Men’s Rugby at Penn: Olympians of Tomorrow Heading to Collegiate Championships

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820April 17, 2014

Future Olympic champions may be in training right here at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the second consecutive year, the Men’s Rugby Football Club at Penn is playing at the national Collegiate Rugby Championships May 31-June 1 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

Blending football, soccer and wrestling, rugby is making a comeback in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Therefore, the Collegiate Rugby Championships will also showcase potential Olympians. And according to Omar Foda, the Penn club coach, some of those potential Olympians are right here on campus.

Foda says it was no easy feat for the nearly 40 undergraduate players to get to the tournament, which is one of the sport’s biggest events.

“Each player gets a chance to find the right alchemy of power, speed, skill, vision, toughness and intelligence that best allows him to succeed,” says Foda.

Foda became an assistant coach with the men’s rugby team in 2008, when he came to Penn as a doctoral student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He started playing rugby at Dartmouth College his freshman year.

Junior Doug Swift, from London, comes from a family filled with rugby fanatics. He has been playing since age 5 and now is an economics and European history major in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“The team is an amazing cross-section of Penn's demographics. Through the sport, you meet international students, American guys, Greeks and non-Greeks, students from all of Penn's schools, freshmen through seniors, high-school athletes and rookies,” Swift says. “It’s great socially, and the club has been through a substantial growth phase in the last few years. It has been hugely rewarding.”

Sophomore Max Gabarre-Grindrod, the club president, concurs, adding he really likes how the team brings together a mix of students from different backgrounds. He moved a lot between England and France but cites Paris as his hometown. That’s why the players nicknamed him “Frenchie.”

A philosophy, politics and economics major, Gabarre-Grindrod says rugby is centered around teamwork, tenacity and toughness.

“Camaraderie is also a huge part of rugby, the physical battle on the pitch, the wins as well as the losses -- it all helps to bring us together,” Gabarre-Grindrod, who started playing the sport at age 12, says. “We always have a lot of fun and plenty of laughs.”

He says because of the game’s intense physical demands, being in shape is essential, but a player’s attitude is even more important.

“The more fascinating part of the game is the mental aspect. Some of the best players I've played with have been under 6 feet, and I've played with huge men who, despite their size, just don't have what it takes,” says Gabarre-Grindrod. “It's about grit rather than brawn.”

Swift adds that rugby is a sport with diverse athletic requirements for different positions on the team, but it also entails moving quickly and strategically, especially when playing their biggest rivals, Princeton University and Temple University.

“Perhaps more important than the physical aspects are the ability to make decisions when fatigued, communicate effectively and work as a team,” Swift says, “and to have the drive to turn up to train in the pouring rain.”

The championship games in Chester are not free; however, the men’s rugby team often plays midday on Saturdays at Penn Park. Those games are free and open to the public throughout the season.

The club plays from late August through mid-November, in what’s known as the Ivy regular season. The second session runs from late February through mid-April and includes games among the Ivies and the national tournament. The third session takes place from the end of April through the championships at the end of May.

The Men’s Rugby Club is always looking for new players. All it takes to become a member of the team is a willingness to come out to a practice.

“In rugby, we have an all-accepting ethos,” says Gabarre-Grindrod. “We welcome all newcomers to the team, no matter their physical ability or rugby experience.”

Foda adds that rugby is a sport that welcomes all sizes, shapes and body types.

“Since a lot of the guys come to the team with no prior experience, the team and the coaching staff have a system in place to teach the game to new guys,” Foda adds. “We can turn anyone into a rugby player within one term.”

If chosen during the Collegiate Rugby Championships, Penn’s Olympians-in-the-making might just “go for the gold” in 2016.