13th in the 2013-14 season, the same season Hughes made his debut.

The team turned things around under coach Mike Friday’s guidance. The Eagles have moved up to sixth in the world. The team won its first-ever Cup, the highest prize at a tournament, in May 2015 in England. And a big part of that turnaround has been the introduction of Hughes, a Brit who looks like a frat boy from Southern California.

Madison Huges Gear Patrol Ambiance

Hughes’s first memory of playing rugby is a bit of a blur. He doesn’t remember the game exactly. There have been too many games to count. He remembers the feeling, though.

“I remember running down the sideline and everyone trying to catch me and no one could,” Hughes says. “I remember it happened two times in one game. That was when I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ That was the moment I was like, ‘This is incredible.’ It feels so good to be running with the ball and everyone trying to stop you and they can’t.”

Hughes grew up New Malden in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, six miles from where his father Stuart grew up in Epsom. His mother Kathy grew up in Lancaster, Massachusetts, a small town more than an hour outside of Boston. His parents met while working for Bank of Boston, which was eventually swallowed up by Bank of America. After marrying, they settled in the suburbs of London and started a family of three children. Madison is the oldest.

Hughes played his first organized game of rugby when he was seven. It was touch rugby, no tackling. Hughes’s athleticism and competitiveness made him a stand-out on the rugby field. He relished the physical challenge. It allowed him to release himself from his timid, shy persona off the field. The feeling of breaking from the pack and streaking down the sideline for a try exhilarated him.

When Hughes turned 13, he started attending Wellington College, one of England’s most prestigious boarding schools, on an academic scholarship. Wellington College was a founding school of rugby. Representatives from the school took part of the original committee that put the rules of the game into writing.

Rugby Union, as the game is officially known, dates as far back as soccer. (For more history of the sport, read David Goldenblatt’s The Ball Is Round.) The two sports came out of the same schoolyards in England, but issues arose over rules. Some believed the ball should only be kicked, another group of schools believed in carrying it like a loaf of bread. Rugby eventually split off from the Football Association and became its own game.

While sailors adopted soccer and shared it with the world, rugby seemed to stick with British colonies — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa. It branched out in certain parts of Europe, of course, but never had the same reach as soccer. Across the pond, in another former colony, it inspired a new game: football. Americans dedicated themselves to football. It evolved, requiring more pads, more rules and more referees. Football is rugby’s sociopathic younger brother, hellbent on destruction and colossal collisions.

Rugby did not die in America with the creation of football, though. The game lived on college campuses across the country. Students embraced the sports gentlemanly culture of having a drink and singing a song after a game. The first rugby game in the United States was played by Harvard and McGill University, at Harvard, in 1874.

In Hughes, Friday had a player willing to give up everything for his teammates and the sport.

Rugby stayed tied in with academia in the United States. While a professional league cropped up in Europe and the sport grew in popularity thanks to international competitions like the World Cup, the American public has largely ignored it. Until this year, there had never been a professional league. While USA Rugby formed in 1976 to deal with the national team and bring organization to rugby in the US, there was little success in starting a fully funded league until the former bond trader Dougland Schoniger started the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO Rugby) league in April 2016.

PRO Rugby piggybacked on the growing appeal of rugby and started with five teams, mostly on the West Coast. Crowds have been modest and broadcasts of games have mostly occurred online, but it’s a beginning. The league expects to expand next season and reach its toes into Canada.

Growing up, Hughes saw himself as English and American. Every summer, he spent six weeks at his grandmother’s lake house in Lancaster. His mother came from a family of six children, and family life in the United States was something Hughes loved. Hughes and his brother would play American sports with their older cousins. The connection made him feel American. When they returned to England, Hughes and his brother attempted to get the neighborhood kids to play street hockey. Most of the time, it was just the pair of them skating around the cul-de-sac.

While in high school, Hughes made inroads with the American rugby team. He joined the US High School All-American team after his sophomore year of high school. As a high school senior, Hughes played on the US under-20 team in the Junior World Rugby Trophy. The USA finished 13th, but Hughes established himself as a player to watch. The next year, the team won the tournament and Hughes was the tournament’s top scorer.

When Hughes was 18, he played in the London Irish academy, a professional team. The team gave him a trial but decided not to sign him to a pro contract. Hughes was upset, but not disenfranchised. He had decided he wanted to pursue a college degree, and that wasn’t usually doable as a pro.

“I always enjoyed academics,” Hughes says. “I was good at it; it was something I wanted to pursue.” He knew he wanted to do it in America.

When Hughes arrived at Dartmouth in the summer of 2011, he was one of three freshman on the rugby team. Only one other player had played rugby before, which isn’t uncommon for American college teams. There weren’t many, if any, youth or high school rugby programs across the country at the time. When Hughes got his acceptance letter, he was expected to be a starter from day one. Dartmouth had won the Ivy League championship and the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the preeminent college rugby sevens competition. Still, Hughes was a lock for a spot on the first team. He had more experience than seniors on the team.

In the spring of his freshman year, 2012, Hughes competed in the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the premier college sevens tournament held once a year outside of the normal rugby season. The tournament is televised nationally on NBC Sports, and Dartmouth were the reigning champions. There was something magical about that team and Hughes’s performance in the tournament.

Dartmouth needed an improbable comeback against the University of California to reach the finals. Dartmouth scored 14 points in the final four minutes to win 21-19. Behind the comeback was Hughes, the cannonball of a freshman streaking up the sideline. The Big Green beat Arizona 24-5, claiming back-to-back sevens championships. Hughes was named to the all-tournament team and scored six tries.

Hughes’s play earned him a call-up to play with the national team during the winter of his sophomore year. Hughes took a semester off to train for five weeks with the US National team. While Hughes didn’t make the full team, he did make an impression, and he gained an understanding of what he needed to do to make it at the next level.

During his junior year at Dartmouth, Hughes got another call to play with the Eagles, this time the sevens team. He left Hanover and flew to Wellington, New Zealand to play in the Wellington Sevens tournament. Hughes scored an impressive 33 points in his first national team tournament, cementing his place on the team.

When coach Mike Friday came in to revamp the team in July 2014, he decided the it was in need of a new captain and new direction. He needed a leader, and he saw one in the quiet Hughes, who had been captain of Dartmouth for his final two years. Friday had a perfect leader in Hughes.

Rugby is a team sport built around the ethos that everyone has a job. For a team to succeed, it requires everyone to leave egos behind and sacrifice for their teammates. In Hughes, Friday had a player willing to give up everything for his teammates and the sport.

“Rugby is very much a team game,” says Gavin Hickie, Hughes’s coach at Dartmouth for three seasons. “No player on the rugby team is bigger than the team. [Hughes’s] humility is unbelievable, but I also think it is part of being a rugby player.”

Madison Huges Gear Patrol Ambiance-2
Team USA after winning the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in May 2015. Photo: Getty

Sitting in the San Diego sun across from Hughes, it’s becoming clear to see why he’s the face of American rugby going into the Olympics. His smile is sharp. He’s welcoming and open. He’s well spoken and eager to talk about the sport he’s dedicated his life to. What I struggle to see at first is how he has come to identity himself as American.

Hughes feels more like a transient being, stuck between two worlds. His accent is still noticeable, even if it’s fading. He sounds like he’s stuck somewhere between America and England.

I ask Hickie about this because he has an insight into this as immigrant himself who has worked for USA Rugby. Hickie grew up in Dublin and played professionally in Europe before coming to America to coach the sport.

“I think that is the epitome of the American dream,” Hickie says of Hughes’s career so far.

“I share the upbringing of a different country myself,” Hickie continues, “where you’re not from here, but you go to a country and work as hard as you can in whatever field, and you’re rewarded. I think that applies to Madison both academically and on the rugby pitch. He is rewarded for his focus, drive and determination. It is completely irrelevant, I think, that he wasn’t born here because this is now his home. This is a country he has worked so hard to represent. I wouldn’t say there is a moment in his daily, weekly, monthly, yearly routine, whatever he does, that he ever thinks about being English-born in America, or what if he was playing for England, or anything else like that. Despite his accent, I think he is American through and through.”

Yes, Hughes had a privileged upbringing. He’ll be the first to say that. But he’s also made the best of his situation, trying to make his dream come true like many people who move to America. He’s had plenty of luck along the way, getting into Dartmouth for one, but he’s also worked hard at making his dream come true. As Americans we’re told to believe this story, even if it’s not always true. For Hughes and people in England, there is still a monarchy, and still a belief in the class system; moving up and down through the system seems impossible. By coming to America, he realized his dream and moved past the barriers. After being cut from a professional academy and not making the youth national team, his dream should have been killed, put out to sea to never return. Instead, he’s in Rio. And there’s nothing more American than finding a new path in the land of opportunity.

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