Up until a year ago, Ben Pinkelman hadn’t given much thought about playing in the Olympics.
After all, despite being a collegiate star on CSU’s club rugby team, he was anything but a household name and had very little experience on the national and international levels.
Nonetheless, Pinkelman is headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, soon to begin final preparations to play for Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in for me yet,” said Pinkelman, who is training with the USA Eagles at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula vista, Calif. “We found out Friday (July 15) who had made the team, and I celebrated with my teammates. My family came out (from Centennial, his hometown) on Monday and we celebrated, but I really don’t think what this means will sink in until I get to Rio.”
Pinkelman might be the most unlikely member of the veteran-laden, 12-member squad. At 22 he is the youngest team member and only began drawing serious attention from Team USA coaches last summer while playing for the Denver Barbarians, a highly regarded club team.
“I think I came on to the radar late,” he said. “I played for the Barbarians at nationals last summer and got some attention, and that really got me started.”
He started playing with the Eagles in January and has been a regular ever since, even moving into the starting lineup. So, his inclusion on the Olympic team was not a huge surprise to those familiar with the Team USA program.
Pinkelman recognizes the historic nature of his opportunity. In 2009 the International Olympic Committee voted to include rugby in the Games for the first time since 1924, and it will be one of the most talked-about sports at the Games.
The IOC opted to add rugby sevens – a faster, more explosive version of the more familiar 15-on-15 game – because of its fan appeal. That decision was huge for Pinkelman, who thrives in sevens because it is more wide-open and less physical than traditional 15s. Teams play 7-minute halves and have just 2-minute halftimes in the matches, which are often high-scoring.
“Competing in the Olympics is the pinnacle for any athlete – the ultimate,” said Pinkelman, who be joined by former Ram Janay DeLoach, the defending bronze medalist in the long jump, at the Games. “I’ve been so focused on training that I don’t think it will really hit me until we get to Rio, but I know this is an amazing opportunity. I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”
Pinkelman’s story about becoming a Ram is pretty simple: After looking at other schools, he chose CSU because of the prowess of the club rugby program (rugby is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport). A former football player, the 6-foot, 205-pound Pinkelman fell in love with the game while at Cherry Creek High School and started focusing on the game.
Always a stalwart
At CSU, he made an immediate impact as a freshman and has been a team standout ever since.
“Ben was born with natural ability that would make just about any player envious,” said Ryan Walker, who played with the future Olympian in 2013 and coached during Pinkelman’s sophomore and junior seasons. “He scored three tries in each of his first three games at CSU while playing three different positions. He set the bar pretty high.”
Despite a challenging travel schedule over the past two-plus years that has required him to take online courses, Pinkelman expects to graduate in December with a degree in sociology/criminal justice and a minor in history. After that he plans to keep playing as long as he can, even though very few players in the world can actually claim to be professionals.
“CSU and the rugby program have been very supportive of me, and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given there,” he said. “I plan to return in the fall, get my degree and rejoin the team. I’ll be excited for that.
“But going to the Olympics is a memory I can keep forever. Representing my country means a lot. It’s a chance for glory, and I plan to make the most of it.”