One of Madison Hughes’ first Olympic memories was as a kid watching the 2000 Sydney Games from his family’s home in Lancaster, England, a London suburb.
Hughes watched as much of the Games as he could — track & field, gymnastics, swimming. He and his younger brother, Cameron, were so caught up in five-ring fever they treated two sofas like swim lanes, diving in and “swimming” their length. First to the far side won.
Hughes, who holds dual citizenship and did remarkable double duty as U.S. sevens captain and college senior at Dartmouth last season, had no aspirations that the sport he played since age 7 would someday allow him to become an Olympian.
“When I think of the sports in the Olympics,” said Hughes, “I didn’t imagine that rugby would be added.”
Men’s and women’s rugby, along with golf, was voted in 2009 onto the Olympic calendar for Rio. The U.S. team qualified for the Games last June, the same weekend Hughes would have walked in Dartmouth graduation ceremonies with the Class of 2015.
His U.S. rugby teammates say Hughes, at 21 the team’s youngest player when he was named captain before the 2014-15 season, makes such a good leader because he can keep his emotions in check, especially useful when communicating with the referee.
When it comes to talking about competing in the Rio Summer Olympics this August, Hughes has to force himself to rein in his excitement. You get the feeling Hughes is still pinching himself.
“It’s hard not to think about it, really,” said Hughes. “We try and stay focused on the day at hand, the tournament at hand, but Rio is there in the back of your mind all the time.”
Rugby sevens, the hyperkinectic, seven-a-side version of the game, is tailor-made for the Olympics, he says, because of its speed, high scoring and easier-to-understand rules compared to the traditional 15-a-side rugby.
Teams play full-field, 14-minute games, giving an overtime urgency to every score. Speed, elite-level fitness and open-field tackling are prized, though rugby’s reputation for brutally physical play — besides an occasional wrestling-type helmet, competitors don’t wear padding — remains intact.
Rugby culture, however, is not the same as it used to be — at least not on this level, say players.
“Rugby had a bad reputation for a while as just partiers and drinkers,” said U.S. team veteran Zack Test, 26. “That phase has been gone for 10 or 15 years now. It’s a real serious sport.”
National sevens director Alex Magleby, a former Dartmouth coach and captain, said Hughes’s leadership surfaced early, when Hughes was the first underclassman in Dartmouth history named captain.
“He is enormously hard working, diligent,” said Magleby. “He doesn’t talk down to people. He’s not a rah-rah leader … it’s lead-by-example.”
U.S. teammates sometimes refer to Hughes as “The Law Firm” for his intelligence on the field and depth of knowledge off it, where Hughes said he has run out of opponents in the mobile app game “Trivia Crack.” Graduating from Dartmouth was a relief after training for and playing international matches and Olympic qualifying while juggling schoolwork for his history degree.
At 5-foot-8½, 175 pounds, Hughes is one of the smallest players on the U.S. side but makes up for it with smarts and superb tackling technique.
“All the big boys love to come at him,” said Test, an eight-year U.S. veteran and leading tries scorer, “but he brings them to the ground … He punches way above his weight.”
The U.S. team, known as the Eagles, are considered outside contenders for an Olympic medal, currently ranked No. 7 in the Rugby World Series, with breakthrough wins over noted rugby nations New Zealand, Australia and England last year. Hughes, the squad’s best kicker, said the team’s 2016 results have been “disappointing” so far and the team is seeking the consistent play needed for status as Olympic medal favorites.
“Anybody can beat anybody on the day,” Magleby said.
Hughes’ road to Rio unfolded with a series of fortuitous events.
After attending an English prep school with high-level rugby, he wasn’t offered a pro contract at 18. Hughes said he considered that something of a blessing, because he valued academics but also dreamed of playing at the national level — an impossible combination in England’s system.
With a U.S.-born mother and English father, Hughes took regular holiday visits to cousins in America, where he dreamed of someday playing for the U.S. national team, he said. Magleby said Hughes had been on the program’s radar since Hughes was 16 or 17. Then came the successful Olympic vote, and a kid who grew up in England playing a non-Olympic sport finds himself playing for America in the 2016 Games.
“It has worked out very well,” Hughes said.
Madison Hughes’ younger brother and fellow former couch swimmer, Cameron, plays rugby for Providence College. He’s due to graduate in 2017.
A long time between golds
Bar bet: Name the defending champion in Olympic rugby.
No, not tradition-rich Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa or England. Surprisingly, it’s the U.S., which won gold in 1920 and 1924, the last time rugby was an Olympic sport.
The men’s gold medal will be awarded Aug. 11. Side note: Fiji, currently the world’s top-ranked sevens team, has never won an Olympic medal in any sport.
Official Olympic rugby team named in July
The U.S. Eagles sevens team qualified for Rio in June 2015, but the actual players have yet to be officially named to the team. That happens July 17, when 12 players and three or four reserves will be named from the current 30-member U.S. squad, currently living and training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Teams already qualified for 2016 Olympics
Among the U.S. teams qualified for Rio besides men’s and women’s rugby so far: Men’s archery; men’s and women’s basketball; equestrian (dressage, eventing, jumping); women’s field hockey; women’s soccer; men’s water polo.