North Harford graduate Abby Gustaitis will serve as one of the captains of the U.S. Women’s Rugby Sevens team in the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games — despite rugby being a sport she only began playing during her freshman year of college.
Heading into her freshman year at the University of Maryland, Gustaitis thought her athletic career was over. She put her days of high school basketball and field hockey behind her and prepared to solely focus on her studies as a pre-med student.
But those plans quickly changed.
Gustaitis joined the club women’s rugby team at Maryland. She had just learned about the sport, but once she started playing, Gustaitis felt she could not walk away from it.
“I found the sport so intriguing, like the physicality of it,” Gustaitis said on Glenn Clark Radio June 29. “… There’s nothing like rugby for women. You can try and play American football, but it’s obviously not the norm. And so to find a sport that was completely equivalent to the men’s version, where rules are the same, [was important].”
The 30-year-old explained that the culture of rugby was extremely welcoming. She was embraced with open arms at Maryland.
“I definitely stuck around because of the culture and the camaraderie that was instantaneous,” Gustaitis said. “But the sport, it’s literally my passion in life that I found when I was at University of Maryland, and 10 years later, here we are.”
Having just fallen in love with rugby, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Gustaitis gave the sport her all, jumping at any opportunity that presented itself after college. That’s when she discovered Sevens. It’s similar to traditional rugby, except it consists of 7v7 play for a total of 14 minutes instead of 15v15 play for 80-plus minutes. The field is the same size for each format.
Hoping to learn more about rugby, Gustaitis found herself waking up in the middle of the night quite often to watch international play, looking for ways that she could ultimately improve her own game.
“It’s just incredibly hard work,” Gustaitis said. “It tests you in every capacity, and that’s what I’ve always loved about [the] sport.”
After traveling to gain experience on the rugby pitch, Gustaitis was invited to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., in March 2015. The former physiology and neurobiology major soon left her job in the medical field and moved across the country to train with the U.S. U.S. Women’s Rugby Sevens team.
Gustaitis served as the captain of Scion Rugby, helping the team capture a Club 7s National Championship in 2016. She then competed in Ireland in the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, taking home fourth place.
In the midst of improving her skills, a former national team head coach informed Gustaitis that she was no longer the right fit for the team. Devastated from the news but still enamored with the game, Gustaitis went to play Sevens in Australia. Gustaitis then received an invitation to rejoin the U.S. national team at the Olympic training center.
Gustaitis appeared in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens at the 2017 Dubai Sevens and won a silver medal. She was also on the USA Women’s Sevens team, which captured its first gold medal in Biarritz, France, and won another in Glendale, Ariz., in 2019.
Gustaitis went from fighting for a roster spot to now serving as a captain for the Tokyo Games. She referred to her journey as “humbling” and an “honor.”
She credits the position she is in today to the player-coach relationship he developed with head coach Chris Brown as well as being surrounded by “so many incredible players” who come from all over the States.
“I’m always going to give it my very best in every training [session]. I’m going to encourage the girls, and I’m going to speak up when something needs to be said. And so I think, like slowly over time, he saw value in that,” Gustaitis said. “[I’m] super grateful, and I think we’re in a really good place now, and we’re just amped to get on that plane and go to Tokyo.”
Like her teammates and coaches, Gustaitis is ecstatic to go to Tokyo and make her family and friends proud, saying she has “chills just thinking about even pulling on that jersey and stepping out onto that field.” There are a total of 12 women’s teams. The U.S. is in Pool C with Australia, China and Japan.
“It’s just so wild to think that I’m on that stage now,” Gustaitis said, reflecting on the time she spent watching the Olympics while growing up. “Just the amount of pride that I feel, it’s overwhelming. I’m just so proud to be where I am and excited. I just want to represent my friends and family and Harford County.”
For more from Gustaitis, watch the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Mike Lee for klc Fotos