Trae Williams might be the fastest man in rugby after the former Australian sprinter made a shock announcement in May to pursue rugby sevens.
The man known as ‘Quadzilla’ shot to fame at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, with his pace but also his large quads making headlines.
But just over a year out from when the Games were originally scheduled to begin, he made the decision to inject some lightning quick pace into the Australian sevens programme.
“It’s been an absolute honour to be able to represent my country so many times in athletics, but it’s now time for that to come to an end. Thank you to everyone. Let phase two begin,” he posted on Instagram.
Williams’ arrival in the sport puts pressure on American Carlin Isles to hold the mantle as the quickest in the sport ahead of Tokyo 2020. While the two are yet to face in a match, the Australian would be tough to beat after running a personal best of 10.10 seconds in the 100 metres at the trials for the Commonwealth Games.
His decision was certainly a risk after already establishing himself as a notable member of the Australian athletics team, but as he explained, switching to rugby was a “gamble” that he needed to take.
"It was a bit of a gamble not knowing if you're going to be on that team, there's so many players in the actual squad. It was a bit of a gamble, but it was something that I really wanted to do,” Williams told World Rugby.
“I've done a fair bit in athletics for World Champs and Commonwealth Games as well so might as well try and do this rugby sevens at the Olympics.
"I was obviously confident; you can't go in thinking that you're not going to make it. It was a very late move but something that I really wanted to do after playing rugby since I was young."
Williams was a promising rugby league player growing up, attending academy sessions in Brisbane for NRL side North Queensland Cowboys in 2014. He later began playing union at his high school.
While a career in rugby could’ve been an option for the up-and-coming athlete, Williams opted to initially pursue athletics. Still, the 23-year-old admitted that rugby was “super important” to him growing up and gave him the confidence to switch to sevens.
"I played league from when I was seven all the way through to high school and then union from then, so it's always been a part of my life. When I got the call up to come and play sevens for the Australian team, it was pretty lifechanging and something that I couldn't really refuse.
"Initially I think it was because when I made my first Australian team for the Youth Olympics, I was like, 'oh I might be able to go somewhere with it.' That's why I pursued it.”
“I probably wouldn’t be here without his help”
Williams’ sevens journey began after nationals in 2019, where the then sprinter was approached by Australia men’s sevens assistant coach Stephen Hoiles.
"He asked me if I'd be interested in coming and having a look at their programme and what they do. I went down to Sydney and had a bit of a session with them, before going to London and Paris to get a feel of what it would all be like."
Williams said that since he’s joined the squad the support from his teammates has been “really helpful” as he continues to develop his game. He also added that the tutelage of coach Tim Walsh has been particularly impactful, as he continues to take large strides towards an Olympic berth.
"The other wingers, Henry Hutchison who has taught me a lot, but pretty much everyone. Lewis [Holland], Nick Malouf, they've all taught me a lot."
"[Tim Walsh has] been a super good coach as well, taught me a lot of things that I've needed to know. I probably wouldn't be here without his help.”
Williams admitted that he initially struggled with the fitness of rugby sevens, with it being “a lot different than a 10-second run”.
But while he’s surprised himself with his skillset, including defence, the speedster has seemed to rise above everyone’s expectations after being named in the squad for the Dubai leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in December.
"It was very soon, first tournament of the year. It was awesome to get out on the field and see what I could do.
"I was a bit shocked when I got the call saying that I'd be on the team, but also you have to make every minute count while I was on the field."
Even though he played limited minutes, Williams made an immediate impact in his debut against Scotland, making his mark in defence.
Wearing the number four jersey, he chased down Scotland’s Alec Coombes for a try-saving tackle less than a minute after coming on.
Two months later, Williams received his first start in Australian colours, in front of a home crowd at Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium in February. Williams likened the event to sprinting at the Commonwealth Games for Australia, in front of friends, family and fans.
"Going overseas and you know, when you're in South Africa you hear their home crowd cheer when they're on the field. Then being able to hear the same thing when you're back in Sydney with your home crowd cheering you on, it was amazing.”
After placing second in Pool C, the hosts lost to their Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand 24-5 to finish sixth overall.
The Olympic Dream
After the Olympics were postponed by 364 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian sevens team are back in training together after lockdown periods.
The team are practising three times a week, and Williams is also looking to keep his speed up as he looks ahead to the Games.
Australia had to qualify for the Olympics through the Oceania Sevens tournament. They had to do it tough though, surviving a Samoan scare to score in the last minute and win the final, 19-12.
Williams added that the prospect of playing with his teammates at Tokyo 2020 would “mean the world” to him after switching from athletics.
"It's been a long dream of mine to make the Olympics, so to be able to go out there with the other blokes in the team would be amazing."