Naya Tapper arrives on a scooter.
It’s the most practical way to get around the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where the USA Rugby Sevens teams train.
Taking a seat on a bench, Tapper takes a rare breather on an unseasonably warm mid-November afternoon in southern California. The temperature has hit 90 degrees. She’s sitting in the shade. For a moment, Tapper can relax.
Then, she opens up. USA’s all-time leading try-scorer is honest – about everything.
There’s a reason Tapper lives just a 10-minute drive from the training center, instead of the delightfully quaint confines of San Diego.
“I don’t have the patience for that commute.”
She’s also direct – on and off the field.
If you know her, you’re nodding, with vigour.
On Tapper’s first-ever touch on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, in Sao Paolo in 2016, she took a pass at midfield and promptly sliced through China’s defence, cut back toward the middle of the park, and dotted down for a try.
In a single moment, her almost unparalleled combination of power and speed was unveiled.
A year later – this time in 2017 in Sydney – the entirety of Tapper’s talent came to fruition. She scored nine tries in six matches, including three in the Cup final, to help her team to a silver medal. The stage became hers.
“I went buck wild,” Tapper says. “That was a great tournament for me and for our team. I felt like that was kind of my ‘debut.’ Nobody really knew who I was and it gave me the confidence that, yeah, I am supposed to be here.”
Less than three years later, Tapper, 25, who was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, but calls North Carolina “home,” arrives in Dubai this weekend with 80 tries to her name.
Yet, this whole thing – playing with the Eagles, getting to play in two World Cups, dominating at the highest level of women’s rugby and helping lead the USA to unprecedented success – hasn’t come easy. Far from it. And it still doesn’t.
The 5-foot-9 Tapper was a track and field star in high school at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., but her ambitions entering the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2012 were academic. She had plans to become an athletic therapist.
“It was never a dream to be pro athlete,” she says.
Upon arriving at UNC, she saw a booth promoting the rugby team. She thought the sport, combined with its inherent social aspect, looked fun. So, she went out to her first-ever rugby practice with UNC’s women’s club side.
The former sprinter arrived at training in a tight tank top, compression shorts and cleats. That was it. She was race ready.
“But (the rugby players) are looking at me like, ‘who is this girl?’”
They found out soon enough.
“I like the aggressiveness of it and the grittiness of it,” Tapper says. “That attracted me to rugby. I was a really rough child. My family was like, ‘she should have been doing this a long time ago.’ I was beating up on them when I could have been beating up on other people.”
On the pitch, her game was simple.
“In terms of playing, it was always just stay out wide and just catch the ball and run,” she says. “That was my motto in college (and) it worked.”
Just two months into her rugby career, she was invited to a camp with the USA Sevens team. But the offer, which came in the fall of 2012 as part of the lead-up to the inaugural season of the Women’s Sevens Series, would require her to miss Thanksgiving.
Her initial reaction was succinct. “Nah, I’m good.”
Her mom, Juanita Nater-Tapper, convinced her to give it a shot.
While she garnered a degree of success at the camp, with her speed setting her apart, her focus remained on returning to UNC to pursue her degree.
When questioned as to whether that was a hard decision, Tapper interrupts the query.
“Nope. I had a plan. I was going to be a physical therapist.
“But then playing (rugby) for the next four years, I realized how much I actually liked it.”
So, when Tapper got the call in January 2016, she jumped at the opportunity.
While she made her World Series debut in Sao Paolo in February, it wasn’t long before Tapper was cut from a team for the first time in her life.
“Yeah, it was hard,” she says. “A lot of my sports experience was easy sailing. I had no expectations of coming out here and then them telling me I’m not good enough, which is ridiculous because nobody is that good. Because I had never dealt with that or was never humbled in that sense, that moment was like, ‘you’re not as great as you think you are and you can always get better.’”
She was ready to quit right then and there, but a tear-filled phone call with her mom changed her mind. Her parents encouraged Tapper to carry on.
“Thanks to my mom and dad, I’m still here.”
Tapper looks out at the sprawling training center where American athletes from a variety of Olympic sports train alongside the Eagles. From her vantage point on this day, a BMX track is in the immediate foreground. To the east is a track and field training center. The rugby grounds where USA’s Sevens teams practice are straight ahead. But off in the distance, rolling mountains provide the backdrop.
Surrounded by aspiring Olympians, both within her team and at mealtime in the cafeteria, Tapper openly admits the path she chose remains a daily challenge – most notably mentally and emotionally.
“It is a stressful environment because there are expectations,” she says. “And not every day is going to be a great day. Being able to roll with your emotions – that was one of the hard things I had to work through.
“I think it’s an everyday motivation to be humble and grateful for where I’m at and to work to be better. I’m still struggling with it to this day, but I’m getting better at it every day.”
While holding herself to the highest of standards, Tapper does the same for her teammates.
“She’s a very honest person and she doesn’t hold back,” says teammate Ilona Maher. “That’s what I like about her. She’ll say what’s on her mind. When you want a fresh take on something, you can go to Naya. She’ll give it to you straight up. It’s sometimes harsh but I like it.”
And in a way, Tapper’s approach and her pathway to success is a personification of her team and the Eagles’ journey.
Her raw physicality was always evident. An early USA coach told her she had that “x-factor,” but she needed to work on her passing and reading the field and becoming more of a rugby player.
Nearly four years on from that conversation, she’s a mainstay in the Eagles starting lineup and has become such the dangerous player that, while she only scored three times in Glendale, her very presence sometimes makes all the difference.
“She’s actually creating a lot more for other players because of how much the defence is worried about her now,” says USA Women’s Sevens coach Chris Brown. “Naya plays a big part in opening up other channels because teams are so threatened by her.”
At the same time as Tapper’s continued rise to prominence, so to has USA entered the upper echelon of women’s rugby, finishing an all-time high second overall last year, before opening this year’s season with a Cup title on home soil – a victory that featured wins over perennial powers Canada in the quarter-finals, New Zealand in the semifinals, and Australia in the final.
“I think for a long time, we always had the athletic talent and the physical talent, but we didn’t have the rugby part. Now we have it all.”
“After winning in Biarritz last year and then in Glendale this year…I mean you all are…”
For the second time in the conversation, Tapper appropriately interrupts a meandering question.
“Killin’ it,” she interjects.
“She’s not shy to say what she thinks, which helps us a lot to get to where we need to get to,” Brown says, responding to a different question a day later in a totally different setting. “Sometimes what you see from her is abrupt and it could come across a bit focused on herself, but the more you get to know her, you see how she brings a really nice family component to our team. She’s genuine. She definitely has a growth mindset and she does care a lot for people – kind of like a big sister mentality.”
And she’s damn proud of her family – one that possesses an ever-growing pool of talent.
“Everyone on the team is a threat, so the opposition doesn’t know who to target,” she says.
And about that opposition. Tapper suggests it’s foolish to underestimate anyone. Yet, things have indeed changed in recent times.
“I know they’re scared to play us.”
The sun is setting on the day.
Tapper hops on her scooter. The journey continues. Dinner is next.
NayaOnFiya is out.