Photo: Jackie Finlan, The Rugby Breakdown
Not everyone’s path to the USA Women’s National Team (WNT) is a predictable one, and Rachel Johnson can not only relate but also be the example. The Oregon Sports Union (ORSU) flanker has been pushing for Eagle selection for years, and if the 27-year-old gets that shot during the November test series, it’s certainly not a place that Johnson’s high school self imagined as a destination.
“My journey is a funny one. I definitely was not a typical ‘sports person’ growing up,” Johnson recounted a childhood that included some experimentation with soccer and volleyball. “My ‘team sport’ in high school was competitive show choir! Indiana state champions, what what!”
Sports weren’t on Johnson’s mind when enrolling at Reed College (Ore.), but one could earn PE credit for playing on the rugby team, and thus the sport entered Johnson’s purview.
“Although our team often lacked numbers and was mostly only players who had never played rugby, and perhaps not many if any sports, before, I was immediately redrawn to the team environment,” Johnson saw the parallels to show choir. “Specifically, rugby gave me, and continues to give me, a place to be fully aggressive and intense while also nurturing family-like fun, love and support.”
ORSU began to form a relationship with Reed, supplying coaches, running clinics and providing some B side playing opportunities.
“Two ORSU players and former USA Eagles, Beckett Royce and Sharon Blaney, gave us Reed players a development questionnaire once. One of the questions asked something like, ‘What do you want to do with rugby,’” Johnson recalled. “That question, plus the personable interactions I had with experienced ORSU players, really opened up my mind to possibilities of pursuing rugby, the sport I was falling in love with, to the highest level. Although, it seemed like a way far-off possibility at that time, answering that question was the moment I knew I was going to chase this dream to play for the WNT.”
ORSU was a founding member of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), departed after the 2010 season, and then returned in 2014 after winning the DI club national championship. Johnson thus debuted in the WPL in 2014, and pointed to Royce, Blaney, Molly Luft, Te Awhina Ho Chee, San Juanita Moreno and Anna Symonds as key influencers.
“Beckett and Juanita were my first ORSU coaches and I’m beyond thankful to their coaching and guidance,” Johnson acknowledge the still-active Jesters. “Additionally, Beckett is a tremendous and threatening flanker, and it’s been inspirational and a privilege to learn the loose forward game from her.”
For international inspiration, Johnson noted international flanker role models in Maggie Alphonsi, Ardie Savea, Sarah Goss and Richie McCaw.
“Juanita has a unique learning style like me and has always been amazing at breaking down the game in different ways while also teaching me a lot about club pride and work ethic,” Johnson continued. “And lastly, my teammate, Molly Luft, has taught me about responsible leadership and how to be a loving teammate more than anyone. I owe a lot to the three of them.”
Johnson found some tangential opportunities through the Portland touch community and a game that refines and diversifies a union player’s skill set. Touch teammate and 7s coach Charles Sanderson has been a vocal advocate of the flanker in both 7s and 15s, joining ORSU’s chorus of praise. That support isn’t lost on the potentially capped Eagle, who deeply appreciates the club for providing that balance of competitiveness and intensity, with fun and silliness.
“On that note, I’ve lost a lot,” Johnson countered. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been benched. I’ve been not selected. I’ve played almost entire games on defense. I’ve dropped the ball or given up penalties at what seems like the worst possible time. But I’m so grateful for all those experiences because that’s where the best learning occurs. I’ve developed an unstoppable work rate and hunger to always keep fighting and developing.”
When those teaching moments – or seasons – arrive, Johnson relies on a motivational philosophy developed with teammate Lundy: Never stop peaking.
“The idea is that you have to valley to peak, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to valley again and again,” Johnson explained. “This oscillating pattern continues but your overall trajectory can, and should be, upward chasing the next peak. As long you don’t give up in your valleys and start to plateau, then you can never stop peaking! So that’s been my journey: Resist the plateau —embrace every opportunity for growth, never stop working hard in the valleys, and you’ll keep reaching beautiful peaks.”
Should one of the summits include Chicago, then the flanker’s debut would occur in Johnson’s birthplace. If not, there are still opportunities against England and Ireland in November.
“That would be the peak of peaks,” Johnson considered playing in front of family and friends against the No. 1 team in the world. “Regardless, though, I’ve been chasing my dream for a while now. I’m incredibly humbled and grateful for this opportunity to play international rugby and I’m so ready to support this team and, if given the word, to play my game for and with the USA Eagles.”
The USA 15s team will play New Zealand (Nov. 3), England (Nov. 9) and Ireland (Nov. 18), and the USA A team will play England A on Nov. 13.
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