We recently asked Charlotte to share some insights into the lead up to the Olympic Games and the Olympic tournament itself. Here’s her behind the scenes thoughts and memories of the big show.
From immediately after the Rugby 7s World Cup in Moscow in 2013, Tim Walsh (Walshy) and Scott Bowen (Scotty) were working to a plan focused on putting a team on the field at Deodoro that could win gold. So in reality the selection process had covered a 3-year period, but for me it all came to a head in those weeks leading into the naming of the 12 players picked to be Australia’s first female rugby Olympians.
The World Series had ended for us in May on the back of a gentle reminder in France, from the Canadians, that medals and podium places were far from decided. After a quick break, we were back into preparation, including a series of games against the Japanese. This was part of the selection process and Walshy selected 16 girls for a training camp in Darwin. It was starting to get very real.
You’d have thought that having been selected to play in every World Series tournament and a World Cup since my debut in Amsterdam in 2013, except for being rested from the Canadian leg earlier in the year, would have given me a sense of confidence about making the cut to be named in that final 12. It didn’t. It was daunting and was more so as the weeks to the team announcement counted down. All of those tournaments had been my chance to secure a spot for this one big tournament.
After the Darwin training camp, I felt I had trained well and was comfortable with my position in the team. My body was feeling really good as well. I started to feel confident that I had done enough to be selected. With that feeling, exciting is the only way I can describe the day we found out which of us would be in the team. I felt ready and excited that the real job we turned up to do in January 2014 was now about to start.
Walshy told me the good news and I rang my mum. She was with the rest of my immediate family and had me on speaker as I delivered the good news. One of my brothers said, in an unenthusiastic voice, ‘why did you even ring to tell us, we knew you would be in the team’. It is nice that their faith in me never waivers, but I also know it’s not blind faith. An honest assessment of any of my performances is always very close to home!
Once that immediate excitement passed and I got the feet back on the ground, the impact of that day on others dawned on me. It was difficult to get past the contrasting emotions that two players in particular would have felt.
Tiana Penitani had overcome a series of injury set backs, was pretty much always in the ‘touring’ 12 when fit and put herself firmly in the frame for selection, but she missed the cut for the Olympic 12. We had played against and with each other since our senior year of high school. I felt for Tiana, I could have been walking in her shoes.
On the flip side of emotions was Gemma Etheridge who had made a miraculous recovery from an ACL injury sustained in training just 3 months prior. You just had to be really happy for Gemma knowing what she had sacrificed and how hard she worked to get back into good form so quickly after such a serious injury. It’s players like Gemma that remind you that the love of the game can outweigh every hardship.
Almost an Olympian
With the emotion of that day behind me, I could now almost call myself an Olympian, but being given our uniform was probably the moment that everything started to feel real. Trying the Olympic uniform on with my team mates was a lot of fun, but it also unleashed the nerves.
The day we left for Rio it felt like any other tour departure day, but there was a bit of a change up in that we got to fly premium economy for the first time ever. That was a great experience and did wonders for our bodies to get a bit of extra room! AND we were on a plane amongst other Australian athletes from all different sports. Oh, and Walshy turned up to the airport with a fake tan.
We landed in Rio and drove straight to our training camp facility. We had been told that the athletes in the village had left due to unfinished rooms. Our original plan was to stop by the village for a few days. Prior to leaving for Rio, Walshy had told us to expect the unexpected once we got there. He practiced a lot of scenarios with us to help prepare for anything that may come our way. He called them ‘curveballs’. The Olympics throws curveballs. Rio throws curveballs.
The training facility was a beachside resort called Portobello. The people were lovely, the beach was beautiful and to the delight of the men’s sevens team, the Dutch hockey girls were also staying there!
We trained very well while we were there and everyone was in great spirits.
One evening we had a team meeting before dinner that reviewed every team we would possibly play; every player in those teams; every set piece. It took hours. The girls were hungry, grumpy (known as hangry) and sleepy which resulted in some pretty funny responses, or non-responses, that we can laugh about now with the benefit of hindsight. At the time though, for me, it was a critical moment in our preparation. It was a moment of clarity, I was focused on every detail Walshy was talking about, storing everything I could to memory. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, in the grand scheme of things, that hour less sleep was a fair trade for a gold medal!
We moved from Portebello to the athletes village and that’s when the excitement really ramped up. We had a 3-bedroom apartment. It’s good being Emilee Cherry’s (Chez) roommate for a number of reasons, but especially when her seniority entitles you to the biggest room. We are always roommates. Our unrivalled sleeping ability within the squad makes us perfect travel companions.
Training continued to be sharp. Everyone was ‘on’. One session, we arrived while the Kiwi boys were training and they looked well into their session when we showed up. We were in and out before they got off the pitch. We were so clinical that we didn’t need to waste time in the heat when we didn’t have to.
Two days before game day I was receiving treatment from our physio, Claire, and as you do, was scrolling through Instagram. I came across a post from ‘rugbycomau’ that said Chez wasn’t a sure thing to play because she had picked up an injury during the week and hadn’t been cleared to play yet. I freaked out and showed Claire. She wasn’t even aware of an injury that was possibly ruling Chez out of the biggest moment in her career. Claire ran down stairs to Walshy, concerned that someone had leaked information to the press that wasn’t true. She was right and turns out it was Walshy who was the culprit. Part of his strategy for relieving pressure apparently, but not sure who he thought was getting the relief, it certainly wasn’t Claire or I!
After treatment I went back to my room and saw Chez. She was as confused as me and had received phone calls from distressed family members and friends. Turns out it didn’t distract us, but definitely scared Claire and me. I know our game is about all 7 players and no one is irreplaceable. That ‘rule’ applies to everyone other than Emilee Cherry at an Olympic Games tournament. She is world class in all ways, ability, attitude & absolute determination to win.
I am an Olympian
It was Game Day!
As a group, we had opted in the early stages of our preparation not to march in the opening ceremony with our tournament scheduled to start on day 1.
There was this sense of belief among the girls that we were going to win a gold medal. I’m sure every team went in with the exact same goal but I genuinely saw no other option for us.
Game one we played Colombia. They’d only competed in one World Series tournament I think, so had little international experience. We beat them convincingly and our patterns of play seemed like clock work. Sharni Williams scored our first try, which was fitting. She’d been such an instrumental part of our set up for the last 3 years and getting Australia’s first ever try at an Olympics seemed like a nice reward for her. I remember being stoked when she scored it. I also remember running onto the Deodoro pitch and thinking ever so quickly to myself ‘now you are an Olympian’. That game against Colombia was special.
We then played Fiji in the second pool game and everything was falling into place nicely. The Fijians can be a team that once they have momentum they are hard to shut down. We were always in control and ending up beating them convincingly. I was personally starting to feel really good in that game, backing myself and felt as though it was one of those tournaments where I was able to find the try line. We finished day 1 feeling great and excited for day 2.
Day 2 was the most important. If you don’t get through your quarter you’re out of contention for a medal. We had USA in our last pool match on day 2. It turned out to be our shocker game for the tournament. Thank heavens it came at that point rather than later when it really matters. Walshy changed the combinations up a bit for the game. We were rusty and passes weren’t sticking. USA has game breakers like Javelet, Kelter & Folayan and they caused us a bit of havoc.
Although the result of this match didn’t matter, it definitely affects your confidence if you play badly and have to back up for a quarterfinal. I remember USA winger Victoria Folayan made a break and I was probably out of position at sweeper. As soon as she broke the line I started running towards her trying to cut off the angle. I didn’t think I’d catch her and I was still filthy about missing a tackle on her earlier in the game. Luckily I picked the perfect angle to cut her off and shut down her options. Now I just had to make the tackle! I did make the tackle, jumped up full of adrenaline and was fired up for the second half. The second half never came as I got taken off! The coach had gone into the match with a plan of saving our legs for the next 3 games and he stuck to that plan.
The USA scored early in the second half and held a 12-5 lead until with 5 seconds to go Chez made a break and was tackled a couple of metres short. Emma Tonegato, so often in the right place at the right time, was on hand to pick up the scraps and dive over for a great try. With time up, Chloe Dalton kicked the conversion to level up the score.
We had played pretty average so were lucky to get away with a draw but it showed the fight in the girls. The big QF was up next. We were facing Spain. 3 years earlier at my first Rugby 7s World Cup we played Spain in a quarterfinal and lost. After the buzzer. It was heart breaking! We also faced Spain in another important QF to win the World Series in France. Seems like a trend, but we’d got the Spanish monkey off our backs in recent times and it continued to script in that QF. I scored 2 tries against them and felt like I was in some of my best form ever.
Day 3. The semi final against Canada was tough but I always felt as though we were in control. Canada seemed to feel the pressure as we shut down some of their big game players. After the hooter went on that game I remember running to Chloe and Vani and screaming we’ve won an Olympic medal! We were guaranteed to either come away with a gold or silver. Gold was the only one we wanted though.
In the lead up to the final against NZ there was a special vibe amongst the group. There were nerves, excitement, suspense but a very overwhelming feeling of belief. We screamed out songs in the change room, Scotty flicked the light switches on and off creating a strobe light. Everyone was banging down the walls. ‘Hold back the river’, normally a very relaxing, cruisey song seemed to be the biggest pump up of all time. We’ve since tried to re-enact what happened in that dressing room but it’s never been the same. We can’t actually figure out how the song pumped us up. The singing and dancing calmed everyone’s nerves and then we headed out to warm up.
The warm up wasn’t perfect at all. We dropped balls, people were running the wrong lines and passes weren’t sticking. Yet the belief remained the same as it was 2 days ago. We ran out onto the field looking towards our family and friends in the northern stand. We were running towards them in the first half.
The first couple of minutes weren’t my best. We turned it over in our own half and gave NZ a great attacking opportunity. Shannon Parry made an incredible try saver on Huriana Manuel down the left hand side and took her in to touch. We went to a line out which I threw in crooked. It was really crooked. Really, really crooked and right in front of the Kiwi crowd! They won the scrum and ended up scoring through Kayla McAlister on the other side of the field. They kicked off…….. and I dropped it! Lucky it went backwards. From there I think I threw an outrageous offload that I’ve never done before. Made my brother proud I think!
From that point we seized control of the game. The tempo and the momentum all turned in our favour. Emma scored. Portia Woodman received a yellow card for deliberately knocking the ball down on a chance for us to score a second try. That was a huge play. Apart from the fact that Vani Pelite scored for us in the corner just after, to take us to a 10-5 lead at half time, Portia would not get back on to the field for almost 4 minutes. From the restart of the second half the ball stayed in play for almost 3 minutes before Chez & I combined to put Ellia Green away for a try to take us to a 17-5 lead.
Portia got back onto the field for the restart and she knocked on from the kick off. Everything was going our way and I scored soon after that error. Chloe nailed the conversion again and we were leading 24-5 with just over 3 minutes to go. From there I kept checking the timer on the scoreboard doing mental calculations to work out if we were safely in front. Against NZ with Portia Woodman and Kayla McAlister, you never feel safely in front.
Our defensive effort that night was outstanding though, in particular Chez who was like a brick wall. Kayla eventually scored one of her trademark individual tries with a minute and a half to go, but Tyla Nathan-Wong missed the easy (for her) conversion attempt. At 24-10 we needed to concede 3 tries in 60 seconds to lose and it was then that I was pretty sure we’d done enough. The Kiwis got the ball back and attacked our try line relentlessly. I just wanted someone to drop the ball or for one of our girls to win a turn over so we could hurry up and celebrate. Portia ended up scoring but it didn’t matter, the hooter had gone half a minute earlier. We had just won the first ever Olympic gold medal in rugby 7s! We wrote ourselves into Olympic history, we were no longer just Olympians, we were Olympic champions and had fulfilled the destiny that Walshy and Scotty had meticulously planned for us.