San Diego–based Perry Baker is no stranger to competition. He’s considered one of the best rugby sevens players in the world, ranking first among Americans in the sport and seventh overall. At this year’s summer games, it will be Baker’s second time playing for Team USA. Here, we chat with the rugby star about how he developed his skills, and how he’s preparing for the upcoming Olympic Games.
Did you come from an athletic family?
Sports were huge in my life as a kid. My uncle played in the NFL for 13 years, and my brother played three years in the NFL. Growing up, all my family did was play football.
How did you get into rugby?
I was in high school, and my guidance counselor—who was also my football position coach (I played wide receiver)—played for a local men's rugby club in Daytona Beach. He came to one of my games and told me, "I think you can be a really good rugby player." I'm like, "What's that?" He said to come to a training session and check it out. So I ended up going to one of the training sessions and never looked back.
What was it like to step out onto the pitch for the first time in your first professional match?
It was amazing. After all of the hard work and dedication that you put into it, you get to that point and it's just a dream come true. It was weird to me, because when I first came out to San Diego and I was offered a contract, I instantly thought I was on the team, not knowing that you have to make the 12-man roster that has to travel to go represent your country. So once my name was called, that's when it really hit. Everything I sacrificed for it, this is the moment, this is what I wanted. It felt so good to hit the pitch and everyone is there and you just hear them chant, "USA!” People were screaming and it was genuinely so cool.
In 2018, you passed Zack Test to become Team USA’s all-time leading try scorer. What did it feel like when you got that news?
It's a hat tip to my teammates and my coaches for the opportunity to be recognized as the top leading try scorer, because they believe in me and trust in me. So they're always doing their job to get the ball in my hands, and that's how it happens. They’re doing all the hard parts and making it easy for me.
What is your favorite part about training in San Diego?
The weather. It reminds me of Florida, just not as humid. I grew up in Florida, so I love being out in the sun.
Describe coming to San Diego and practicing for the first time with Team USA.
It was exciting. But at the same time, I really didn't understand the game of rugby. The guy who introduced me to rugby didn’t really teach me the game. He just told me if I got a chance to go score, go score. If I don't, pass the ball to someone else. So when I came here, I really wanted to be a sponge and soak in as much knowledge as I could. I was working on my skill level, how to pass, and just starting to grow and learn under people like Zack Test. I was speaking with Carlin Isles, who was helping me out with what to expect from the series and whatnot. I was a student learning the game.
How does it feel going to Tokyo compared to when you went to the 2016 Olympic Games?
Going the second time after everything that happened [last year] makes it that much more exciting—it's finally going to happen, and we finally have a chance to play again. Going to Rio was a total experience. And now, going to Tokyo, it's going to be different and you just have to adapt. We have one whole country competing for one goal, and that's to get a medal. We're definitely going for gold, but it feels good that everyone's trying for medals and everyone's backing each other up. That whole experience is so sweet.