Zack Test said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a nice Jewish boy like himself will be going to the Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. squad in rugby, one of the roughest sports around.
In fact, the Redwood City resident — remembered as “greased lightning” on the blacktop at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City — is one of two Jews on the U.S. rugby team bound for Rio de Janeiro. The other is Nate Ebner, who’s taking a leave of absence from his job as a safety and special-teams player for the NFL’s New England Patriots.
“The Jewish culture — we’re tough, man, we’ve been through adversity for centuries,” Test said by phone from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, where the team was preparing for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. “In rugby, the other team is trying to push us around, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
Rugby hasn’t been played in the Olympics since 1924, and this will be the debut of rugby sevens — a quicker-paced version of the 15-person game. “Sevens” is played on a normal-size rugby field, which means speed is paramount because players have more space.
Test, 26, was on the U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel, where the Americans defeated the host Israelis 43-3 in the third-place match. He said that experience helped prepare him for the Rio Olympics.
“I think the Maccabiah Games was a good preparation for this Olympics — a whole bunch of nations in a different environment, different preparations and different climate acclimations,” he said. “I’ve been to the Maccabiah Games, I’ve been to the Pan Am Games, I’ve been to the World Cup. But this is what I’ve been dreaming about ever since rugby was announced [in 2009] as being in the Olympics [for the first time in 92 years]. It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Test is one of at least three Bay Area Jews on the U.S. roster for the Rio Olympics. He is joined by rower Seth Weil, 29, of Menlo Park and swimmer Anthony Ervin, 35, a U.C. Berkeley grad who will be competing in his third Summer Games.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Test ranks sixth in the world among active rugby sevens players with 143 tries. A try, similar to a touchdown in football, occurs when a player touches the ball to the ground beyond an opponent’s goal line. He also is the most experienced player on the U.S. rugby sevens squad, having made his debut in 2008.
He began playing rugby as a freshman at Woodside High School, where he graduated in 2007, and was a two-sport star at the University of Oregon, playing wide receiver on the football team as well as rugby.
But he had already turned heads long before that as a student at Wornick Jewish Day School.
“He was a fantastic athlete at school. I watched the kid at recess and he was far quicker than any other kid at the school. He was like greased lightning,” said Mervyn Danker, the Wornick principal for 11 years until 2008. “When I saw him on the hardtop playing football with his pals, I could see he had speed and he had a feel for the game. The rest of the guys just wanted to get the ball to Zack, and then he would take over.”
Test attended the school through fifth grade. “I remember that I had an amazing time at Wornick,” he said. “I learned a lot about education and learned a lot about being a Jewish man.
“Being on the blacktop was my favorite time, playing lots of basketball and football,” he added.
Midway through his time at the University of Oregon, Test got a scholarship to play rugby for Loughborough University in England. Rugby has now become a full-time job, and he supports himself with sponsorship deals with Nike and other companies.
“I was going to either try to make the NFL or see the world and play the sport I really love,” he said. “All these doors were opening for me in rugby.”
The U.S. rugby sevens squad, which is ranked sixth in the world, will face a tough schedule at the Olympics. The Americans open Aug. 9 against fifth-ranked Argentina, then will be back at it some five hours later against Brazil. The next day, they have to face top-ranked Fiji, the two-time defending champion in the world sevens series.
If the Americans make it out of the preliminary round, the quarterfinals would be later in the day on Aug. 10 — with matches for the medals on Aug. 11.
Danker, a native of South Africa who played rugby and told J. that the sport is “a semi-religion for me,” said he’s extremely happy Test chose rugby and is eager to brag about him.
“I tell friends, ‘Let me tell you about one of my past pupils. He’s going to the Olympics.’ And when I tell them what sport, they don’t believe it. They have a great deal of difficulty believing a Jewish kid can be on the American rugby team,” Danker said. “I think it’s wonderful that a Jewish boy managed to get into the Olympics as a rugby player.”
Test hasn’t finished college, and his courses have veered from marketing to sports technology. But he said that’s something he won’t be thinking about over the next few weeks.
“I’m still working on my degree,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do in the future, but I know now that I just want to win a freaking gold medal.”