The last time we visited with Katie Johnson, she was standing by Deodoro Stadium in the hills above Rio de Janeiro, participating in rugby’s return to the Olympics after a 92-year hiatus.
The last time we visited with Dan Johnson, he was wearing the cow costume he favors at rugby parties and was drinking beer on the Rio beach after working with kids from the local favelas, or slums, who were learning the game.
The Johnsons are the unofficial first family of Minnesota rugby. Jennie — Dan’s wife and Katie’s mother — was a standout at the University of Minnesota and Dan, 69, has been playing, coaching and promoting the game since he played for the Minneapolis Rugby Football Club in 1973.
Katie’s ascension to the U.S. national team and the Rio Olympics was a high point for the Johnsons, but this week they weren’t as interested in reminiscing as they were in preparing for their next milestone.
The Hopkins girls’ rugby club qualified for the national high school club championships May 19-20 in Elkhart, Ind. Hopkins never before had qualified.
So on Monday afternoon, Dan, the head coach, and Katie, an assistant coach, led the Royals through practice and a match. The setting was not remindful of the hills above Rio. The team practiced at an open field next to a playground at Valley Park Rink in Hopkins, a reminder that rugby remains more of a niche sport in the United States than a success despite its return to the Olympics.
“I’ve noticed a growth in interest, but most people don’t even know it’s a sport in the U.S.,’’ Katie Johnson said. “They’re interested in learning about the game, not necessarily playing.’’
Dan Johnson said the number of players and teams in Hopkins actually has dropped since Rio. He said that many parents worry about concussions, even though rugby doesn’t encourage the kind of headfirst hitting that became popular in football.
“The other thing is, rugby shot itself in the foot by not letting eighth-graders play varsity or JV,’’ Dan Johnson said. “So now all of the eighth-graders are going to lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee, soccer, baseball. They make friends in those sports and stay with it.’’
The Hopkins girls aren’t concerned with national trends. They fell in love with the sport and gathered at Tuttle’s, the local bowling alley and grille, to watch Katie during the Olympics. Now, as members of a club sport, they’re trying to raise more funds for the trip to Indiana.
“It’s quite an experience, being coached by Katie,’’ senior Bridget Mielke said. “She’s always right next to you, helping you, teaching you.’’
What attracted her to the game?
“I had a friend who played and said, ‘You should try it — you get to travel, and hit people,’ ” Mielke said.
Sophia Haley, a junior, was introduced to the game by her brother.
“It’s unreal, playing for Katie, and how someone so high up can care so much about a high school team,’’ Haley said. “She played for Hopkins and had some big hits in the Olympics. It was great being able to say, ‘That’s my coach.’ ”
Sophomore Quarrille Howard’s sister plays professionally in Italy. She called qualifying for the national tournament “breathtaking, awesome.’’ Of Katie Johnson, Howard said: “She comes back to where she’s from and teaches us to be how great as she is.’’
The Johnsons are mulling their futures. Katie said Dan may be ready to retire once he finds a suitable replacement. Jennie recently retired as a Minneapolis firefighter. Katie and fellow Rio Olympian Garrett Bender are going to coach men’s and women’s sevens teams this summer in Minneapolis. And while Katie didn’t want to deflect attention from the Hopkins girls, she is likely to try to make another Olympic team.
“Right now, I want to use the ‘Olympian’ title to further rugby in Minnesota,’’ she said. “In a couple of years, I’ll go back to play.’’
She smiled and said, “If I can still hang.’’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org