Ten years ago, Emilie Bydwell “took a punt” and packed in a secure job to travel from one coast of the United States to the other to fulfil her ambition of making a living out of rugby.
At that stage in 2011, the Canadian, who’d taken up rugby as a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Montreal, had already been capped by the Women's Eagles and played at a Rugby World Cup, but it was the full-time sevens programme that lured her 3,000 miles away.
“When I first graduated as a Biology Major there weren’t any jobs in rugby, I was a lab technician at Harvard Medical School but I’d always wanted to be a teacher,” she explained.
“In 2011, I decided to move from Boston to San Diego because they were starting a sevens residency programme and Ric Suggitt (the then Women’s Sevens Eagles head coach) was doing some really exciting stuff; it was something everyone wanted to be a part of.
“I wasn’t good enough to be one of the eight people contracted but I figured that they couldn’t train with eight people so I left my job and moved across the country.
“Luckily, I got a job as a teacher out here, which was awesome, and I managed to train with the contracted players and it all worked out in the end.
“It was a bit of a punt but it kind of set me up for the rest of my life out here in San Diego.”
Still based in California, Bydwell landed a job with Serevi Rugby, the company founded by and named after sevens legend and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Waisale Serevi, which later became Atavus, as well as playing for her adopted country on the World Series and at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013.
Bydwell may have been born north of the border, but she was now living the American Dream.
After seven years at Atavus, latterly in a director of rugby role, Bydwell was appointed to her present USA Rugby role as General Manager of Women’s High Performance with a job sheet as long as Naya Tapper’s stride.
“It was really interesting taking this job because the job description at first literally covered everything under the sun (in sevens and 15s). Initially, it was about sifting through all of that, trying to learn what a high performance manager is even responsible for and then prioritising what needed to be done to have the most significant performance impact.
“It was about trying to make sure we had very clear, accountable and tangible roadmaps of what we were trying to achieve and making sure the staff – and the revenue – were in place to then execute that.”
Bydwell’s ability to lead women’s rugby in the USA into a new era had been identified by her fellow Canadian and mentor, Suggitt, while she was still playing.
Now 35 years old and seven years retired, she said: “In 2013, I went to Dubai and only played like three minutes the whole tournament. One day, he pulled me into his office – this was six months before the (Sevens) World Cup – and he said to me, ‘Byds, I want you to be the best water carrier in the world’. I thought that was a really weird thing for him to say but he quickly followed that up by saying he thought I could lead the women’s sevens programme later in my career, and he kind of turned it around by saying I needed to watch the game so critically that when I brought on water, I could provide info that could change the course of the game.”
The value of an honest day’s work and the old adage that ‘the sum of the parts is greater than the whole’ were two of the key messages that Bydwell took from Suggitt once his prophecy became true. The US Women’s Sevens Eagles squad that were 24 hours away from flying to Tokyo, as we spoke, selflessly run their socks off for each other as a result.
“You might want a different job, you might want more minutes, or you might want to play a different position, and that’s fine – that’s ambition and competitive sport. But when it comes down to it in the arena, which is where we are going to be in a couple of weeks with our players, every role is so important, whether you are playing two minutes or 14 minutes, and if you can over achieve in the role, that leads to an authentically strong team,” she said.
“When I took on this job one of the things that I wanted to achieve was to develop a culture that delivers performance – a united and resilient team of women who care as much about this programme winning an Olympic medal as they do about themselves being an Olympian. We knew that if we could get that, we’d be gold medal contenders and are all really excited to be able to board the plane, knowing the work has been done to enable this.”
For the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the USA had a disrupted build-up with three different head coaches in a nine-month period. In that sense, they overachieved by finishing fifth.
“Despite the challenges faced by the transition in the 2016 Olympic build-up, that tournament gave us a snapshot of what we are capable of. It gave us a very clear indication of what would be required to drive our programme forward to be genuine medal contenders at the Tokyo Games. And everyone, whether they are still with the programme or not, over the last five years has put the work in to get us in this position, where we feel the high performance department has grown up.
“We are mature, united and ready to go.”
Back home, a tiered academy structure has identified the next generation of Olympians, with players grouped as ‘Hawks’ and ‘Martlets’, depending on age and ability. A wider regional approach will also get into full swing once the Olympics is over as Bydwell works with Women’s Pathway Manager Martha Daines to build a model of sustainable success in the US.
A Martlet is a mythical bird but for the Eagles in Tokyo, the task is very real – to medal.
Coached by Chris Brown, the Women’s Sevens Eagles are in the same pool as reigning Olympic champions Australia, hosts Japan and China.
“Hopefully, we will have been able to do what we need to do against Japan and China and can go into the Australia game on day two with the handcuffs off,” Bydwell said.
“In 2016, we tied with Australia and only lost 5-0 to New Zealand and that was when we weren’t in the position we are in now.”
People back in the USA had started to take note. “When we showed up for the fifth-place semi-final in Rio, the USA Rugby website had more traffic in 24 hours than it had ever had, and that was us losing a quarter-final so imagine when we win a quarter-final, or a semi-final, let alone bring home a medal. Just imagine the excitement.
“This is a sport that everybody loves, they just don’t know it yet in this country. It is just so exciting to think about.”
While setting the team up for success in Tokyo, Bydwell hasn’t lost sight of the 15s programme and the importance of doing well at Rugby World Cup 2021, which like the Olympics, has been put back a year.
“The goal before this year’s postponement was two medals in one year so I don’t think anybody can sleep on the women’s 15s team either,” she said.
“We have been able to turn COVID into a competitive advantage. We’ve had 20 weeks in assembly since September 2020 until now.
“The only way we have been able to do that was because we made a commitment early to invest in a short-term infrastructure and centralise the players (in Denver).
“They now have the training base, technical skill foundation and a better tactical understanding that they didn’t necessarily have before.
“With that 20 weeks behind them on top of the 10 games we are targeting to play before the tournament kicks off, we think that team is going to do something special at Rugby World Cup 2021.”