When Dan Johnson coached at Minnesota, he had to start a youth program so his daughter could play.
Before 2009, when the IOC announced that women’s rugby sevens would be added to the 2016 Games, Katie Johnson never thought she would have a chance to play in an Olympics.
All three — mom, dad and daughter — were at Deodoro Stadium in the hills above Rio on Saturday, as Katie played two games on the first day of women’s rugby in the Olympics, and the first day of Olympic rugby of any kind in 92 years.
The Americans lost 12-7 to Fiji in the early afternoon, then beat Colombia 48-0 in the early evening, after a pink dusk and the surrounding mountains turned the stadium into a postcard.
The U.S. will face a powerhouse Australian team that is 2-0 on Sunday in the last game of pool play. At least three Minnesotans — Dan, who coaches rugby at Hopkins High School, Jennie, who is in the Hall of Fame at Owatonna High, and Kathryn, who attended Hopkins — will spend another day at Deodoro Stadium.
“To have women’s rugby, and sevens, in the Olympics?’’ Dan Johnson said. “I mean, I’m way up here.’’
He held his right hand as far as he could reach.
“When they announced in 2009 that it would become an Olympic sport, Katie was well into it,’’ Jennie said. “But there are a few moments in your kid’s life when it’s the best day of their life — and that was one of them. That was the day she decided that this was what she was going to do.’’
Katie chose a unique sport. While most people are familiar with the more traditional grappling form of rugby, sevens reduces the teams to seven on a side and the clock to seven-minute halves divided by a two-minute halftime.
This version of the game still requires toughness and strength but emphasizes speed and cardiovascular conditioning.
For spectators, it’s like watching two college football teams running the option, without breaks between plays. Every player is an option quarterback, looking to pitch or cut back against the defense. Every player is also a linebacker.
Both times Johnson came off the field she was still trying to catch her breath.
“This is an honor,’’ she said. “I get goose bumps just thinking about it. It’s amazing. There are so many amazing athletes who have been training with us back home, who didn’t get this honor. You’ve got to thank them 110 percent because we wouldn’t be here without them and everyone else. It’s an honor to be one of the 12.’’
The stadium was never close to full, but the fans didn’t mind. Rugby engenders a party atmosphere. Brazil’s fans screamed throughout even as their team went 0-2.
U.S. fans wore American flag hats and shirts. One fan held up a sign reading, “Who won last rugby gold?’’ a reference to the U.S. win in 1924.
“None of us would have predicted this back when she was a little girl,’’ Jennie said. “Or even when I was in college.’’
“When I was playing, I would have bet you would never see a professional women’s rugby league,’’ Dan said. “She’s loving every minute of it. She’s realizing where she is and absorbing it. But she’s also kind of ready for it to end, too. It’s a lot of work.’’
The Olympic motto, translated from Latin, is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.’’ There are many sports that don’t attempt to justify themselves under those standards. Badminton, anyone?
Rugby sevens requires strength, speed and pugnaciousness. Katie is playing with a torn labrum, but she doesn’t let on while playing.
“As soon as it became a part of the Olympic Games, in 2009, that was the switch in my head,’’ she said. “I had no other choice. I had to be here.’’
Now that she is … “It’s surreal. It’s pretty unbelievable. All the hard work is coming out, and you see the finish line — or at least a checkpoint. It’s great to see the joy on everyone’s faces. We made it.’’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On