Meet Team GB's Rugby Sevens women of 'mystery' going for Olympic Gold at Tokyo 2020

2020 Olympics are scheduled to take place in Tokyo starting July 23; Team GB's Rugby Sevens side, based at Loughborough University, have only just started training together due to pandemic and funding issues; Hannah Smith: "We're going to make it our advantage and just be a mystery"

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Celia Quansah says Team GB's Rugby Sevens team will come up against more established sides at the Olympics, but believes that could be to her team's advantage

With 100 days until the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, you would expect to see the Team GB Rugby Sevens squads in training camp, and that is exactly where you will find them. 

There is no secrecy around their training base at Loughborough University, home to many elite-level athletes with medal aspirations.

On this particular April afternoon, there is nothing unusual about the spring weather, a slight chill in the air despite the sunshine trying to break through the clouds, as the women's squad go through a routine practice session on a full-sized rugby pitch.

But rather than fine-tuning the intricate passing plays they hope will bring them Olympic glory, these players are still getting to know one another.

The road to Tokyo has already been a challenging one. Funding cuts last year exacerbated the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With players unable to train together, the GB squad was effectively disbanded less than a year out from the Games.

"Last year we were quite disappointed when we'd all come together in February for a camp and we had such a good time meeting everyone and making friends, and then obviously for that to be delayed, it was rough," says Scotland centre Hannah Smith, who has taken a sabbatical from her career as a vet to pursue her Olympic dream.

She has had help from the Scottish Rugby Union over the last year, but those in the squad that are Sevens specialists have not been so fortunate. The England players were made redundant from their RFU contracts back in August, and at the time began a crowd-funding initiative to try to raise funds to help them train.

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Some were able to join clubs in the 15-player code, while others were left with little option but to find alternative employment to pay the bills. At the time, it left their Olympic dreams in tatters with no prospect of being able to train together as a squad.

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Jasmine Joyce says Team GB are aiming to improve on their result at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where they lost the third-place play-off against Canada to miss out on a medal

Salvation came just before Christmas in the form of the National Lottery, with funding secured to cover both male and female Sevens players from the unions of England, Scotland and Wales.

It was the perfect festive gift for players like England wing Celia Quansah, who was struggling to see how she would make it to the rearranged games in 2021.

"It has been tough. Initially, we were like yep keep the dream alive, we're still going to be there. We always had that to work towards but I think when we were out of contract, that's the time when we were kind of a little bit like something's got to happen here, I don't know how we're going to make it.

"It's been so tough in lockdown for so many people and for us to not have contracts, be going back to 15s clubs, some girls not playing or anything, it's been so nice to have a bit of hope and a bit of structure knowing that actually yes, our Olympic dream is still on and we can still get there and still achieve it."

That dream is alive, but by their own admission Team GB are starting from a long way back. Where these players have had weeks of Zoom quizzes and limited practice time, other nations have had months of full-time preparation to get themselves ready for what could be the biggest moment in their sporting careers.

"We've seen them on social media having a great time, playing full-time - we're all quite jealous," says Smith. "But I think we're a bit of an unknown, an enigma, nobody really knows what we're going to be like which is an advantage.

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Scotland centre Hannah Smith has taken a sabbatical from her career as a vet to pursue her Olympic dream

"We're all training hard and pushing each other every single day to be better and getting to know each other over the course of the next 115 days, we can only get better and better. So yeah, I would say it could be perceived as a disadvantage but we're going to make it our advantage and just be a mystery."

Jasmine Joyce is one of four players in the initial 19-person training squad that went to Rio 2016, where the women's team narrowly missed out on a medal by losing out in the Bronze medal match.

The Wales wing says it has been a gruelling journey to get to this point, not to mention the extra year wondering if the Games would even go ahead.

"It's been a mental year for everyone and all athletes especially, but I'm just finally glad now to be part of the squad and part of training full-time

"Having the opportunity to train full-time as an athlete now is just something all us rugby players want to do so to be given that opportunity now is awesome and I am literally living the dream.

"My life for the last four years has been solely focused on the Olympics. I don't think people actually understand, especially if you're not an athlete, you don't understand how much sacrifices you actually give up.

"So every dinner time, every lunch, breakfast, snack, throughout the whole four years, it's been solely based on getting selected for the Olympic Games. Going out drinking, no I can't go I've got the Olympics.

"Mentally it's quite tough as well because I can't sustain that any longer, well I thought I couldn't. But having the extra year doing that was really tough. Being involved in the environment now and having the opportunity to be here and it's actually going ahead, hopefully, I think that makes it easier."

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