Creek grad aims for spot playing rugby sevens at Rio

CSU student hopes to snag Olympic gold


Ben Pinkelman started playing rugby when he was 13 years old and a freshman at Cherry Creek High School.

“My earliest memory is showing up to my very first practice because my mom made me,” the now 22-year-old said, “so I would quit annoying her and my siblings at home. I had no idea what I was doing.”

Eleven years later, he's at the 2016 summer Olympic trials for the U.S. men's rugby sevens team — a sport that has never been included in the summer Olympics, according to the Rio 2016 website.

“Although the 15-player version of the sport appeared at the Olympic Games between 1900 and 1924,” the site says, “Rio 2016 marks the debut of rugby sevens, a faster, shorter adaption.”

Rugby sevens is a type of rugby in which teams consist of seven players with short, seven-minute halves versus 40-minute halves. It originated in Scotland in the 1880s and is now popular in the Americas and overseas.

The game is fast-paced and requires “incredibly high fitness standards,” said Pinkelman.

He's spending the month of July at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where he wakes up at 8 a.m. for intensive sessions that typically include about 4,000 to 5,000 meters of running.

Pinkelman is second-youngest of the 26 men contending for a spot on the team. He's the only player from Colorado.

In Mid-July he will find out if he is one of a dozen picked for Rio de Janeiro this August.

Pinkelman's parents, Ann and Harvey, said the situation seems surreal.

The 6-foot-4-inch, slender 22-year-old was raised in Centennial with a younger sister, a brother and sister who are twins, and their parents.

Pinkelman's siblings describe him as a competitive spirit who likes to win.

They hope their older brother makes it to the Olympics.

“I want him to sign stuff,” said his sister Kaitlyn. “So if he makes it, I can sell it on eBay and make some money.”

His youngest sister, Emma, said she brags to her friends about her brother's success.

His parents are proud of their son, who is simultaneously taking online classes at Colorado State University and planning to graduate with a degree in sociology and a minor in history this winter.

“I'll cry either way,” Ann said. “If he makes it — or if he doesn't.”

Pinkelman's earliest memories of rugby include his first varsity game playing for Cherry Creek. He reflects on that game when he's playing in World Series matches across the globe.

“I often re-run some of the plays from that game in my head to visualize success,” he said. “Even though it was on a much smaller level, it still gives me confidence.”

But his athletic journey hasn't been easy:

“Balancing academic and rugby has been of the most difficult things,” he said. “When I first made the U20 team to go to Hong Kong, I took an entire semester off to play in the month-long tournament.”

He's also battled some health issues.

Pinkelman was diagnosed with Crohn's disease his freshman year of college when he was trying out for the under 20s national rugby team.

“I didn't tell anyone because I didn't want to make excuses,” he said of his symptoms, which included intense stomach cramps, lack of stamina and increased heart rate. “But I couldn't perform with these symptoms and didn't make the team.”

The bowel disease is caused by inflammation of the digestive tract lining, which results in abdominal pain, weight loss and malnutrition, according to a Mayo Clinic online healthcare publication.

Pinkelman controls the disease with medication but still experiences occasional side effects.

He also had to have shoulder surgery 15 months ago after he tore his labrum — the tissue that keeps the shoulder joint in place. He has seven anchors in his shoulder.

Pinkelman's goal is to make the Olympic team and pursue a gold medal. In the future, he hopes to get contracted to play in San Diego with the national rugby sevens team or with another professional rugby team.

Between then he will focus on school.

“I am going to enjoy my last semester of college,” he said, “and play with CSU.”


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