If you want to understand the impact that participation in the Olympic Games can have on a sport and a country, look no further than Colombia.
By qualifying to Rio 2016 in a dramatic way, the women’s game gained a new focus and stature in this South American country; things have only grown from there.
With Brazil, the perennial leader in the region already qualified as host nation, Argentina, playing at home in the qualifying tournament in Santa Fe, were the obvious candidates.
They were leading throughout the game, but never managed to get more than a score away; a local player overran the touchline and a vital try was missed. With seconds to play, Colombia seized one final opportunity and booked their ticket to Rio.
“We will never forget the joy of qualifying,” Camila Lopera tells World Rugby. “That final was crazy!”
At 26, Lopera is the senior player in a squad that will try to again qualify, this time at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage in Monaco. Opposition may be fiercer this time round, but the goal is still the same, and the team will be driven knowing what it meant to compete in Rio five years ago.
A golden opportunity
“[Rio] generated more development and support for us as players – physios, medical staff, nutrition, financial and education support,” Lopera recalls as she looks at her right wrist where the Olympic rings are tattooed, a memento of the event and a daily driver to get her back there once more.
“Looking at it, it takes me to the experience, it tells of resilience. Going to the Games was a big triumph, but the process that took us there was more important.”
Memories from the biggest of international stages are plentiful, even if they failed to win matches. “That last day all together, enjoying having represented rugby...Meeting Michael Phelps...We brought back the thrill of sharing those seconds walking onto the field as a team.”
For David Jaramillo, Colombian coach since 2017 and one of the best oval minds in his country, “playing the 2016 Games put us in focus, allowed us to leave the back of the room and be placed in the front row. Schools and universities, World Rugby and Sudamérica Rugby started to pay more attention to us. They all helped us grow and allow us to win the Pan American medal.”
If that last-gasp win against Argentina in 2015 has taught the squad anything, it is that every second, and focusing on every second, counts.
“That is how we prepare. We work to play every minute, to stay focused,” explains Jaramillo, who took his country to fourth place in the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires three years ago.
“Mental fatigue is something that you work on, how to be ready in those final moments.”
Another key step in the growth of Colombian rugby was taking bronze in the 2019 Pan American Games. Having drawn with Brazil – until then unbeaten against South American opposition – with the last kick of the game by Lopera, they went to sudden death where, again, Lopera scored the winning try.
Road to Monaco
As with every other team, the global COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with preparations. But Jaramillo says that the commitment of players towards preparation has never wavered; in fact, every player is part of the fifteens side that will soon play against Kenya for a place at Rugby World Cup 2021.
“Our final preparation for Monaco was in Atlanta, after an invitation to play in a university tournament at Life University [in Georgia, USA],” he says.
Though nine months had passed since their last game as a team, and some players had not played competitively since November 2019, those twelve days in the USA were more than productive.
“We managed to win the tournament, beating Life in the semifinals and a tough final with Lindenwood [University]. The goal was just to return to competition – after so long not knowing how ready we were.”
With two Olympians and six Youth Olympians, this Colombian team is experienced despite its young age. But Monaco will not be easy, with France, Hong Kong and Madagascar all in the same pool.
“France should have qualified directly,” says Jaramillo. “To us, this tournament is a big question mark: should we be on par with Hong Kong and Madagascar? A question mark is good and bad. You don’t know what to expect; you have to prepare for your own game, it is more about our craft."
“We will take it step by step, a game at a time," adds Lopera. "Each one is a new challenge.”
“Tokyo is the dream for us; we have to conquer these challenges first.”
Photo: José Romelo Lagman / Americas Rugby