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Schroeder’s different road leading to Tokyo Olympics

Joe Schroeder says his life has taken “a different route,” one he couldn’t even imagine as a high school rugby player.

That route will take the 2016 Trine University civil engineering graduate to the top level of his sport as he competes on the United States Olympic men’s rugby sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics later this month.

“It’s honestly unreal; it’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “Just representing the U.S. in World Series tournaments has meant so much to me, and now the fact that I get to do it on the biggest stage possible, the pinnacle of sports, the Olympics - I’m just absolutely pumped, excited for it.

“It’s a huge honor, a huge privilege that I’m not going to take for granted. I’m going to take it all in and give my best for everyone who has helped me get here.”

Aspirations on hold

Rugby didn’t return to the Olympics until 2016, so Olympic teams didn’t exist during Schroeder’s 2008-2012 high school career.

“You can think of playing on the national team and have hopes and aspirations for that, and at times I wanted to do that, but no, I didn’t even consider the fact of playing for the USA team in the Olympics,” he said.

Schroeder’s different route also included putting his rugby aspirations mostly on hold while at Trine, which doesn’t have a rugby program. He opted to be part of the cheer squad instead, playing some rugby during the summer.

After graduating from Trine, he returned to the sport on a more regular basis, becoming part of a rugby club in Columbus, Ohio, where he was working. While training at a camp, he caught the attention of an assistant coach for the national team, and has been part of the USA Rugby 7s team since 2017.

On July 2 he was announced as one of 12 starters for the Olympic team, becoming the first Olympic athlete in Trine University’s 137-year history. He said team members had been informed the prior Sunday.

“I was just on my computer waiting to read the email. Fortunately, my family was here. so I was able to share the great news with them,” he said. “It’s still sinking in, honestly.”

Once the news became public, he said his phone and social media were “blowing up.”

“People were reaching out to me and congratulating me. It definitely means a lot,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of work toward this. I’ve wanted this really badly, and the only reason I’ve been able to do it is because of my support system.”

Intense training, limited competition

Schroeder said he has worked to get his name on the shortlist for the Olympic team since joining the USA Rugby 7s in Chula Vista, California.

The team trains four to five days each week, with customized regimens developed by its coaches.

“The sport of sevens is quick and fast,” he explained. “It’s a 14-minute game, two seven-minute halves, on the same size field as a 15s game, so it’s a lot more space. We have to be so much more fit and so much quicker, so we also do a lot of speed work as well.”

“We wear GPS units and some other things that track all our metrics. Every week we’re trying to meet certain metrics: meters run, high-speed meters run and everything,” Schroeder said. “We’ve just been doing a lot of conditioning.”

The selection process was also complicated by the postponement of the 10-tournament World 7 Series due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited coaches’ ability to see players against international competition. They were able to play against some international teams in Madrid in February and England in May, and in the LA Quest for Gold 7s June 25-27, the final stop in the selection process.

In addition to rugby training and competition, Schroeder continues to work part-time for Black and Veatch, the engineering company where he interned while a Trine student, and where he has worked since graduation. 

“I do rugby during the day and then, at night, check emails,” he said. “Because I work on West Coast time, I actually will have my work meetings in the morning before I leave for rugby.”

He said the experiences he had at Trine, with faculty and other students supporting him, have continued to help him as he has overcome challenges on the rugby team.

“I’ve used those same principles and techniques when I’m out here and needed help,” he said. “I’m very thankful for my time at Trine. I’m also thankful for Shea Sims, the cheer coach. She is definitely one of the favorite coaches I ever had.”

Looking ahead to Japan

The team leaves July 13 for Japan, to give them time to acclimate to the time change and the expected heat and humidity. They will hold a training camp in Mimasaka from July 15-22 before heading to Tokyo to play July 26-28.

“We have some ice vests and some different things to help cool us down, but basically our getting there early will help us get used to that kind of climate,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder says the US team is in perhaps the toughest pool of the Olympics, facing Ireland, Kenya and South Africa.

“We know we have a tough pool, but we’re up for the challenge,” he said. “If we can play to our standards, then we have a good shot at winning out in pool play and making it to the quarterfinal rounds. From there, it’s just taking each game one by one.”

Photo: Trine University alumnus Joe Schroeder plays for the USA Rugby 7s team. Schroeder will be part of the United States Olympic men’s rugby sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics later this month. (Photo by Travis Prior / USA Rugby)