The anthem played as Army officer Sammy Sullivan stood to attention, saluting, beside her United States rugby teammates before the final of the Hong Kong Sevens.

Sometimes, like all of us, her mind drifts. So no prizes for guessing another big occasion Sullivan may have strayed to: Paris in July, playing for an Olympic medal.

“I do let myself think about that sometimes,” Sullivan tells The Associated Press. “But for the most part, it’s so important to just try to be in the present and focus on the next task.”

The next major task for Sullivan and her Eagles teammates is a medal. It’s a collective ambition for U.S. players including Perry Baker, a two-time men’s world sevens player of the year.

Despite being competitive in the annual men’s and women’s world series, the U.S. hasn’t won an Olympic medal in rugby sevens since it was introduced to the program at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

At Tokyo three years ago, the U.S. teams crashed out in quarterfinal losses to Britain — the women despite topping a group that contained 2016 champion Australia; the men after entering the Olympics as the No. 2-ranked team.

Making amends for that is at the top of the list of Paris goals for Ilona Maher, the breakout social media star on TikTok at the Tokyo Olympics.

“We’re kind of learning how important it is to put yourself in the best position during every pool game, during quarterfinals,” Maher says. “We’re doing whatever we can, because I think a medal would be amazing for us, for our program, and for rugby as a sport in the U.S.

“America loves success — they love seeing people win and that would bring more people to us.”

A recruitment theme is part of the process for Sullivan, too. Her father played rugby in the military, but Sullivan didn’t pick it up until she started at West Point.

After being commissioned as an engineer officer in the Army, she was selected for a national rugby squad. That led her into the World Class Athlete program, which allows soldiers to compete in the Olympics as their active duty military job.

So that run to the final in April at Hong Kong, the spiritual home of rugby sevens, was an occasion to celebrate.

“I’ve always had a really strong sense of honor,” Sullivan says. “To salute and to show my pride for not only being an American but being an American soldier … it does make me emotional.”

The Americans lost that final to reigning Olympic champion New Zealand. The U.S. women finished the world series in fifth place, the highlights including the second placing in Hong Kong and third in Los Angeles.

Australia, the 2016 Olympic champion, won the series finale in Madrid in June to claim the women’s championship, beating New Zealand in the semis.

The New Zealanders treated the Hong Kong campaign as a rehearsal for their Olympic title defense.

For the Americans, it was part of their tapering after using the event in Los Angeles, where the 2028 Olympics will be staged, as their major trial run for Paris.

“We didn’t have exactly the result we wanted with third place there,” Sullivan says, “but if you think about it like a graph, that was one of our peaks and we’re only trying to grow from there.”

When she finalized the U.S. Olympic women’s squad last week, head coach Emilie Bydwell said the goal in Paris is “to move the jersey forward, leaving a legacy … and to deliver a performance that inspires American fans.”

For co-captain Lauren Doyle, that means one thing: “Gold is definitely the goal. And we do have things in motion to get to that.”

Time on

Baker has told and retold his story — turning to rugby after an injury derailed his chance of playing in the NFL — to promote the sport in America.

Leading into the Tokyo Games, an official website featured a story suggesting those could be Baker’s last Olympics. Well, he just couldn’t leave empty-handed.

“The want to have a medal and just knowing, like, what this team can do,” Baker says of his reasons for returning for a third Olympics when he’s 38.

The men’s squad was on a high before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it struggled for momentum on returning for the Tokyo Olympics.

“The team has changed dramatically,” Baker says, “and I don’t feel like we have that pressure, like no one is expecting us to medal at all.”

The U.S. men dropped to ninth place in the world series and had to requalify in Madrid for the 2025 series. They went 4-0, with key wins over Uruguay and Samoa, who will both be at the Paris Games. To Baker, the rankings didn’t reflect how close the American men were to the leaders. He believes they’re Olympic medal contenders.

“If you go look across the board, we’ve beaten top-tier teams. We’ve been right there (but) lost close calls,” he says. “It’s just so much can happen at the Olympic Games.”

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AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games