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2020 Tokyo Games

The Olympics will introduce the world to rugby star Naya Tapper

The former track sprinter is now a mainstay after years of adjustments and preparation

When the USA women’s national rugby sevens team, the Eagles, compete for gold at the Tokyo Olympics, one of the team’s top players will be 26-year-old wing Naya Tapper, who has traversed an unlikely path to dominance in one of the world’s most popular team sports.

During her freshman year of college at the University of North Carolina in 2012-13, Tapper was walking through the quad and spotted a tent where a couple of players on the school’s women’s rugby team were advertising tryouts. During high school, Tapper’s math teacher told her about the sport, seeking to coax her to join the team. The physicality of the sport intrigued her, but when she broached the matter with her track and field coach, he cautioned her against playing, fearing she might injure herself. She complied. And when she entered Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she didn’t intend to compete in sports. The world of rugby, seemingly, would never know Naya Tapper.

“I had went into college just planning on focusing on academics. Still go to the gym and work out and really not worry too much about sports,” she said.

But seeing that tent for rugby, a UNC club sport, meaning it was run by the students as opposed to a varsity sport in the school’s athletic department, reawakened her childhood dreams.

“Growing up, I was a very energetic and aggressive child,” Tapper said. “I watched my brother play football and I would play football every now and then with my guy friends when I was younger. Growing up, my goal as a young girl was to be the first girl in the NFL.”

Naya Tapper (right) of the U.S. breaks a tackle of New Zealand’s Sarah Goss (left) during a women’s semifinal match at the World Rugby Sevens Series tournament in Sydney on Feb. 4, 2017.

Rick Rycroft/AP Photo

Thus, when she saw the women’s rugby tent, that NFL dream, she said, “came back up into my thought process and I was like, ‘You know, this could be another option outside of the NFL,’ because I hadn’t seen a female in the NFL yet. So, I eventually came to realize that probably wasn’t going to be an option, so rugby was the next best thing.”

Tapper, who competed in the 100 and 200 meters among other events in high school track and field, realized, “OK, I do actually miss sports, and even though I don’t want to be as committed as like a varsity athlete, I would still like to be involved in sports, and with rugby being a team sport and something that I hadn’t been involved in before, I wanted to try something new.”

When she told her family, her sister Noel thought, “What is rugby? I wasn’t familiar with it and when she was explaining it, she expressed that it was similar to football, but you know you throw the ball backwards and you run forward, so that was kind of difficult for me to really contextualize until I saw her on the field doing it. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, they don’t have padding. They’re out here really like giving each other concussions and things of that sort.’ ”

Her mother, Juanita Nater-Tapper, likewise said she had “never heard of rugby before. That was my first question. I wasn’t surprised because she always likes to try new sports. She always wanted to try something new.”

Upon seeing her daughter play, she thought, “She loves to run. She’s aggressive. She likes to tackle. To stiff-arm people. I knew it was for her.”

“My best in-game moment,” Tapper said, referring to her time playing rugby at UNC, “is when we had a home game and I scored eight tries,” an insane level of productivity.

“OK, you’re really good at this,” she thought after the game, which occurred during her second or third year playing.

“That was the moment I realized I could take this sport further.”

Disappointment led to determination

Deciding to pursue rugby professionally was difficult. Tapper, majoring in exercise and sports science and minoring in Spanish, was working toward becoming a bilingual physical therapist. She decided to move to San Diego, where the USA Rugby team is headquartered, to train with the USA Rugby women’s team while completing her senior year at UNC online.

When she told her sister about playing professional rugby, she responded, “Follow your dreams because you know best what you need for yourself.”

She didn’t play much initially, until the last game the team played in the 2016 São Paulo Women’s Sevens tournament in Brazil. “I played the last game for, like, the last five minutes, but luckily did extremely well for that small amount of time.”

But ahead of the 2016 Games, the first time rugby would be a part of the Summer Olympics since 1924, she was released from the team.

“I know that there were times where it was difficult where she may have experienced some doubt,” her sister said. “But I think that the way that she carries herself, I wouldn’t see that unless that was something that she had expressed to me.

“The only time she cried was when the first time that she got released from the team, which was right before the last Olympics. She was fast, of course, but she didn’t have all the other skills that she needed as a rugby player.”

Her experience in track and field prepared her for running fast, but not for catching a ball while evading opponents attempting to cave her chest in.

Naya Tapper (center) of the USA is tackled by Camille Grassineau (left) and Elodie Poublan (right) of France during the women’s Rugby World Cup third-place match on Aug. 26, 2017, in Belfast, United Kingdom.

David Rogers/Getty Images

“Of course, being a mom,” Tapper’s mother said, “I was hurt for her. But I told her to stay there, and, you know, continue, because even though she was cut, her coach gave her an opportunity to continue to train over there at another facility to get better and that’s what she did. She would get up early in the morning and go do that and go to work, so after a few months you know she improved, and she was let back on the team.”

Since rejoining the team a few months later, Tapper has grown into a dominant force at the wing position. See a couple of highlights to understand her ability:

Tapper’s success is built on being fast, physically imposing and strong, and she is one of the top 5 speedsters in the world. Her teammate and best friend on the team, Jaz Gray, said: “She’s tall and she’s very strong and very fast, so that combination of things definitely makes her hard to handle.”

One of the most impressive things Gray said she’s seen Tapper, who is 5-feet-9 and 176 pounds, do on the field is “tackle somebody, get over the ball and take the ball back,” or running from one try line to the other, about 100 meters, to score.

Tapper said, “I have a stiff-arm, which is very popular or something I’m very known for where if I can’t get past you untouched, my stiff-arm allows me to keep separation from you to eventually get by and then hit top speed.”

One complicating factor for Tapper was getting used to playing with teammates. After having spent years competing in track and field, typically a solo sport, playing with teammates has been an area where she has had to grow.

“I took a long time,” she said, “even today I still struggle with being able to mentally deal with so many different people at once, but it did teach me to have a more open mind and showed me the different cultures and different types of people that I didn’t know much about or the people that I probably wouldn’t have approached to get to know if it wasn’t for my sport and my team. I think the hardest part was having to come to an understanding that the outcome, that it didn’t only depend on me. That it depended on my teammates as well and that was something that I struggle with that I struggled with for a while, even at the professional level of being patient when others make mistakes as well as wanting patience from others when I make mistakes, because our actions affect everybody not just ourselves, whether the actions are good or bad.”

Gray calls her “a very honest teammate. And just very blunt. Like, she’s not going to try to sugarcoat it. She’s going to tell you, like, what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to fix it.”

She’s the strict dad, Gray said. “After practice, the coach will be like, ‘Oh, good job.’ And then she’ll be like, ‘No, that wasn’t good. We can be better.’ So, yeah, I would probably compare her to like being like the strict dad that always wants more.”

‘That’s just the way Naya is’

Tapper was unsure whether she would make the 2020 Olympic team – she was dealing with a sprain to a deltoid ligament in her foot and worried that the coaches wouldn’t trust that she would be healthy in time to compete this summer. When she found out she made the team, she was in her living room in her San Diego-area home.

“I was really happy when selections came out my name was on there,” she said.

“I wasn’t worried at all for her,” Gray said. “I think she was the only one worried for herself.”

Her sister calls her “an exemplar of what some of us at times may not feel capable or possible, and I feel like she’s a symbol for others to realize like, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too,’ especially for young melanated women who do not see so much representation in that sport. I feel like she’s somebody that I know for sure they’re going to want to be like Naya Tapper.”

Tapper considers New Zealand the USA’s biggest obstacle to standing on the top of the Olympic podium, and her main competition on that team is Michaela Blyde, who she said is probably the “best speedster on the circuit.”

When watching the U.S. team play beginning Sunday against China, Tapper said, viewers “should definitely be looking for connection between everybody. Communication. And then also calmness, and if you see us calm, you know that we’re going to have a good outcome.

“Rugby is very quick and spontaneous, and things could change every second. [Viewers should also know] that things won’t be going our way the whole time. Us showing that we can be adaptable and able to change our mental state or physical state depending on what’s going on at the moment, that’ll be a good sign that we’re going to go out there and do what we need to do to get the W.”

Gray said that although rugby is a team sport, Tapper is “definitely on the forefront of top things that we need for the team to be successful. I’m not going to say she’s the most important factor but she’s definitely up there. You know you pay the rent first and then, like, she’s probably like the lights and the water.”

“It’s going to be so wonderful,” her mother said of seeing her daughter play in the Olympics. “I know I’ll probably cry, just being so proud of her and her teammates.

“I won’t say I will be surprised to watch her, because she worked hard to get there, but just the fact that she’s going to be there representing her country. It’s just a beautiful thing to me and I’m so proud.

“She was always wanting to be something better than what she was. Always structured. Organized. That’s just the way Naya is.”  

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.