By: Mark Janzen
Olive Kilifi has 24 caps as a prop with USA Rugby.
Among the players who were named to USA’s men’s fifteens roster for the November tour, only four have more caps than Kilifi. The 5-foot-11, 260-pound powerhouse who was a Major League Rugby (MLR) all-star with the Seattle Seawolves for the 2018 season has been part of the fabric of the Eagles fifteens set up since his debut in 2013.
However, this November, Kilifi will not don the Red, White and Blue, having been forced to the sidelines with plantar fasciitis – an injury he recently sustained while playing with the Seattle Saracens. Yet – while he’s forced to cheer on the rising rugby nation he calls home, Kilifi, 32, feels as much a part of the Eagles as ever before.
And that might just be the very reason the No. 15-ranked USA Rugby is knocking on the door of rugby’s elite.
Q: After initially being named to USA’s roster for the November tour, what was it like to have to pull out?
A: “It’s a bummer. I was really working hard to get as fit as I could for the November tour. But, that being said, I’m definitely rooting for the boys and they have a stacked schedule. All I can do is cheer them on and hope they do their best. [But] it sucks being on the sidelines.”
Q: Despite not being with the team at this time, describe why the Eagles – 8-0 in 2018 – have been so successful this year?
A: “It’s something we’re extremely proud of and something we’ve been building toward for a long time with the Eagles. I attribute it mostly to the culture we’ve created. We have guys contributing on and off the field and being engaged. In past tours, we’d leave the tour and that would be it. Now, we’re constantly in communication – outside of tours – and it motivates the whole pool of players because everyone is staying engaged. Once we get back together, we just pick up where we left off. The chemistry with the team right now is great.”
Q: Do you still feel part of the group?
A: “Yea, for sure. I’m still in the group chats, even though we’re not part of the team. I can tell you what time everyone landed and all the rest of it. Even though I’m not there, they make sure everyone is still engaged.
“In fairness, I’ve been part of the Eagles group that has seen different cultures. From 2013 to now, I’ve seen a shift in the culture, and right now, it’s working out the best for us as a group by far. We want players to be able to come in and slot in right away and we have our senior players [working] to keep the culture going. That’s a big emphasis with [USA men’s fifteens coach] Gary Gold and making sure the new guys understand the culture.”
Q: With the November tour no longer on your schedule as a player, what’s your focus right now?
“Honestly, my eyes are on the World Cup and trying to get there. Whatever competition will get me there – MLR is a huge possibility – but really any competition that will prepare me the best I can to compete in the World Cup is my long-term goal.
“And [I know] I’m going to have to earn that spot, especially with the player pool that we have. Being injured doesn’t really help me now. I’m just trying to stay positive and nurse the injury and get back into the mix. I know it’s not going to come easy and I’ll have to work for it and that’s the mentality of the boys.”
Q: Obviously, you had a successful MLR campaign in 2018 with Seattle. Do you hope to re-sign with your hometown Seawolves? (Kilifi grew up in nearby SeaTac, Wash.)
A: “That’s the plan. There are still a few things to work out, but most likely I’ll be back with Seattle. As far as the MLR, I’d like to play with Seattle for as long as I can and help build the franchise.”
Q: How would you describe your team’s MLR championship-winning season?
A: “It was awesome. On top of the fact Seattle is where I’m from, it was a good experience. The city got behind us and supported us, which was an eye-opener for me. I knew rugby was kind of an underground sort of sport here but I didn’t realize how many people would actually come out and support us. I really loved the home field atmosphere. I think being able to see the rugby community come together was huge.”
Q: Do you feel there has been a surge in the sport’s popularity over the last year because of the Seawolves?
A: “For sure. The fact that we have a professional team, that gives a lot of players hope that they can get to that next level. [And] the grassroots level is definitely growing, especially in Seattle. As players, we’re volunteering our time to coach on weekends and it’s definitely getting popular.”
Q: With the grassroots game starting to gain traction, perhaps there’s a young “Olive Kilifi” out there who needs rugby. How would you describe how rugby changed your life as a youngster?
A: “I was raised by a single mom and I wasn’t around the best groups. A lot of the friends that I had back when I was younger are either in jail or some of them have passed away. I look back at that and with rugby, [which] was introduced to me by a friend, I came out and I just loved it. I saw it as an opportunity to get away from some of the stuff I was involved with and it changed my life a lot.”
Q: Why was it specifically rugby that changed things for you?
A: “Honestly, I think it might have been the whole camaraderie and teammate thing. I was lacking that at the time. I didn’t really have that teammate and bonding type of thing. I’ve had that in my family – just being Polynesian, we have that – but I hadn’t had that outside my family. To be able to have friends outside of my family who genuinely care was a big thing.
“I’ve played other sports – basketball, football, wresting – and my first sport was actually power lifting. You feel it a little in other team sports but I just felt it a lot more in rugby.”
Q: When your mom, Karite Kilifi, passed away in 2012, how much did that also affect your rugby career?
A: “My mom passed away from liver cancer and that was a big motivation for me too. She was a big fan of mine and would come to my games and support me. One of the last things she encouraged me to do was to keep playing rugby. In the last couple days of her life, she just said how she’s seen rugby change my life, so that’s also a big reason why I stuck with rugby.
“If you see any of my taping [wrists], it’ll have something about her. It reminds me of where it all started.”
Kilifi, who was part of USA’s setup for the 2015 Rugby World Cup and was a captain at the 2016 Americas Rugby Championship, came off the bench against both Russia and Canada during the summer test window. This fall, he’ll now watch, wait and prepare as he ultimately aims for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.