‘A year to be better’: Abby Gustaitis on lockdown and the lure of Olympic rugby gold | Sport

Abby Gustaitis, co-captain of the USA sevens team, has not heard the latest news from Tokyo.

In fairness she’s in lockdown, like the rest of the country, and has been concentrating on training as well as she can. Having missed selection for the Rio Olympics in 2016, the 28-year-old’s dream is to go for gold in Japan. She knows, of course, that the coronavirus outbreak has caused the 2020 Games to be postponed. What she doesn’t know, as we speak, is that Japanese authorities are casting doubt on next summer too.

“I was pretty devastated at first,” Gustaitis says, once she’s finished laughing ruefully at the possibility of another delay. “For me, the Olympics, I use the term ‘fantasy’ to describe it, because it always seemed so far-fetched.

“Growing up in America, the Olympics are this incredible, worldwide, renowned event, just the pinnacle of sport, of athleticism, everything you can dream of. The ultimate goal. I played every sport, basketball, soccer, whatever. But you get to a certain age and you’re like, “OK, well, that’s far-fetched. I’m not at that level to compete there.” But you still watch every winter, every summer, when the Games are on.”

Gustaitis was the first in her family to go to college, the University of Maryland, and entertained thoughts of medical school. But then she found rugby and at an athletic 5ft 11in and 165lbs made the national set-up quickly. She went to the 15-a-side World Cup in Ireland in 2017 as a lock but sevens remains her priority.

For the US women, whenever the Olympics do get played, gold is certainly possible. The Eagles won the final world series event of last season, in Biarritz, then won the first of this in Glendale, Colorado, beating New Zealand on the way. The Black Ferns surged back before Covid-19 shuttered the series but the Eagles are real contenders.

For Gustaitis, “the pieces were starting to slot in, the puzzle was almost complete. And then, to have that taken away … it was shattering.

“It took me a few days to wrap my head around it. I went from being sad, to angry, to just numb, and not really knowing how to feel, to talking to a lot of my team-mates, the coaches. It was nice to know we’re all on the same page, and then just to spread it to everyone worldwide. It’s an even playing field.

“We’re looking at it as a second chance. If there were things that you didn’t do in this year leading up to the Olympics, you have another shot, an opportunity to do it better.

“Maybe I wasn’t as fast or as strong as I could have been. So now, I have a year to just be a better athlete, a better rugby player, a better team-mate, and to do everything I can to make my team better. And that excites me now. I’ve come to look at the positives.”

Gustaitis and Sharni Williams, captain of the Australian team, joke around in Hamilton, New Zealand this year.

Gustaitis and Sharni Williams, captain of the Australian team, joke around in Hamilton, New Zealand this year. Photograph: Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Lockdown is the same for everyone from Australia to Zimbabwe but the Americans have faced a double whammy. Shortly after the Games were postponed, USA Rugby went bankrupt. Again, Gustaitis laughs at the sheer bad luck of it all.

“I know when we return, it will be different. Our assistant coach was let go. So right now, we’re relying heavily on our head coach, and then our strength and conditioning coach is still giving us programmes, even though he’s not employed right now.

“I just feel bad for them, it’s a really unfortunate turn of events. And then, yes, there’s the pandemic when people were already losing their jobs. Everyone is staying connected. We’re hoping for the best.”

Gustaitis is in good company. Not just because she’s coping with lockdown by the beach near San Diego, with former England and Lions prop Alex Corbisiero – her fiancé – and Kasey McCravey, from the US squad. Attempting to keep on training, she suffered the same fate as Tom Brady, the great NFL quarterback who had a run-in with authorities in Tampa.

“It’s been a little difficult,” she says. “We’d go to the park and just get kicked off. You want to you want to respect the boundaries of everything, but we couldn’t even use the patch of grass outside the library by our house. They’re like, ‘No, parks are closed.’ I’m like, “What is considered a park these days?”

There has therefore been “a lot of street running”, which is “a little difficult on the body”, but all things considered, things could be worse. The beaches are open – the Pacific Ocean a “free ice bath” at this time of year – and Gustaitis is “becoming a pilates teacher” because she “figured it was something to put my mind to. I’m super-passionate about it but it takes a lot of time, and now I seem to have nothing but time.”

Such is the need for displacement activity, thousands of miles from family in Pylesville, Maryland, up by the Pennsylvania line.

“I’m actually due to call my mother back,” Gustaitis says, “now I think about it. But they’re good. My parents are staying safe. My older brother lives 10 minutes from them, so they stay in contact with him.

“He’s a state trooper, so he’s taking everything very seriously, and because he’s out in contact with the public, he’s not going over to my parents. And he has two kids, and so my parents miss the grandkids a lot, but they’re hanging in there and everyone’s safe for now. That’s all you can ask.”

The family has always, it seems, asked a lot of itself.

“I kind of grew up in the fire department,” Gustaitis says. “I joined when I was 16, my brother was a member as well. My dad was the local fire chief. Eventually, I plan to enter back into it in some capacity, probably a less crazy version of riding around in an ambulance, waiting for a 911 call.”

Gustaitis is a full-time athlete now, but she was once an emergency medical technician. There’s a story about how on her way to her high school prom she stopped to assist at a road accident, gown, hairdo and all.

“I became an EMT when I was 16,” she says. “I really grew to love it, and I think that it sparked the drive in me to want to help people. There was that sort of thrill you get, I guess, the pressure to perform. I loved that about being an EMT, and that’s kind of what I love about sevens as well. You only have a certain amount of time and opportunities, and it’s on you to take them.”

USA Rugby

Recognize these faces? #DontRushChallenge featuring the #USWNT7s has us ready for a 💃 party. pic.twitter.com/wvO6kNkKsi

April 13, 2020

For now, the thrill of the chase on hold, the Eagles are holed up across America, holding team meetings on Zoom.

“We’re focusing on a reflection point,” she says, “looking back on the last year and a half and where that’s led us, to the highs and lows and how we’re going to carry through to the Olympics.”

Elite athletes, it seems, really are in this with the rest of us.

“Luckily,” Gustaitis says, “everyone is obsessed with social media, so you don’t feel too far from them. As bizarre as it is.”

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