Back on March 13, former University of Montana student Martin Iosefo, playing for the USA Men's Eagles Sevens, was named one of the seven best players at Vancouver’s stop in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Less than a week later, Iosefo -- a bruising center for USA’s top rugby seven-man squad -- stood on the sidelines at the Maggot Rugby Park, mingling with Missoula Maggots and Jesters rugby players at practice.
“We’re family -- it’s a pretty close-knit deal up here,” Maggots team president and former teammate of Iosefo Owen Scully said. “Just because he’s an Olympian doesn’t mean he didn’t have that connection.”
Iosefo isn’t an Olympian just yet, but the Hawaiian native who moved to Montana for school and a career in collegiate football, is on the right path to Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
At the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, Iosefo wakes up every day for his 7:30 a.m. team workout at the gym. After an hour breakfast, the 6-foot-2, 220 pound rugger lumbers to the first of three or four -- depending on the day -- hour and a half field sessions.
“With the game of sevens, fitness is top priority. You’re constantly running, you’re tackling -- there is no stoppage in play,” said Iosefo of the slimmed-down, fast-paced version of the traditional 15-on-15 game.
Iosefo (pronounced: Yo-sef-oh) and his teammates are in the middle of this month-long slog, the reward for finishing the international series three weeks ago. The United States finished sixth overall in the HSBC series, behind champion Fiji, as well as perennial powerhouses South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
After all of that, just 15 of the 25 or so men in Chula Vista make the final cut for the Olympics, which Iosefo said will be announced in mid-July. Before heading overseas, the Eagles will have one more matchup on their schedule.
New Zealand’s national team -- known as the All Blacks -- meet the Americans for a friendly and Olympic tuneup in Miami a little over a week before the opening ceremonies on Aug. 5. From there, the final roster will fly to Rio.
“(To make the Olympics roster) means everything for me,” said Iosefo, who is known for his bruising style of play, yet swift steps in a sport that demands speed. “Not only am I representing my country, but for myself and my family as well. This will be my first Olympics.
“It will be an honor just to put on the jersey and go out there and play my best for the team and for all the guys that are here -- we’ve been training year-round. It’ll be something special when that day comes.”
Unfortunately for Iosefo and other prospective Olympic athletes, the 2016 version of the games has been marred with public health and corruption concerns. Be it the Zika virus, crumbling or non-existent infrastructure, or bacteria-riddled beaches, these concerns add extra weight on the competitors.
But for athletes who train like it’s a fulltime job, they’ve put these in the back of their minds.
“There’s been talk about it, but we know we’ve taken precautions, and what we need to be aware of,” Iosofo said. “We have bigger things to worry about, like making it to the podium, playing that national anthem and holding that medal.”
That dream started to unfurl, in part, on the field of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, thanks to a failed football walk-on attempt.
Iosefo first came to Montana by way of Dillon, suiting up as a wide receiver for Montana Western. He then transferred to UM, where he tried to make the cut for the Griz football team. For one reason or another, he didn’t make it.
Growing up in Hawaii, Iosefo, who is of Samoan heritage, was able to fall back on his first love here in town: rugby.
The university club team, the Jesters, offered that athletic outlet, and Iosefo helped his squad win the Montana Rugby Union championship in 2014.
“When I saw rugby in Missoula, I just went to play along with all the guys on the Jesters and Maggots,” he said. “The sport of rugby, that brotherhood, the camaraderie, I just couldn’t stay away from it.”
It was on the pitch in Missoula where he ascended to another level.
“The way I describe it to people, is when you’re in Little League baseball and there’s those kids that mature earlier than all of those other kids. They’re crushing home runs -- they reached their man strength before anybody else. Martin did that on a man level,” said Scully.
With help from local ties to USA rugby, Martin moved up the ranks, earning an invite to the same Chula Vista training facility he’s currently working at in 2014. From there Iosefo helped the Eagles clinch an Olympic berth with a title in the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships.
Now, it’s on to make the roster for that very squad. It’s something the Missoula ruggers expect to see.
“I’m just happy for him, he deserves it. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met on the field and off the field. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more than he does,” Scully said.
Rugby, which is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924, will start on Aug. 6.