Tiana Penitani knows exactly what the 144 players are going through as they count down the days until the rugby sevens competition at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games kicks off in Argentina on Saturday.
That’s hardly surprising given she was in their shoes four years ago as co-captain of the Australian side that went on to win gold at the first Olympic event to feature rugby sevens following its addition to the Olympic programme in 2009.
Penitani was also given the honour of carrying the Australian flag during the opening ceremony – an experience she says was “easily one of the best moments of my career” – for a competition that marked her return after 13 months out following knee surgery.
That injury had put the brakes on her fledgling career on the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series with Australia, coming during Rugby World Cup Sevens as the then 17-year-old lit up the tournament in Moscow, Russia.
"It was another surreal moment having a Youth Olympic gold medal put around your neck, it’s one of the best rewards to receive when you’ve worked so hard to reach a goal."
“Rugby sevens has moved forward as a sport in leaps and bounds over the last five years and there have been some monumental moments all round, but being part of the Youth Olympic Games was so special to myself and the team as we knew the Rio 2016 Games were approaching and it was going to be the pinnacle event of our sport,” Penitani told World Rugby.
“To be involved in any Olympic event is massive and it was an honour to part of it. It was a memorable event and one I’ll never forget.
Launchpad for players
“It was interesting for me to go from playing on the world series and at a World Cup to then play in a tournament where I was up against young women the same age as me, I felt like my experience helped my game so much, especially having a leadership role alongside my co-captain Brooke Anderson, one of my closest friends.
“It was my first tournament back from an injury where I was out of the game for over 12 months so it felt like it was the perfect opportunity to make a comeback. The level of competition in Nanjing was awesome and at the time an exciting taste of the next generation of players.”
Penitani may now have hung up her boots and be studying at university, but she is still involved in the game as part of the World Rugby commentary team on the series and finds herself commentating on team-mates and opponents from Nanjing 2014.
Among them are Dominique du Toit, Australia’s hat-trick hero in the 38-10 final defeat of a Canadian side featuring fellow series regulars Hannah Darling and Charity Williams, while many of China’s bronze medallists now play for the national team with Yan Meiling as captain.
“Those players were superstars at YOG 2014 and if it wasn’t for this tournament we wouldn’t have been given the privilege of seeing the talent they had to offer,” admitted Penitani.
“I feel as though the Youth Olympic Games holds so much importance for sevens as it provides an awesome platform for our rising stars to gain international experience and play a high level of rugby sevens, especially when trying to break into the world series.
The ultimate achievement
“Nanjing was an experience that made me realise why people play sport at a high level and why I played rugby sevens. A lot of people don’t see the hard work and sacrifice that goes into performing at the highest level and to be in the village environment with the best young athletes in the world was a privilege and an eye-opener as to why we all do what we do.”
Australia were the dominant team across the women’s competition in 2014, conceding just 37 points on the way to winning a gold medal just two years before their senior counterparts created history with another gold medal at Rio 2016.
Penitani certainly has never forgotten what it felt like to receive her gold medal.
“It was another surreal moment having a Youth Olympic gold medal put around your neck, it’s one of the best rewards to receive when you’ve worked so hard to reach a goal.
“Rugby sevens is a tough game, especially with a multiple-day format and the unpredictable nature of the game. It takes you on a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride – to win gold was the ultimate achievement and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face!”
Australia won’t be in Buenos Aires to defend the title Penitani, du Toit and others won after losing the Oceania qualifier to New Zealand earlier this year, but the 22-year-old will still be keeping an eye on the results before she heads to the USA to commentate on next weekend’s opening round of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series 2019.
Photo: Australian Olympic Committee