Senior Spring: Madison Hughes ’15, face of U.S. rugby sevens
It’s probably safe to say that professional rugby player Madison Hughes ’15 has one of the more distinct D-Plans on campus. He has been off-campus for the last two terms of his senior year, completing his assignments while captaining the United States Eagles sevens squad. This past weekend, the Eagles dominated Australia 45-22 to win the Marriott London Sevens Cup final and claim win their first World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series title.
“It was an absolute dream come true to win the tournament,” Hughes said. “Having grown up in London, I went to that tournament as a young boy and dreamed of playing there.”
Hughes was born and raised in a suburb of London to an English father and an American mother. He first started playing rugby at the age of seven, and hasn’t looked back since.
Hughes’s father had played rugby at the school level, but Hughes said that the decision to stick with rugby his entire life was his own. He said his parents were supportive of his wanting to play rugby, but never pushed him to make any particular commitment.
As Hughes progressed through the school rugby system and played club rugby for his county, more opportunities began to open up. Recruiting for college in England, however, was different from that in the United States, and the status of rugby in the U.S. is still developing. While he had been in a professional academy in England, the importance of his academics made him shift his focus to universities in the U.S.
Hughes began getting in touch with a few coaches in the U.S., which led him to Alex Magleby, the former head coach and current technical advisor of Dartmouth’s rugby team. Hughes was immediately drawn to the College’s academic caliber, and he visited Hanover in the summer. Throughout the visit, he said, Hughes had the feeling that Dartmouth was the school he wanted to attend.
“I distinctly remember having a feeling that I didn’t have at any of the other schools that I visited,” he said. “This was where I wanted to go to college. I was immensely lucky that where I got that feeling, I was able to go.”
He said his freshman year was a fairly typical one, at least until the summer came around and he was selected for the team that would represent Dartmouth at the Collegiate Rugby Championships. The Big Green came to the tournament looking to defend its national title and defeated the University of Arizona Wildcats in the finals for its second consecutive championship. Hughes finished as the tournament’s third-leading try scorer and was named to the all-tournament team, a selection he would repeat in 2013 and 2014. He attributed much of his success to the upperclassmen on the team and Magleby.
“My transition to college rugby was helped immensely by the senior class at the time,” Hughes said. “The Dartmouth rugby [Class of 2012] was an immensely strong one, with lots of really strong leaders that I think really helped me get adapted to college rugby and progress to that high level. It really was a pretty seamless transition.”
The tournament was an important moment for Hughes. He had previously gotten recognition as a fullback for the U.S. national under-20 rugby union team. At the 2012 IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, Hughes was the tournament’s top scorer and led the U.S. team with four tries. After the collegiate championships, however, Hughes was put even more firmly in the spotlight.
“I was competing against guys, some of whom were four or five years older than I was at the time, and I was doing pretty well there,” Hughes said. “That was a big turning point where I was like, ‘Wow, this is really something that could start going to a high level pretty quickly.’”
After growing up in England and living in the U.S., Hughes said he can perceive a difference between the two countries in their respective styles of play. He does, however, believe that the difference is shrinking.
“I think right now you’ve just got a lot more people in England who have grown up with the sport and had those years of experience [which] really [does] allow for a much more nuanced look at [rugby],” Hughes said. “But, at the same time, that gap is rapidly closing, I feel, especially as more people in the U.S. do start playing rugby at a younger age.”
Hughes says that the athleticism of the United States and the way that Americans approach sports can definitely push American rugby to greater heights.
Hughes has also dealt with the challenge of playing on both the international and college circuit.
“I think the athleticism and the size and the speed of the guys on the international circuit is a big thing,” Hughes said. “The speed of the game is faster, the gaps are smaller, and you have less time to make decisions, which really forces your skills to be higher and your decision-making skills to be under even more pressure.”
Back at Dartmouth, Hughes was voted by his peers to be the first junior to captain the men’s rugby team.
“I understood that it was an immense privilege and that it was something that I had to live up to,” Hughes said. “I couldn’t rest on the laurels of ‘Oh this has happened’ and be satisfied with that.”
The men’s rugby assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach James Willocks said that Hughes’ desire to live up to the title of captain was easy to see on the field. Willocks described Hughes as a “fantastic leader” and a great communicator who always leads by example.
“He is absolutely fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough of him as leader, as a person and as a rugby player,” Willocks said.
Peter Savarese ’15, who played on the Dartmouth rugby team with Hughes, reiterated the athlete’s ability to lead on the field.
“[Hughes] is definitely a quiet leader for the most part — he leads by example,” Savarese said. “He makes the players around him better…by just the way he does things on the field. It’s a really huge thing to look for in a captain.”
Savarese recalled one match in a national sevens tournament in North Carolina in which he broke his ankle and was watching the game from his phone. Hughes, he said, took over the match, and after winning the game, Hughes did a celebration that he and Savarese had joked about earlier — something Savarese said is rare for rugby players to do after scoring.
“[Hughes celebrated after scoring], and whether it was because it was for me or not, I always sort of think of it that way,” Savarese said. “So between that and putting the team on his back to just sort of having a funny character side to it as well, it was just a pretty great moment.”
This past year has been challenging for Hughes, a history major with a concentration in modern European history, as he has had to balance national team duties with his schoolwork. He took classes in the fall while competing in camps in San Diego. He accredited much of his ability to manage academics and rugby to the flexibility of his professors, but regardless, he has had to make difficult decisions. He said that it is difficult not to think about what could have happened if he devoted one more hour to studying for a test or one more hour spent at practice.
“For me, the realization that it was necessary for me to sacrifice on both ends of my focus — playing rugby at the highest level and pursuing an Ivy League degree — has pretty much meant for me that anything other than those two goals has had to be laid by the wayside,” Hughes said.
Hughes’ drive to succeed in the classroom and on the field, Willocks said, is clear to those work with the athlete behind the scenes.
“What the other people in the college don’t see is [Hughes’] incredible work ethic” Willocks said. “Outside of structured team practices, while he was training to go to the Olympic Center...I would be with him four times a week doing extra conditioning sessions and extra lifting sessions.”
This spring, Hughes has spent all of his time with the Eagles, touring around the globe and bringing home the World Series title.
“[The title] was a mark of how much our hard work has been paying off for us, and I think it really showed that what we’ve been doing is working,” Hughes said. “As long as we stick on the same path, we keep working hard and we stay committed to what we’re doing, I think good things will continue to happen.”
Hughes is the youngest player on the team but also serves as the captain. He draws from his experiences of leading the College’s rugby team to help fulfill his obligations and accredits his “incredible” teammates for their support.
“When we’re working for a common goal, as we are on the national team and as most sports teams are in general, it does mean that individual egos do have to be laid aside,” Hughes said.
The media attention is an aspect of success that has posed different challenges to Hughes and the Eagles, but Hughes tries not to let it draw him away from the game.
“I just try to stay true to myself and true to what I believe in,” Hughes said. “It’s not something that I try to overcomplicate.”
On June 13 and 14, Hughes and the rest of the national rugby team will compete in the North American and Caribbean Olympic qualifiers in North Carolina for a chance to play at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
As for his guiding life principles, Hughes tries not to impose any sort of limitation on himself.
“It’s important to stay grounded and just stay focused on the task at hand, trying not to look too far ahead or impose an overarching message on everything, because as soon as you have one overarching mantra, that can limit you and it means that you’ve imposed yourself in one direction,” Hughes said. “It’s important to adapt and focus on whatever you’re doing at that particular moment.”
One of the biggest stars in a growing sport in America, Hughes has the opportunity of a lifetime to make his impact count. Rugby is now more than a sport for Hughes — it is his career.