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 >>>
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What's your training schedule like while preparing for the Olympics?
MADISON HUGHES: We usually train five days a week, and then have the weekends off for recovery. In our more intense phases, such as the run-up to the Olympics, we go into what we call our high-performance camps, where we'll train for six days a week, and raise the intensity overall.
What's your daily training routine like? How often are you in the gym or training on the field?
We typically have three training sessions a day. In the morning we'll do a lift in the gym for about 45 minutes, where we do all your typical lifts, including squats, bench press, deadlifts, and cleans. The focus here is on our explosive movements and trying to be as powerful as we can be. Then we will often do a 15–20 minute conditioning block on rowing machines or exercise bikes. For our first field session of the day, we'll focus on our skills like passing, tackling, evasion, or breakdown work for about 30 minutes, and then do a 30-minute conditioning block. Then our second field session is usually open rugby, starting in different scenarios.
What are some specific workouts you do as rugby players? What can athletes in the gym do to emulate your workouts?
Rowing sessions—we do 4 sets of 500m each in less than 1:45 with 2 minutes between sets. Bigger guys have to do this faster.
We also use the bike—50 seconds pedaling at a moderate pace, then 10 seconds of off-saddle sprinting with resistance. Go to 40 seconds pedaling at a moderate pace, then 20 off-saddle sprint, and continue that at 30 seconds moderate, 30 in sprint, 20 seconds moderate, 40 seconds in sprint. Repeat that workout 4 times.
For up-downs, we do 20 seconds on, 20 seconds off, repeatedly for 8 minutes, then 3 minutes off, then repeat.
What does it feel like to have rugby back in the Olympics after such a long absence? What does it feel like to represent your country?
The Olympics is the pinnacle of world sport, so it is fantastic for rugby sevens to be in the Olympics. It's such an honor to represent my country and I’m proud to run out on the field representing the USA. It’s also a responsibility and I want to make sure that every chance I get, I am giving everything to prove worthy of the opportunity.
What does it mean to you to be captain of the team? What is your leadership style like?
It's an incredible honor to be captain of this team. We have such a great group of guys who've come together from such different backgrounds to do everything we can for the team, and to represent the USA. I wouldn't really say I have one particular leadership style, but I try and stay flexible and do what I feel the team needs at different times. For the most part, I'm pretty quiet and try to lead by example. Before games, though, I can get quite fired up, and I get a bit emotional during my pre-game talks.
What is your favorite exercise to do and why? Least favorite exercise?
My lower body is naturally much stronger than my upper body, so in the gym I like the trap bar deadlift—mainly because I feel like I'm good at it! Bench press is one I struggle with, especially compared to the other guys on my team. Conditioning-wise, the rowing machine gives me a lot of trouble. I'm short, so have real trouble matching the pace of the taller, longer-limbed guys.
What is your daily nutritional routine like? What is your favorite meals to eat while training?
I eat three main meals a day with two or three good-sized snacks, depending on training volume. During the training day I find it tough to eat too much, but my favorite for lunch is a chicken breast sandwich with avocado and sweet potato, and a fruit smoothie on the side. For breakfast, three eggs and a yogurt with blueberries; dinner I really like spaghetti squash with spinach, bacon, and goat cheese.
Do you use supplements or other products while training? What types of those products do you like to use?
I struggle to keep my weight up, so I'll have a protein shake after each training session. Then in the morning I'll have a pre-workout drink.
What did it feel like to defeat a team like New Zealand for the first time?
It felt great! New Zealand have been the dominant team in rugby sevens for most of the last 20 years, and the only team the United States had never beaten. So it was awesome to have some success against them this year, and give ourselves the knowledge that we can beat any team when we play up to our potential.
What are your personal hopes and goals for the 2016 Games? What are your expectations for the United States team?
I hope we're able to represent ourselves well and play up to our potential—and seeing what we can make happen, one game at a time.
Is there one specific thing you feel you need to do each time before you compete?
I try and avoid too many pre-game rituals, just so nothing can throw me off if there are last-minute changes.
What advice do you have for other athletes looking to emulate your success, to be as physically fit as you? Whether they be amateurs, weekend warriors, gym rats, aspiring Olympians?
The key is hard work and a willingness to put in that work. That's not really revolutionary. Think of it like this: Lots of people have some natural talent, but fewer have the desire to make the most of that talent.
Do you listen to music or anything else for motivation before you compete or workout?
Being in a team sport, I'll usually leave it to someone else on the team to put the music on the speakers before games and in the gym. I have quite an eclectic taste in music and will vary what I listen to depending on my mood. Today's hits or classic rock are my two main picks.
What are you most looking forward to about the Olympics this year?
I’m just excited to get caught up in the overall spectacle of the Olympics. Bringing together many of the best athletes in the world, for the biggest moment of their careers, the Olympics is unlike anything else and I can't wait to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the Games.