Canada's rugby sevens qualification came off the back of a rollercoaster period, however booking their tickets to Tokyo 2020 was not just an achievement for the squad but for all those before them
As the ball was kicked out and the referee blew the final whistle, a moment of realisation hit Canada’s rugby sevens men’s team.
For veteran team member Nathan Hirayama, who was part of that squad that missed out on qualifying for Rio 2016, it was a dream come true.
“It was really special to achieve that but even more so after not achieving it four years prior,” he told Tokyo 2020.
“There was a core group of us around for quite a few years with hopes of going to Rio, and we came just short of our qualifiers,” he said.
This is why the qualification held much more significance for Hirayama. He thought about all the players he previously played alongside who would never get that chance to compete on the Olympic stage.
“I think my initial feelings after [the match] were relief and I just thought of all those other guys that I wish could’ve experienced it with us because it came after such a long journey," he said.
“They were the first group I thought about. I do feel that they've kind of laid the foundation to qualify last summer.”
A heartbreaking end
There is no doubt that it has been a long journey to reach the Olympic Games debut for Canada.
The journey to the Olympics started when rugby sevens was announced as part of the Rio 2016 Olympic programme - which was 11 years ago.
But it wasn't a fairytale story for Canada.
After they missed out on qualification for Rio 2016 through the NACRA Sevens - a regional qualifier - Canada's second-place finish behind the United States saw them have one last chance through the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament.
Sadly, during the quarter-finals, Canada’s Olympic dream came tumbling down when they were knocked out by the Russian Federation in a 14-12 loss.
Coming so close to reaching an Olympics - one where rugby sevens would be making its debut - was shattering.
“It was heartbreaking for us guys especially for those who were at the end of their careers,” Hirayama explained.
“This was going to be kind of last shot at achieving that, it was our last shot to achieve it together because the nature of the game - especially in Canada - is it's not something to do forever.
“I remember sitting in the locker room after we failed to go, and it was just it was tough.”
A rollercoaster lead-up
While Canada finished the 2018-19 World Series in 11th position, making the quarter-finals just once in the first eight events, it was not at all a bad result considering just two months prior to the season they sidelined themselves after refusing to sign new player contracts offered by Rugby Canada.
After a resolution was eventually reached, the team began training on 1 November - just 30 days before the opening event in Dubai.
However with two events left, and with Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification just around the corner, Canada's long-time coach Damian McGrath was dismissed.
Fortunately, they were able to mesh well under interim head coach Henry Paul (who is now the full-time coach) and it showed in the London 7s where they managed to equal their best finish for the season of seventh. However, they faced a mounting injury list as they travelled to the Cayman Islands in their bid to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
While the team were favourites heading in - being the only professional team of eight competing at the tournament - securing a spot at the Olympics was a relief after all the challenges the team had to face.
“I think in most organisations there is tension and things like that because both parties care so much about the sport,” Hirayama said.
“To achieve it [qualification] made everything all worth it. It made us feel like we were doing the right thing and it was worth fighting for, but our goal was to get there, to qualify definitely felt like everything worked out.”
Retirement was not an option
Hirayama has been part of the Canadian rugby sevens national team set up since 2006, when he made his debut as an 18-year-old.
Going to an Olympic Games has been a goal of his for a long time. It's the reason the 32-year-old has continued playing.
But with the postponement of Tokyo 2020, many athletes had to make the decision whether or not they put their body and mind through another 12-month cycle. However, for Hirayama, who will be 33 when the Olympic Games get underway next summer, it was an easy decision.
“For me, it was a simple decision, it’s just kind of my goal for so long now,” Hirayama said.
“One year, although I'd love for it to be the summer, we all understand why it was delayed and we back that decision, but I could wait one year and we want to be in a better place next year than this year.
“Hopefully, there are some silver linings situation.”
Hirayama has represented Canada on some of the biggest stages - from Commonwealth Games to Pan Americas and World Cups - but being able to call himself an Olympian is something not far from his mind.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “It's a driving force for me, and my wanting to play for as long as I have. It’s that kind of feeling I wanted to achieve, and I want to achieve that with my teammates.”
Derek Stevens Photography 2020
One to watch
Before the COVID-19 pandemic saw the cancellation for the rest of the 2020 World Rugby Sevens Series, Hirayama was the third leading points scorer on the tour and was named on the Canada Sevens Dream Team leg of the Series, where Canada had their best finish since Singapore 2017 – third place.
The Richmond native is also the third all-time leading points scorer in the annual series.
So it was no surprise when Olympic winning coach Ben Ryan, who led Fiji at Rio 2016, named Hirayama as one of the seven players to watch in Tokyo 2020.
This was unbeknown to Hirayama, who was flattered to hear that a coach of Ryan's calibre had named him on this list.
The former Fiji coach also wrote: “If Canada can get to the quarter-finals and he has one of the games of his life, then there is no reason why they can’t cause an upset.”
And Hirayama isn’t shying away about their medal chances either.
“That’s kind of a goal,” he replied. “We really think if the tournament goes our way, we can do that so that’s where our heads are at.”
After celebrating one year to go until the Olympic Games last week, Hirayama is looking forward to Tokyo 2020 next summer.
“I think what I’m looking forward to the most is taking in the whole experience and competing in Japan will be special for me given my heritage and Japanese roots."
“Just to be there and hopefully, family and friends and family are able to travel with me and experience it as well. There’s been so many of them on this journey with me for so many years and I would love to see them in the stands.”