When Abby Gustaitis started playing club rugby as a college freshman at Maryland in 2010 — simply looking to meet new friends and explore a new sport — she had no idea there was a United States women’s national team.
The White Hall native, now 27, had a future in medicine laid out: She majored in physiology and neurobiology, took the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and was set to apply for medical school.
Instead, here she is, one of 12 players representing the U.S. at the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, the three-day tournament set to start Friday at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
“Astonishing is a good word because I’m still shocked about it when I wake up every day,” said Gustaitis, who was a basketball standout at North Harford High. “I’m so lucky to get to do this full time. I get to do what I love and I don’t regret it at all. I would 100 percent do it all over again. It’s been a long journey and I’ve learned a lot along the road.”
At 5 feet 11, 175 pounds, Gustaitis loves the physicality of rugby and was instantly hooked on the sport and thrived. After college graduation, she joined the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Club and got her first taste at the national level when she was invited to serve as a resident at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., in 2015. Rugby has taken her to France, Australia and Canada, and she made her World Rugby Women’s Seven Series debut at the 2017 Dubai Sevens Tournament.
On July 10, she learned she earned a roster spot, playing the prop position, to compete in the World Cup Sevens. Contested every four years and in its third edition on the women’s side, the tournament is considered the premier international competition outside of the Olympics. The U.S., which took third place in the first two tournaments, will be hosting for the first time.
“It’s incredible, super exciting [to have made the team], especially to play here at home,” said Gustaitis, who will have her parents and some high school friends in the stands. “I know that not too many people know much about rugby, so we’re trying to get the word out.”
The U.S. opens against China at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the 16-team tournament. Gustaitis gets the word out with much the same vigor she plays it.
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“It’s a 14-minute game of speed, finesse, contact,” she said. “It’s a running clock – 7-v-7 on a full soccer pitch essentially, so it all comes down to fitness, physicality and speed. It’s just a blast to watch because there’s no dead ball. It’s a sport like no other.”
Playing the prop position, her biggest value comes on kickoffs. Unlike American football, the goal is not to pin the opposing team deep in its own end, but to try to keep possession with the ball only needing to travel ten meters. As an aerial specialist, Gustaitis does whatever it takes to get the ball back for the Women’s Eagles.
“Abby has definitely stepped up as one of our leaders on the team,” coach Richie Walker said. “She’s really grown from the time she started with our program until now and has a great attitude both on and off the field. She definitely inspires her teammates with her actions on the field, her voice is very encouraging.”
Back in her days at Maryland, she said, it was the people she met and the camaraderie she enjoyed that kept her interested in playing rugby.
She sees the same kind of bond playing on the national team and believes that will be the key to winning this weekend’s tournament. With her parents, high school friends and others who she’s played rugby with over the years watching, how cool would it be to win?
“It would be so incredible. It’s what we’ve been working toward all year,” she said. “I think it all comes down to our connection — just staying together and focusing on our own style of play. With the ball in hand, our team is unstoppable.
“We have incredible athletes and if we’re all laughing and smiling as we enter the tunnel, the good vibes will come onto the pitch. We’re all so passionate about the sport and when that comes out on the field, everyone is on top of their game.”