ROAD TO RIO | Former EIU runner Lauren Doyle found Olympic footing in rugby

Originally published Aug. 5, 2015

Five years ago, Lauren Doyle had never played rugby.

Today, she is one of the five best women’s rugby players in the world according to U.S. women’s head coach Ric Suggitt.

[caption id="attachment_2731" align="alignright" width="225"] ROAD TO RIO: From fencing to water polo, follow ASN Olympic hopefuls.[/caption]

For a sport determined to grow in the U.S., Doyle is a prime example that athleticism, hard work and game study can take a small-town girl who had never heard of rugby to the Olympics. Because of rugby Doyle has been to Amsterdam, Dubai and Fiji. Next year, she will compete in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Summer Games.

Doyle leads the U.S. Women’s Eagles Sevens squad to Rio after the team qualified by winning the North America Caribbean Rugby Association Sevens Championship in early June. The U.S. men’s sevens team also qualified for Rio.

The 2016 Summer Games feature rugby as an Olympic sport for the first time since 1924, when the U.S. men’s team won its second consecutive gold. This is the first time for Olympic women's rugby.

Doyle plays center, a position requiring speed, speed and more speed. Doyle always had the skill you can’t teach, excelling in track and field at Meridian High School in rural Boody, Ill. But just as every sprint champion doesn’t stand out as an NFL wide receiver, Doyle needed more to star in rugby.

She didn’t enjoy the pressure she felt to succeed in track and field, but knew that sport was her only shot to earn scholarship money. Too short to play volleyball or basketball — her other high school sport — Doyle decided to grin and bear it.

“My junior year of high school I decided to take track more seriously and I got a personal trainer,” she said. “My times decreased dramatically and my long jump increased a couple of feet. The work I put in my junior year paid off.”

The extra effort translated into a medal at the state track meet and it also attracted a scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois University's Frank Graziano, then the head coach of ... the rugby team. Graziano had built a college women’s powerhouse at EIU, and because of the sport’s absence at the youth level, had to recruit athletes. Doyle was that, and became more.

“Before he sent me the recruitment letter I had already decided I wanted to go to Eastern, I just didn't know what sport I would be playing in college,” said Doyle. “Once I got the letter I instantly decided I would be playing rugby, even though I didn't know what it was, because I did not want to run track.”

Doyle traveled the path so many of Graziano’s players had, beginning with how to hold the chubby oblong ball. The Panthers played 15s, meaning each team fields 15 players.

“Obviously, my first game was a disaster,” said the 24-year-old. “I think I had 100 penalties and just had no clue what was going on. Learning all the rules was probably the hardest part, actually playing came rather naturally.

“During my sophomore year I finally started to see holes in the defense and could understand more of what my coach was talking about. My junior year I could manipulate the defense to do what I wanted it and I could execute plays well.”

That’s when Doyle learned about USA Rugby’s residency program — players contracted to do nothing but play rugby for the national program toward development of the national team. A residency became her goal, and in 2012 she returned to track and field for help. Doyle walked on to EIU’s Ohio Valley Conference defending championship track team to improve her speed, ran the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay, and said she got faster.

That summer she played sevens for the first time, for a Chicago club, and realized her future was set. With fewer players, sevens action features much more room to roam.

“There is so much space and ball movement, I just knew it was the type of rugby I was made for,” said Doyle. “I love sevens because there is no hiding, all your flaws will be exposed. If you're a weak tackler, slow runner, bad passer, the opposition will see that very quickly and attack you.”

[caption id="attachment_2737" align="alignleft" width="450"] Lauren Doyle competes at the Pan Am Games in July. The U.S. women won the silver medal. (Courtesy Nicole Titmas/Women's USA Rugby 7s Head Trainer)[/caption]

Doyle earned her rugby residency in 2013.

Suggitt, like Graziano, was used to scouting women for more than sheer rugby acumen.

“My first impression was that she was a quiet person but a very quick runner,” said Suggitt. “There are a number of things that we look for, with attitude being the number one thing. I like that she appeared humble but yet worked hard, she did her job.  What I like now is that she does more than her job.

“Lauren can break a game wide open for you, she has the ability at any moment to turn the opposition.  The other strength is her ability to chase back on defense — she works hard and is a good tackler. Over the past couple of years Lauren has developed a good sidestep and turned out to be steady in the tackle area.”

Suggitt has never seen Doyle play 15s, but said her speed gives her every opportunity to shine in sevens on the Olympic stage.

“I believe to have a winning sevens team you need a world class center,” said Suggitt. “A world class center opens up so much more space on the outside for the winger. Also, because of Lauren’s ability to step and cut back inside she is a double threat with the ball in hand.”

Doyle pictured herself in the Olympics when she was a child, but as a gymnast. Talent, training and coaching have gotten her there as a rugby player. She has a marketing degree from EIU and a Pomeranian named Bella she calls the love of her life, she loves to play Super Mario Brothers and to try new restaurants and food.

If Doyle enjoyed the spotlight of track and field, her life would be much different. Now she stands out in a crowd, which she can sprint away from on the field.

“I love team sports and working together to get a win,” she said. “It's so much more gratifying to get a team win than an individual win.”

Above: Lauren Doyle played rugby for the first time at Eastern Illinois. Now she's on the U.S. team headed to the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Courtesy Eastern Illinois Sports Information)

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