RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Ever since rugby was approved for the Olympic sports program in Rio, Fijians have believed their sevens team will win their first ever medal at the Summer Games.
It just might not be the team they expected.
The Fiji women's team, unsung and largely overshadowed by the world series champion men's team, produced the only upset on day one at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to be on the verge of making the quarterfinals.
Fijiana, as the team is known, upended the United States 12-7 in their opening game. And even though they were then smashed by gold medal-favorite Australia 36-0, they should beat winless Colombia on Sunday to secure a playoff spot.
"We won't talk too much about (a medal), but that's obviously deep inside and, if we can achieve that for Fiji, we'll be stoked," said forward Rebecca Tavo, a former Australia captain who switched to Fiji last year to help them qualify for Rio.
Fijiana barely rated a mention before the Olympic tournament, understandable after fading to eighth place following a promising start to the women's world sevens series.
But back home, they got fitter and better by combining their camp with the men's team, winner of the last two world series. Inspired and motivated by the men, the women changed their diet and training plans. Out went carbohydrates and fatty, local staples such as cassava and dalo, and in came lean meats and salads. Add that to running up and down the Sigatoka sand dunes, and "you could see the girls' bodies changed a lot," Tavo said.
Having upgraded their fitness, they fine-tuned for the Olympics together with the men's squad again in Santiago, Chile, where many of the women touched snow for the first time, during a bus trip up the Andes.
"Our preparation was a dream," Tavo said.
The Fijians turned their opening match into a nightmare for the Americans, who had won seven of their nine previous matchups. Watched by IOC president Thomas Bach, a guest of World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, and in balmy 33-degree (90 F) temperatures, Luisa Tisolo pulled off a show-and-go and Fiji led 7-0 at halftime.
A turnover from a big tackle saw Timaima Ravisa sprint clear for 12-0. The U.S. cut the gap to five with four minutes to go, but Fijiana's tackling was fierce, and one last hit by Lavenia Tinai snuffed out the American comeback.
"One of our hallmarks is our aggression," Tavo said. "You can tell our girls, 'Fijianas, have no fear.'"
Chris Cracknell, the former England captain who became Fiji's women's coach a year ago, saw good and bad in the game.
"They can emulate what the boys do, in their own right they can do some spectacular things," Cracknell said. "Defensively, when we're abrasive, we get ourselves into the game, but we let the U.S. back into it. We started chasing tackles because we were enjoying it so much."
Their success will boost efforts in Fiji to attract more female players. Already, World Rugby's Get Into Rugby program, plus the Pacific in Union venture, a partnership between Oceania Rugby, the Australian Rugby Union and the Australian government, have drawn about 20,000 players each, but there's plenty of room for more growth, Fiji Rugby Union women's development officer Vela Naucukidi told the Fiji Sun.
The FRU is also researching through the University of the South Pacific the barriers and motivations for women playing rugby in Fiji's male-dominated society. They have already learned female rugby players are seen as smart, confident, and brave, but elders are worried about the safety and well-being of girls.
"Fijiana are trailblazers," FRU development manager Sale Sorovaki told the Fiji Sun. "They started playing rugby when not many other women did, and they made their way to compete in the Olympics. We honor their effort and we want to make it much easier for the next group of women who are coming through."
Thanks to qualifying for the Olympics last November, the Fiji women's squad became contracted in March to the FRU for the first time. Five of this team have been playing rugby for less than a year.
"They're pretty amazing, just the connection they have," U.S. forward Kathryn Johnson said. "They're really wonderful girls as it is, on and off the field. It's fun just to be on the field with them."