By Tim Hipps, U.S. Army Installation Management CommandNovember 13, 2015
SAN ANTONIO (Nov. 12, 2015) -- Several Soldiers in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, are vying for spots on the Team USA rugby sevens squad, which will compete when the sport makes its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
1st Lt. William Holder, 1st Lt. Ben Leatigaga and Sgt. Mattie Tago are among a pool of 23 players being considered by USA Rugby. Twelve players will be selected for the U.S. men's Olympic team, scheduled to compete Aug. 9 - 11.
The sport of rugby is not a measured or timed event. Rugby is a team sport that requires a wide range of individual skills that combine to form effective units. Therefore, a USA Rugby committee will use discretionary criteria such as speed, aerobic/anaerobic fitness, strength/power, technical/tactical rugby skills, and psychological/social skills to help select the team. The last category includes being respectful, exhibiting integrity and leadership, being coachable, and having a mindset for growth.
Committee members evaluate potential players at international competitions in the years prior to the Olympic season. Contested every four years, one year before the Summer Olympics, the Pan American Games are Team USA's unofficial precursor to the Summer Olympic Games. Holder and Leatigaga helped Team USA win a bronze medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Holder, originally from Palo Alto, California, spent two summers playing for the U.S. national 15-under rugby team before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he played football and rugby.
"They wanted me to play linebacker, and I wasn't big enough to be a linebacker," Holder said. "Then they wanted me to play safety, and I wasn't quick enough to be a Division I safety, so I just switched over to rugby."
Two years ago, while playing for the all-Army squad at the 2013 Armed Forces Rugby Sevens Championships, Holder discussed the possibility of getting into the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and contending for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Rugby Sevens Team.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid," said Holder, 24, who began playing rugby in the third grade. "It truly is a dream come true to be able to play in the Pan Am Games and get a taste of what the Olympics is all about. To play my sport full time while representing my country and the Army is a huge honor."
Leatigaga, 27, who entered U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program in January 2014, also played rugby for two years at West Point.
"That was the first time I ever touched a rugby ball," he said. "I only played because of the culture that was at West Point: being able to play for each other; knowing that a jersey really means something; knowing that guys have been deployed and have died and you're wearing that same jersey.
"Showing up at the Olympic Training Center [in Chula Vista, California] and being part of WCAP is really when I actually started to learn the game," Leatigaga said. "At West Point, I played winger: catch the ball and try to run over somebody, and that was it. But coming to WCAP with this opportunity the Army has given me and playing for Team USA under [coaches] Mike Friday and Chris Brown, it's definitely made me learn the game, grow my rugby IQ and skills."
The WCAP is a group of Soldier-athletes, who are nationally and world-ranked in their respective Olympic sports. They train full time and compete on the national and international levels with a goal of making Olympic, Pan American Games and World Championship teams.
"I had no idea that my Army career was going to lead into a World Class Athlete Program," Leatigaga said. "I thought I was going to go in, become a lieutenant, and do 'hooah' things. I think it's awesome that the Army is supporting me to play for the Olympic team."
Tago, 24, a native of Pago Pago, American Samoa, has helped all-Army win three consecutive Armed Forces Rugby Sevens Championships.
"He's a special guy to us," said Utah Army National Guard Col. Mark Drown, head coach of the All-Army Rugby Sevens Team. "He's going to do nothing but grow and mature. I think he's going to be a phenomenal asset [for the U.S. national team.]"
Tago is the only rugger who has played all four years for the All-Army Team since the Armed Forces Championships switched from 15-man rugby sides to the seven-man format.
Drown said all three Soldiers have realistic shots at making the Olympic team.
"Ben Leatigaga, Mattie Tago and Will Holder are definitely fighting for spots on Team USA," Drown said. "The national program's style and pattern of play is exactly what our boys are training to do, so the coaches can see if they have the size, speed, strength and discipline to play that system."
The players won't know their fate until next summer.
"No one is a lock on that team," Holder said. "It really comes down to who's in form at the right time going into Rio. We're all very, very close. We've got about  months to compete for those spots. We'll know about a week before we leave."