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Can't Slow Down: Stephen Tomasin's Olympic Dream

Dude is one of those super annoying opponents, who never stops and who never quits; who never goes down without a fight and who always seems to have a little something left in the tank; who is as sturdy as he is speedy and, frankly, who consistently redefines the term “work ethic.”

If Stephen Tomasin, 25, was a football prospect, he’d have a “high motor” and he’d absolutely be a “Wes Welker type.”

“Stephen is a ball of energy,” says USA Men’s Rugby Sevens coach Mike Friday. “He is one of the smaller guys in terms of stature, but he’s just all action, and he’s always on the move. His work ethic and his ability to link with the players around him is first class. He punches above his weight class in terms of his power and his physicality in the breakdown.”

But for the now, 5-foot-10, 200-pound Tomasin and anyone who knows Tomasin, this isn’t new. This is Stephen being Stephen.

On YouTube, footage remains of Tomasin’s playing days as a high school football star running back at Cardinal Newman High School in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California. The final clip of his Grade 12 reel sees Tomasin line up in the backfield for a third down attempt, with the Cardinals needing a little over two yards. Moving to his left, he takes a toss five yards behind the line of scrimmage. A defensive end makes first contact for what should be a loss of three yards. The opposition’s bench leaps with excitement. But Tomasin carries on. Two more defensive players come flying in. Now, the opponents are really hopping on the sidelines. They’ve got’ em. Or do they? Tomasin kind of disappears within a mass of humanity. Then, some way, somehow, he emerges, diving for a first down. The bench looks stunned.

Just two years later, Tomasin went from those hard-charging runs at Edward R. Monahan Memorial Stadium to making his debut on the World Rugby Sevens Series at the 2013 Gold Coast Sevens.

He’s frustrated his rugby-playing opponents ever since.

“I’m not incredibly gifted physically,” Tomasin suggests, as he causally sits on a bench overlooking the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. “I’m not super fast. But I pride myself in being one of the hardest workers. I think with that, you can accomplish a lot more than someone who has just been gifted with a specific skill.”

The combination of his work ethic and a skillset that he’s clearly underselling is the reason he was nominated for the World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year 2019 award. And while his try-scoring efforts had him second only to Carlin Isles among his American teammates last year, more importantly was the timing of his dotting down. Of his 29 tries, Tomasin scored 69 per cent of them (20) in the eighth minute or later. Thirteen of those were scored in the 10th minute or later, and three of them were tallied in the 15th minute.

In two tournaments this year, he’s been no different, scoring all three of his tries in second halves.

“He may not be the fastest man at the start of the game, but by the end of the game, he’s always one of the fastest, if not the fastest on the field,” Friday says. “His ability to go and go again, and his repeated efforts are simply world class.”

In unique twist within American rugby circles, Tomasin actually grew up around the sport – his uncle John Tomasin played at UC Davis and Stephen’s cousins also played – but the Eagles star didn’t put on a pair of rugby boots until his Grade 12 year. A year later, he landed at San Diego State University and found instant success.

“I loved it,” he says. “I especially fell in love with Sevens.

“I used to just sit in my dorm and watch rugby all day long, just trying to learn as much as I could.”

Following his freshman year, in 2013, he was named a Collegiate All-American in both Sevens and 15s.

Then came a tryout with the USA Sevens team and by the fall of 2013 – just 18 months after playing his first organized game of rugby – he was on a plane to Australia to open the Sevens World Series.

“That 18 months – it was always rugby,” Tomasin says.

“The desire to be an elite athlete, no matter the sport, is what motivated me. I knew the pathway with rugby was there and the pinnacle was the Olympics.”

He’s battled his share of injuries, tearing his ACL (different ones) in back-to-back years, but he’s never, ever considered quitting.

“After making my debut at 19 years old, I didn’t want to be one of those ‘what could have been’ stories.

“The injuries changed me quite a bit. There were a lot of dark times. They taught me how precious being a professional athlete is and how quickly it can go.

“There were just times when I didn’t know if I could be the same athlete again. This was all I wanted to do. That’s what kept me going.”

Unfortunately for every other Sevens team in the world, Tomasin returned from his injuries in 2016 with an even more refined intention.

“I’m more fearless now,” Tomasin says. “I realized you can’t go into games thinking about your body or thinking about how you could get hurt because you’ll find yourself a step behind.

“Once that ball kicks off, I just forget about everything outside of that game.”

While the first two tournaments of the 2020 season didn’t quite go as hoped for the Eagles – after making the semifinals in all 10 tournaments last year, the USA lost in the quarter-finals in Dubai, before getting stuck in a pool of death and missing out on the quarter-finals in Cape Town – this year is all about the build up toward Tokyo 2020.

Sure, success along the way in the World Series is important, but Tomasin’s childhood Olympic dreams, his ever-present energy, his endless work ethic and, of course, his sheer athleticism has him charting a course towards something bigger. A gold medal has Tomasin more motivated than ever.

“I think it’d be the biggest rugby achievement in American history.”

With that as the carrot, dude’s going to be as annoying as ever this year. Eagles fans can delight.