SYDNEY (Reuters) - The paths taken by athletes to the Rio Olympics are many and varied but few have been shorter or more providential than that of rugby sevens speedster Ellia Green.
Four years after giving her cousin a lift to open tryouts for the sevens program in Melbourne, the former track sprinter is in Rio with an Australia team looking to add Olympic gold to the world crown they won earlier this year.
The 23-year-old’s flowing braids, bubbly personality and infectious smile are distinctive enough but what really sets her apart is searing pace.
“She’s probably the fastest runner in world series women’s rugby... and she certainly sets the field on fire,” coach Tim Walsh told Reuters before the squad departed for Brazil.
“Ellia provides us with that X-factor and that speed which is priceless in the game of sevens.”
But for her cousin persuading her first to drive her to the trials, and then to take part, Green would probably still be pursuing her dream of becoming Australia’s first sprint champion since Betty Cuthbert at the 1956 Olympics.
“She was really keen to go and I wasn’t that keen as I didn’t know the rules and was very focused on my track and field,” Green recalled.
“I drove her there and... three months later I was taken to my first world series in Houston. It happened really quickly and it wasn’t something I had planned.
“I would never have pictured myself in rugby sevens. Every kid’s dream playing sport is wanting to be part of the Olympic Games and it’s slowly becoming reality.”
It was not long before Green was making her mark and an 80 meter match-winning try she scored against Canada on the Gold Coast in October 2014 went viral on social media.
“I hope I’m a bit faster now!” Green laughed. “That try got a lot of attention but I just get to do the fun part, which is finishing, scoring tries.
“The rest of my team are amazing with the skill work and the turnovers in the middle, they make me look good.”
While Green is a relatively recent convert to the sport, her friend and team mate Amy Turner has been playing rugby of one form or another for 24 years. Born and raised in Tokoroa, a New Zealand town of 14,000 which has produced a disproportionate number of top rugby players, Turner is the oldest, or “most experienced” as she prefers it, player in the Australia side.
For most of her years playing rugby, however, it was just for fun.
“I didn’t have any dreams of going to the Olympics, I’m not a sprinter, I’m not a swimmer, I play rugby,” the 32-year-old said. “It’s awesome. I’m over the moon, I just can’t wait.”
While the 2009 decision to admit sevens to the Olympic program means the Australian squad is now professional, it was not until two years ago that Turner felt able to give up her job in the vast copper mines at Mount Isa in Queensland.
Deciding that money wasn’t “everything” and the Olympics were “once in a lifetime opportunity”, Turner stopped commuting the 2,400 kms between the team’s base in Sydney and the mines, where she drove colossal dumper trucks.
“I was probably like half the size of the tyre,” laughed Turner, who stands 165 cm (5ft 4in) tall.
“I was working four (days) on, four off, 12-hour days, trying to fit in training schedules. It was pretty tough but I didn’t want to get left behind.”
Toughness and leadership are among the qualities Turner brings to the squad, according to Walsh, who has used her as an exemplar for other players who have switched from sports such as touch rugby and netball.
“She has a real ruthless edge about her, a real toughness which she exudes,” the coach said.
“A lot of girls that come from these non-contact sports see Amy, she’s up there with the smallest, and they take a leaf out of her book.”
Turner’s experience of having to fit her rugby around her work has left her hoping that Australian rugby success in Rio might lead to investment in the sport to the benefit of the women that come behind the 2016 squad.
“That’s just women in sport in general,” she said of the lack of money in the game.
“Hopefully, people will start buying into the women’s sport. It’s a great sport, it’s going to take off and hopefully everyone will put money into the sport.”
Olympic success can certainly transform lives, particularly in Australia, but Green, for one, thinks she is ready for it.
“The Olympics will be a whole new ball game,” she grinned.
“Playing in front of millions worldwide, something we’ll be able to tell our kids about one day, hopefully ...”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly