Abby Gustaitis, a Harford County native and 2009 graduate of North Harford High School, is a United States Olympian.
Gustaitis, who didn’t start playing rugby until she was 19 and in college, is co-captain of the 12-member women’s rugby team that will battle for gold at next month’s 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.
“You go out there and you put everything you have and if at the end of the game you can say you gave it your very best and unfortunately, we don’t end up on top, you have to accept that,” said Gustaitis, who now lives in San Diego and trains full time for rugby in Chula Vista, California.
“It’s Sevens, it’s a wild game and any team can come out on top any day, but I would be disappointed if we left without a medal.”
Gustaitis, who turned 30 in May, plays a forward position, specifically the prop and hooker positions.
“As a forward, we specialize in the kickoffs and set pieces, where we deliver the balls to the backs for them to do plays,” she said. “We’re your power and strength players.”
Gustaitis is 5-11 and 170 pounds, according to the Olympic team roster. She played basketball and field hockey in high school, but jumped into the sport of rugby as freshman at the University of Maryland, where she began playing club rugby.
“I got my true calling in rugby,” Gustaitis said. “I honestly just stumbled upon it, like a friend of mine in college sort of invited me to a practice and then just from the start, the physicality and the different skill set, I think really intrigued me.
“Just the idea of starting a different sport that I had never heard of or even watched, was really intriguing. I kind of stuck around for the friendships.”
And an Olympic-caliber player was born.
“I just continued to pursue the sport, even after, so I was an All-American my senior year of college and that’s kind of when I found there was a National Team and realized that there were World Cups to play in and it wasn’t quite in the Olympics yet, but it was going to be in the Olympics in 2016 for the first time,” Gustaitis said. “So, all of that, I sort of set my eye on playing for the Fifteens Team, which I ended up doing in 2016.”
Fifteens means 15 players per side per match and Sevens means seven players per side, which is what Gustaitis plays now.
She started playing Sevens in 2014, which afforded her opportunities to play on all-star teams that traveled internationally.
“Eventually, I was at a tournament where the National Team head coach was and he invited me out to Chula Vista in 2015 to train with the Sevens squad for the first time,” Gustaitis said.
Gustaitis career highlights include the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, 4th; 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Glendale, 2nd; 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Langford, 3rd; 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Dubai, 4th; 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Langford, 3rd; 2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Paris, 4th; 2017 World Rugby Sevens Series Dubai, 2nd; and 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, 4th (Fifteens).
Sevens games are 14 minutes long, broken into a pair of seven-minute halves. Fifteens play 80-minute games.
A couple of weeks ago, Gustaitis was a special guest, virtually, with members of Mason-Dixon Rugby, a youth rugby program that’s based at the Norrisville Recreation Center. The non-tackle program is open to boys and girls ages 5 through 17 and new players are always welcome.
“I did a Zoom call with them and I told them a little bit about my journey and they asked a couple questions, well they asked a lot of questions,” Gustaitis said. “It was nice to see that rugby is growing, because that didn’t exist when I was growing up.”
Gustaitis says she has spoken to different groups and organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people were missing rugby and it was just a chance to connect with people and continue to grow the awareness of the sport,” she said.
Gustaitis and teammates will arrive in Tokyo for the games on July 13. The rugby games are slated for July 29, 30 and 31.
Three four-team pools make up the 12-team Olympic field. Teams will play two games per day, starting with pool play.
Quarterfinal, semifinal and final games will determine gold, silver and bronze medalists.
Teams from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States were the top four teams to qualify automatically. It will likely be those four teams battling for medals.
Gustaitis earned her degree in physiology and neurobiology at the University of Maryland but currently gets paid a stipend from from USA Rugby and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Gustaitis also works part-time as an Pilates instructor.