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Written By: Mark Janzen
They banged the tin walls on their side of the corridor. They yelled things like “smash and grab” and “send it” even if some weren’t quite sure what the phrases referenced. They drew the attention of the opposition standing just a couple feet away – if out of curiosity as much as anything.
And Abby Gustaitis couldn’t stop smiling.
Then, the USA’s women’s sevens team charged out of the tunnel onto the Westhills Stadium field in Langford, B.C. for the Canadian stop on the World Rugby Sevens Series, and played some of the best rugby the Women’s Eagles Sevens played all season. Joy became their thing.
“We were literally laughing as we ran onto the pitch,” Gustaitis says.
From the outside looking in, 6-foot Gustaitis, 27, looked to be having as much fun as anyone – her contagious grin exemplifying a burgeoning culture within the USA’s women’s program. On a weekend when the Americans earned a bronze medal, including a dramatic quarter-final win over the host Canadians and 21-5 victory over France in the third place match, Gustaitis was a central figure in what was a statement weekend for the Women’s Eagles Sevens.
With the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco a month away (July 20-22), USA has made it clear that they’re a team on the rise and they’re having as much fun as anyone along the way. Especially Gustaitis.
“We’re playing our best when we’re laughing and not thinking too much and everyone has a smile on their face,” she says.
“(And in Langford), it really worked out.”
Indeed it did – as much for her team as it did for Gustaitis herself. Playing in just her third ever tournament on the series (she now has played in four, including Paris), Gustaitis was a standout on the pitch, putting her hand firmly in the air for World Cup selection, while fast-tracking a resume that has put her amongst the rising stars in American rugby.
Not surprisingly, that crest-white smile isn’t anything new.
“We used to call her the social butterfly,” says Abby’s father Stan Gustaitis.
Growing up, Abby, who hails from White Hall, Maryland, was involved in every sport. She was in dance, she played field hockey, and she dabbled in boys baseball before eventually excelling in basketball.
“She’s always been on the go,” Stan adds.
Gustaitis is the type of person who not only played every sport growing up, but along the way, she also became a volunteer firefighter at 16 years old (her dad was the chief at the Norrisville Volunteer Fire Company) and still has her EMT (emergency medical technician) and firefighting certification up to date.
She’s the type of person who, while on her way to prom at North Harford High School in 2009, stopped at a car accident on the side of the road to provide assistance. With makeup, hair, and a green gown all perfectly in place, Gustaitis climbed inside the car to stabilize the neck of a victim, while also offering emotional support. She awaited the arrival of first responders, and then carried on to prom.
She’s also the type of person who discovers rugby in her first year at the University of Maryland and immediately falls in love with a culture and a sport that, in reality, personify Gustaitis.
“I went once and I literally never left,” she says. “Everyone was very welcoming and the comradery of the team was really intriguing to me. It was more of social sport and then it just happened to work out.”
Three years after first touching a rugby ball, when Gustaitis was in her junior year at the University of Maryland, she met Peter Baggetta, who was the associate head coach with USA’s women’s fifteens program and was also, and continues to be, an assistant coach with the men’s team at Maryland.
With the men’s and women’s teams set to practice side-by-side on Fraternity Row, Baggetta walked up to Gustaitis just before training began. He was curious.
“Are you any good?”
“Excuse me?” Gustaitis responded, having never met Baggetta.
“You’re tall and you look athletic. Are you any good at rugby?” Baggetta asked.
“Well, I think so,” she answered – a little awkwardly.
That was basically it. They parted ways.
As it turned out, Baggetta liked what he saw in the up-and-coming Gustaitis.
Four years later, Baggetta, who had a front row seat to watch her early development, was part of the Women’s Eagles coaching staff that selected her to represent the USA at the 2017 World Cup.
But between those moments was a rugby journey she could never have imagined. You see, Gustaitis is also the type of person who passes the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) with dreams of being a trauma surgeon and chooses to pursue rugby instead – at least for now.
After graduating with a degree in Physiology and Neurobiology, she found her way to the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Club, where she played both sevens and 15s. Eventually, while playing with Scion Rugby Academy, she was spotted by the late Ric Suggitt, who was the head coach of the USA Rugby’s women’s sevens program at the time.
That led on her a cross-country move to San Diego in March 2015 to join the sevens team at the national training centre. However, while she worked hard to find her way, Gustaitis never earned a touring spot and was released a year later.
She questioned her rugby career.
“I hung out in San Diego for a few months wondering if this is what I should do.” But a return to play with Scion back in Washington, DC in the summer of 2016 reignited her passion for rugby. “I honestly fell in love with the sport all over again.”
From there, her journey flourished.
Within a year and a half, Gustaitis earned her first fifteens cap on a tour to France in November 2016, competed in a USA sevens camp prior to the Sydney world series stop but got cut, made the USA squad that finished fourth at the World Cup in 2017, went to Australia to play sevens with two local teams (University of Canberra and Pride Sevens), before rejoining the USA sevens program in time to finally make her series debut in Dubai in late-November.
“(Coming back from Australia), I was fitter and stronger and a better athlete and a better rugby player than I had ever been.”
After Dubai, where the USA earned a silver medal, sevens coach Richie Walker invited Gustaitis to remain with the program and train full-time. A year after getting cut from the Sydney camp, she made the team that went to Australia in late-January.
However, less than three months later, when the roster for Kitakyushu was released, she had another setback. Her name was not on the list.
“I was crushed,” she says. “Upset doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I think I went through every negative emotion. But it lit a fire in me. I used that going forward and, honestly, the next day, I was on the field…pedal to the medal.”
Every tunnel experience in Langford was the same. They were loud and excitable. For Gustaitis, who started in every game except the tournament-opener, it was pure joy. It quickly translated onto the pitch as twice she scored a try in the opening minute, touching down early in pool play against both France and Japan.
“She brings laughter and enjoyment off the field,” Walker says. “She works really hard on improving her skills on the field. She has been a great addition to our team, and it was great having her back in the lineup in Langford.”
In Paris, Gustaitis started all six games in USA’s fifth-place finish. Without her on the roster in Kitakyushu, the Americans had their worst result of the year, missing the quarter-finals and finishing ninth.
Less than a year removed from playing in the fifteens Rugby World Cup, Gustaitis now looks to make the USA roster for the Rugby World Cup Sevens – with hard work and a smile.
“She’s constantly on a journey and she’s so positive about the way things are going to be,” Stan says. “But she works hard. It doesn’t just happen. She makes it happen.”