Rugby's Olympic eligibility rules means that Nathalie Marchino will be in Rio this summer, but not playing for the USA, the country she represented for over 10 years. Rather she will be lining out for the nation who secured a surprise spot at the games - Colombia.
Though her story is now relatively well told , we catch up with Marchino on her emotional rollercoaster and the determination that will see her live her Olympic dream this summer.
First of all Nat, when you realised that despite having played for the US for 10 years that you weren't eligible for Rio, what was that emotion like and what was your initial reaction? Towards the end of the 2012/2013 World Series, I heard rumours that the then IRB (now World Rugby) was getting ready to come down with a decision that could potentially impact my status with the US team. Because it was so close to the World Cup, I didn't want to stress about something that was totally out of my control. We always knew that contract renewals would come immediately following the 2013 World Cup so I wanted to put myself in the best possible position going into those meetings. The contract renewal chat didn't go quite how I had imagined. I was told that due to the changes that were announced around London 7s 2013, I wouldn't be eligible to play in the 2014-2015 WS season, and was therefore not re-contracted.
The initial feeling was shock and disbelief. I immediately started looking for solutions - could I be on a partial contract while I looked for alternatives, could we go through Congress to expedite my petition (which I tried). I knew that I would be able to apply for citizenship in time for the Olympic Games but I also knew that the timing was tight. I basically went through all the steps of grief over time but I think I probably experienced the first three in the first 15 minutes of that meeting! It's never easy to be cut but I think what made it exceptionally hard on me was that it wasn't related to performance, and that despite having proudly worn a US jersey for close to 10 years, I was so easily dispensable. Looking back, I'm not the coaches had too many other options but it's still a tough memory for me.
What has life been like since March on hearing the news that you could represent Colombia? It's rare you get a second chance in life, especially one of this magnitude. When I heard, it was a huge relief! Even though I had followed all the rules of the process, I was cautiously optimistic because you just never know. There are always forces at play that you don't know of, or you can't control. But it was also total elation! To be able to relaunch the Olympic process - what a thrill. And then it was stress! I had about three weeks to get everything lined up to move to Colombia to train full time. I had a lot of wild ducks to chase to try to put them in a row... It was total madness. Somehow, I'm here now and I don't think I left the stove on at home, which is reassuring.
Since you've taken a leave of absence, what's your training schedule like and how are you managing it financially? The team is based out of Medellin, which is in Antioquia, the department in Colombia where most elite athletes tend to train. Medellin offers a lot athletic amenities. For instance, there are incredible facilities here that are state-sponsored and available to the public. We use the weight training facility there. We have access to a rugby pitch that is also managed by the city, but in a different location. Finally, we have access to free sport med and physical therapists, as part of the facilities. Our training schedule is pretty much the same every week. It consists of three weight sessions, and five field sessions. From time to time, a World Rugby advisor will come and work with us for a week or so.
I am one of the lucky players that is receiving support from the Colombian Olympic Committee. They've provided me with an apartment and I get a grocery stipend. One aspect of the team that is completely different from what I experienced in the US is that, because we are not a professional team, financial support is minimal. The women on the team that come from Medellin receive some support from the department. However, most of the women that come from the outside are financing their own Olympic process. It's definitely tough! We rely a lot on donations, which is why I am still fundraising, and some endorsements, though those are currently too few to have a significant impact. From what I've heard, in the past, some talented women have had to exit the Olympic process because they simply couldn't afford it, which is a shame. Yet, considering that Colombia was a surprise qualifier (and we're the only other team sport to have ever qualified outside of soccer), it's understandable that there wasn't funding set aside for rugby for the Olympics. Luckily, the team is incredibly resourceful, and we usually find a way to sort of make it work BUT if you're reading this, and your rugby-addicted heart is aching, feel free to make a donation :)
How important was the support from your employers Twitter and do the Colombian players still work fulltime? I'm lucky to work for a company that values work life balance. When I initially reached out to my manager to tell him that I may be trying to go to the Olympics with Colombia, he was genuinely happy for me and said he would support me in any way possible. While there isn't a sports-related or Olympic Leave of absence option, Twitter created a plan that would allow me to take an unpaid leave but return to my job after the Olympics. For a time, I worked with our media team as well to see if I could do some work during the months leading to the Olympics and from Rio but unfortunately, it didn't pan out. Still, Twitter's support has been overwhelming.
Some of the players that are from Medellin are students, and a few of them have jobs, but none of them work full time. We usually train from 7.30 to 1pm every day so they would have to work late shifts, which would be near impossible to balance.
What was the reaction from the Colombian players to your inclusion - especially those who might lose their place as a result? I was a little nervous coming to meet the team in October. I was aware that my inclusion might mean that someone would lose their spot. I was really surprised with how welcoming the team was to me. I never felt like a threat to any of them, which could have been tough for them but if it was, they didn't let it show. Some of the players told me that at first, they were a little angry at the idea because they had worked so hard to qualify, and all of a sudden, a total stranger living thousands of miles away was going to be entering the process without having gone through any of the team's growing pains. Apparently, they saw some video footage of me and became excited that I would be able to add new dimensions to the team, both in terms of playing and having international experience.
What's been the major difference between the training there and your experience in the US? One thing I realised I have always taken for granted playing for the US is the experience you gain playing on the international stage. After 10 years of traveling internationally with the US, I became completely oblivious to the fact that a majority of national teams do not get that exposure. There is so much to gain from playing against the best on a regular basis. Not only do you get to gauge your own skill set against the world's best players, but it also tests your limits. Before the World Series, I don't think I fully understood what it takes to play 7s at that level. I was routinely pushed to my limits and improved as a result of it.
Rugby in Colombia is still in its early infancy. A majority of the international matches that the team has played has been against LATAM and Caribbean teams. Participating in Atlanta 7s was a huge learning opportunity for us, because the team got to see what it can be like to be a professional player, and to play at that level. It allowed us to aspire to more. We now have an idea of what it would take for Colombia to become a consistent player on the international stage. That's really what we lack most -- that experience, and the understanding of how much further we can push ourselves in order to bring out our best.
Tell us a bit about women's rugby in Colombia? I'm still learning a lot about how women's rugby is structured here. From what I understand, 7s rugby is growing quickly. Generally speaking though, getting women to play high level athletics can be a challenge. The Colombian culture still doesn't encourage women enough to play sports in my opinion. I once met a man that asked me if I was an athlete, then apologised for asking. I asked him why he'd apologised and he told me that he'd gotten in trouble for assuming that on several occasions because the women he'd asked didn't want to be associated with that type of body image. So you can image how challenging it might be to approach a women about playing a contact sport. What I think our team has the opportunity to do is make women to aspire to play rugby. Slowly, as we keep educating people around us on the sport, we are starting to see growing interest and shifting mindsets. I hope that our performance in Rio will inspire young women to want to follow in our footsteps.
Is there much awareness of rugby in general there and of the team's qualification? Truthfully, no. It's pretty comical when we go through customs and have to explain that we were travelling for rugby. We often have to explain what the sport is, which goes something like: it's American Football without pads. I am not sure how American Football is so popular here! That said, you can find rugby on TV in Colombia, which is still a rarity in the US. Today, I was able to watch a couple of international test matches, and switch back and forth between that on ESPN and the Rugby 7s repechage in Monaco. The women's repechage tournament will also be televised. Despite rugby being pretty unknown still, it is definitely getting a lot more airtime here than it was in the US.
Colombia's qualification was a surprise - tell us what the expectations in the squad are ahead of Rio and how their inclusion in the Olympics might help galvanise interest in rugby there? First of all, if you haven't seen how Colombia qualified, please do yourself a favor and watch this -- it's pretty sick! They always tell you to play to the whistle, well young lads, this is why. First, they prevented a try by staying with the play until the end, then turned over their 22 dropout to score as time expired. Probably the most consequential 60 seconds of rugby in Colombian rugby history.
Now that I'm not getting the chills... what we want to do in Rio is leave our mark. No one expected us to be there. I want us to shock the world and steal a couple of victories. We have the talent. If we can do the little things right, if we all commit to our vision, then I think we can do something special. The implications for Colombian rugby are huge. I think that if people at home see us do what no one think we can, it'll be a huge boost for the sport domestically.
We have been doing clinics around the city as part of our Olympic preparation and kids love the game. But in a country that is so heavily dominated by soccer, it's a tough value prop for parents that don't necessarily see an international avenue for their kids. This could be it, this could be how we get people to take a genuine interest in the sport.
What is next for the team before Rio in terms of training and games? After Rio, a majority of the players will return to their hometowns to resume their professional lives or go back to school. However, we see the Olympics as the start of a number of things for the team. We hope the Olympics will propel the sport into the national spotlight, and for interest to continue growing. Hopefully, this will bring more opportunities for Colombia to participate in high level international play. There will be the Bolivarian games, then World Cup, then another Olympic cycle. I'm sure the girls will take some time off to recover from the experience but the vision here is on keeping the momentum going for rugby.
Nat's fundrarising page can be found here https://www.rallyme.com/rallies/3833/swzroad2rio