By Mark Janzen
Photos: Mike Lee/KLC Fotos
“If it wasn’t for rugby, what would life be like for you?”
Admittedly, she hadn’t ever really pondered the question before.
Nana Fa’avesi – a five-year veteran of the USA’s women’s sevens program and an Olympian, having represented her country in Rio in 2016 – paused to think.
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t have had a very guided path.”
After a moment, she goes on.
“(As a kid), I was angry at the world for no reason. I was a free spirit – probably doing too much of my own thing.”
Years on, Fa’avesi, 26, is a leader within the USA program. Since debuting in Dubai in 2014, the product of Sacramento, California has played in 64 matches on the World Rugby Sevens Series. As of March of 2018, she graduated Advanced Individual Training as a combat engineer with the U.S. Army. And now, Fa’avesi represents the Eagles as a soldier-athlete. Combine it all with the Olympic rings tattooed on her left bicep, and Fa’avesi indeed has a collection of accolades no other female soldier-athlete can claim.She thinks a little bit more.
“Hopefully I would have finished school.”
Those last words give more pause.
If it wasn’t for rugby, everything – all those accolades – might be different.
In her junior year of high school, Fa’avesi dropped out of Luther Burbank High School. It was rugby that brought her back.
“Rugby did a lot for me,” says the hard-running embodiment of physicality. “Not to brag, but it was something that I was good at and something I could look forward to. I built different relationships through rugby (and) it helped keep me accountable.”
To play at the high school level with her Sacramento Amazons club, she had to be enrolled in school. Her desire to play the sport – one that pulsated through her via her Tongan and Samoan heritage – trumped her distaste for school. So, she joined a continuation school just so she could play rugby.
It was a ‘moment’ – it kept her on the pitch with the Amazons and, for the time being, in the classroom. Fa’avesi eventually passed the General Education Development (GED) exam in 2012. For that, at least in part, she can thank rugby.
Less than two years later, when Fa’avesi rang in the New Year – leaving 2013 behind and moving on to 2014 – she couldn’t have known what was to come. She was in the process of finishing a 10-month medical assistant training program through InterCoast Colleges, and she would find her way into a “good full-time job at a post-office.”
However, after she graduated from the medical assistant program, she put off applying for a job in the medical field. Instead, she chose the path to becoming a rugby-playing star.
While she had enjoyed some attention with USA’s U20 program and was a name within the mix of the 15s team, an opportunity to play with the Stars Rugby 7s team in the summer of 2014 changed everything. That’s when she decided to take a chance. With the opportunity to compete in the annual Stampede 7s tournament in Calgary, and unable to get the time off from her position at the post office, Fa’avesi left her “good, full-time” job to pursue her rugby dreams.
“I basically quit everything to go to this tournament in Canada,” says Fa’avesi, who had never even played in a sevens tournament until the Stampede 7s in 2014. “I just wanted to travel and play rugby and it was a risk I was willing to take.”
To pay for her travel expenses, she did a car wash fundraising event.
It was a ‘moment’.
From there, it went like this: Stampede 7s; Get noticed by USA Rugby’s women’s sevens coaches thanks to tape from the Calgary tournament; Play again with Stars Rugby 7s at the Central Coast 7s in Australia; Get invited to a USA sevens camp; Get selected to play in Dubai in the opening round of the 2014-15 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series; Get offered a sevens contract. That was 2014.
“That year was pretty live for me,” Fa’avesi says.
Her aggressive style, both with and without the ball, stood out. It’s been her calling card ever since.
“When Nana comes on the pitch, it just fires me up,” says USA sevens teammate Nicole Heavirland. “I know any day of the week, she’s going to hit someone super hard and it’s going to get us on the front foot and it might even get us the ball.
“To be honest, she’s one of the hardest hitters on the team.”
While her five years on the World Series has shed plenty of light on this, a YouTube video posted June 14, 2014 – a Fa’avesi highlight reel of sorts – tells her story in emphatic fashion. It’s 12:59 of Nana being Nana: thumping the opposition. There are moments in the reel where it almost seems unfair.
USA women’s sevens coach Chris Brown sees it every day. “Whether she’s tackling or carrying, she has that physicality and intimidation when she’s on the pitch. She’s got a good rugby understanding and has the ability to not only be a physical ball-carrier, but also play the ball into space. (But) when it’s her time, we expect to see that physicality.”
Incredibly, two years after posting that highlight reel, she became an Olympian, helping the USA to a fifth-place finish in Rio.
Her trajectory of success didn’t stop there.
Then a year after her Olympic experience, she joined the army.
“After Rio, I didn’t know what was next,” she says. With encouragement from Andrew Locke, who was a former assistant coach with the USA women’s seven teams and a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, she decided to pursue being a soldier-athlete within the same program.
“I’m not going to play rugby for the rest of my life and I didn’t have anything to really fall back on, so I thought I’d go for it,” Fa’avesi says.
In November 2017, she left the sevens program for a five-month period of basic training, which proved to be an exercise in mental training as much as anything else. Talk about another moment.
“It tested my patience a lot,” she says. “I was the oldest female there, so it helped me step into a leadership role. I had no choice but to be patient.”
Upon her return to the sevens team, she quickly found her way back into the lineup – taking on a leadership role as she and her teammates prepared for and eventually competed in the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens.
“She’s a little bit like the auntie in the group,” says Brown, who took over the team’s head coaching duties in the fall of 2018. “She is willing to tell people how it is and keep people in line.”
While that’s always been Fa’avesi’s approach – as much before as after joining the army – her training created an even stronger bond to the jersey and to her team.
“I’d like to believe I was already mentally strong, but I think it’s to a different level now,” she says. “I think there’s more purpose behind it now. It’s just different now that I actually serve my country and play for my country. It just feels more personal.”
Coming back from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, Fa’avesi wasn’t quite in form to make the roster for this year’s season-opening world series tournament in Glendale, Colorado. Instead, she was in the stands when her teammates lined up to sing the national anthem prior to the tournament final.
She can’t wait to experience that moment as a player.
“I can’t wait to play in a final. I know it’ll just bring up different motivations and thoughts.”
Indeed, it’ll be special.
“If it wasn’t for rugby, what would life be like for you?”
I’m not even sure she even wanted to consider the question.