Nate Ebner’s Olympic dream became reality Monday when he was selected to the U.S. national rugby sevens team for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Ebner landed one of the squad’s 12 roster spots following a grueling four-month stretch that involved him taking a leave of absence from his day job — safety/special-teamer for the New England Patriots — to practice full-time with dozens of fellow Olympic rugby hopefuls at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Having given up rugby more than five years ago to focus on football, Ebner faced a steep learning curve when he returned to the sport in March. He quickly caught on, however, and proceeded to see the field in two HSBC Sevens World Series tournaments, scoring two tries.
“When he came in, he was just trying to pick up and figure out what was going on, like we were standing as a team,” Perry Baker, who also was selected to the U.S. Olympic squad, said Monday in a phone interview with NESN.com. “He was kind of like a sponge, just trying to figure it out. And then after that, we just pulled him up to pace with us, and he’s been awesome ever since.”
Unlike Ebner, Baker has been a full-time member of the U.S. sevens program since 2014. Ebner’s inclusion on the Olympic team meant leaving another, more established player off the roster — a dicey situation that Baker admitted took some getting used to.
“It definitely was (strange at first),” said Baker, who ranked second among all 2016 Sevens World Series participants in tries with 48. “(U.S. sevens head coach Mike Friday) gave us a heads-up about it that, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to be coming in.’
“But I’m glad he came when he did instead of waiting to come until camp, which started on June 13. I’m glad he came way before that to put the time in and get the chemistry and things down.”
Baker, who played two seasons in the Arena Football League before switching sports, is one of the nation’s most dangerous rugby sevens players and a no-brainer pick for the Olympic team. But that didn’t make the selection any less meaningful to the 30-year-old.
“It feels really good, man,” Baker said. “It’s like a dream come true. It’s just overwhelming. I can’t even describe how I feel just thinking about going to Rio yet. When I got the news that I was on the team, I was actually in bed, and I couldn’t sleep anymore.”
The U.S. begins Olympic pool play Tuesday, Aug. 9, against Argentina. The Eagles’ opening-round schedule also features matchups with host nation Brazil and two-time defending Sevens World Series champion Fiji.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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