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The United States is about to defend its gold medal in Olympic men’s rugby — an honor it earned a mere 92 years ago — and Stephen Tomasin is hoping to help the Americans get there.

Tomasin, a prep football star at Cardinal Newman, is among 26 men vying to make the U.S. Olympic Men’s Rugby Team. On July 18, a dozen of those men will be chosen to wear the national uniform in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympics haven’t included rugby since the 1924 Games in Paris, when the Americans beat the only other two competitors, France and Romania, to claim gold.

“Wow,” Tomasin said by phone Wednesday when asked what it would mean to him to make the Olympic squad. “It would be the biggest accomplishment of my life, by far, in terms of how much the guys, myself and the guys on the team, push ourselves. We kind of break mental barriers. To make the Olympics is almost hard to think about. Because growing up watching the Olympics, you always marvel at these people that do what they do.”

To be sure, Tomasin is no lock to make the team. He is, at 21, the youngest and almost certainly the least experienced of the men in the talent pool. Considering the hurdles he has overcome to get this far, though, no one is counting him out.

Tomasin was a stud athlete at Cardinal Newman, but his sport was football. As a junior he scored six touchdowns in a playoff game against Bishop O’Dowd. As a senior he was voted North Bay League offensive MVP.

After high school, Tomasin was invited to try to join the San Diego State football team as a walk-on. At 5-foot-10, he didn’t think he’d get a fair chance to make the team. So he turned to rugby, a sport that his cousin, Michael Tomasin, had lured him to in high school. They were part of the same class at Cardinal Newman.

Stephen Tomasin played just one year with the Santa Rosa Rugby Club, but when he went all-in in college, he found out he was pretty good at the game. OK, he was very good. He was selected to the USA Rugby Men’s Collegiate All-Americans after his freshman year, embarking on what now looks like a possible career path.

For the past two years, Tomasin has trained and played with the USA Eagles, as the national team is known. He has competed in Argentina, in Chile, in New Zealand, South Africa, Dubai and France. Last year he played at the Pan-American Games in Toronto.

“We go there for the purpose of winning a tournament or whatever the case may be,” Tomasin said. “But at the same time we usually get to see a little bit of the country. … To see how many people show up to these tournaments around the world, it is pretty exciting to see it come together.”

Tomasin plays halfback in rugby. He’s definitely not among the giants of this beefy game, though he is stoutly built at 195 pounds.

“The position I play is made for smaller guys,” Tomasin said. “There are a lot of big guys, and you can’t run away from them if they run at you. So I don’t really have a choice in those terms.”

Tomasin got a boost when the International Olympic Committee decided to play rugby sevens, or seven to a side, rather than the more traditional rugby 15s, which also is known as “rugby union.” Just as 7-man football tends to be faster and more spread out than 11-man football, rugby sevens benefits smaller, quicker players like Tomasin.

His toughness and relentless effort have caught coaches’ attention at every step.

Tomasin’s dreams took a hit, though, eight or nine months ago when he injured his knee during a tournament in Australia. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but he soon learned that he had suffered a torn ACL. He insists it isn’t holding him back.

“Statistically, ACLs don’t completely heal until around a year,” Tomasin said. “But I’ve been playing on it, and I’m back at the (pre-injury) level for about two months now. The medical staff down here, they take really, really good care of us. They made my road back easier. But yeah, it’s all good now. There’s no problems with it, and I don’t feel anything when I play anymore.”

Head coach Mike Friday initially assembled 34 players for a series of matches called the Summer Series. The team was at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., from June 5 through June 17, then flew to California for games against Italy at Avaya Stadium in San Jose (June 18) and against Russia at Bonney Field in Sacramento (June 25).

That last moment was a big one for Tomasin. He earned a cap by starting his first international match in the Americans’ 25-0 win against Russia (in a game of 15s).

For the most part, the players who had made up the Eagles were simply rolled into the Olympic pool. They’ve been at camp in San Diego — where Tomasin still has an apartment — for a week and a half, and will remain there until Friday picks his final roster.

The regimen is daunting: three sessions a day, Monday through Friday (or maybe even Saturday), alternating gym workouts, field conditioning and game situations. Tomasin’s days are pretty full.

It has been a dizzying rise for the former football star. And his timing couldn’t be better. With a new professional league in the U.S. and the sport’s return to the Olympics after nearly a century, rugby may be about to have its moment. Whether he makes the 2016 national team or not, Tomasin figures to be around the action for a while.

“I plan on doing it for as long as can, as long as my body will let me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted play sports at a high level, and now that I’ve found my way to this point in rugby, I enjoy the feeling of playing it at this level with these kind of athletes. It’s what I want to do.”

Despite the stakes, Tomasin says he isn’t nervous, despite his tender age.

“Guys that you’re close with kind of make the nerves settle down, and you’re able to be more natural,” Tomasin said. “So not nervous. Excited is probably a better word to use at this point.”

With good reason. Redwood Empire swimmers Maya DiRado and Molly Hannis have secured spots in Rio, as has wrestler Dan Dennis, whose most recent job was assistant coach at Windsor High. Kim Conley, who runs the 5,000 meters today, will attempt to join them. And so will Tomasin, whose second sport may prove to be his ticket.

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