The last time rugby was contested at the Olympics, the vaunted United States squad took on France in one of the single ugliest matches in international sporting history.
Playing in Colombes Stadium in Paris before a raucous and hostile crowd, the two rugby superpowers clashed, leaving two players seriously injured—French Adolphe Jauguery was knocked unconscious with a tackle, while U.S. reserve Gideon Nelson suffered the same fate after being hit in the face. But the stout American squad prevailed, 17-3, before ultimately being escorted off the field by police.
That was in 1924.
Fast-forward nearly 100 years, and it's a different story. When the world's best teams descend on Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the scrappy American squad will be major underdogs. But don’t tell that to Madison Hughes.
“We believe we're capable of beating anyone and are aiming for gold," says Hughes, the team captain who will lead the USA Rugby Eagles Sevens team against the world's best. "We know there are teams ahead of us right now, so we're just focusing on doing everything we can to win.”
Coach Mike Friday named Hughes captain in 2014, even though at the time, he was the team's youngest player. Friday's bet paid off: With Hughes at the tiller, the Eagles have reached the greatest heights in team history over the past two years. They won their first rugby sevens circuit series tournament in London in 2015, finished in sixth place during the 2015-16 season (improving from 13th place the previous year), and defeated a powerhouse New Zealand team for the first time ever in May.
The England-born, Dartmouth-educated Hughes has played rugby since he was seven years old, making him a perfect steward as the United States tries to bring home another gold medal. At 5'9.5" and 175 pounds, he may not be quite as big as other players, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in pure skill and raw ability.
And that success is no accident. In the lead-up to the Olympics, he's hit the gym five to six days a week, lifting weights, grinding through rowing workouts and conditioning training, exploding through plyometrics, and churning through field drills to get into world-conquering shape. That hard-nosed work ethic is supported by Penn Mutual, which has supported Hughes's full-time training and sponsors the annual Collegiate Rugby Championship, America's biggest college rugby competition.
Hughes isn't just a steady hand, though. The scrum half scored more points than any other player in the world during the 2015-16 season, and now looks to continue that success in Rio, where rugby will return to the Summer Olympics the first time since 1924—this time as rugby sevens instead of its previous 15-man iteration.
The United States team could be a fan favorite in 2016, as Hughes leads his blue-collar squad against some of the sport's bluebloods. The motley Eagles crew includes former football players like Zack Test and Perry Baker, along with a current one: New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner, who became the first active NFL player to compete in a Summer Olympics after being named to the team. And if winger Carlin Isles gets some open space, look out—the so-called “Fastest Man in Rugby” is a former sprinter who nearly qualified for the U.S. Track & Field team in 2012 before turning to rugby full time.
And while rugby isn’t quite up there (yet) with football or basketball in the U.S., Hughes hopes that the Olympics spotlight—and the fact that the Americans took home the gold medal the last time the sport was in competition—can help the sport break into the mainstream.
“It’s incredibly exciting to have rugby back in the Olympics,” Hughes says. “Hopefully a lot of people who've never watched rugby sevens before will see it during the Olympics and realize what an exciting sport it is.”
Men’s Fitness caught up with Hughes ahead of the Olympics to talk about his training for Rio, what it means to be captain of the team, and why he doesn’t do any pre-game rituals.
Read the interview with Madison Hughes on the next page >>>