By Jenna Fischer
As summer draws to a close, Colorado State University welcomes students and staff back to campus for the new academic year. Among those returning is rugby Olympian, Ben Pinkelman. Campus Rec had the opportunity to speak with Pinkelman about the experience before he left for Rio.
At age 22, Colorado State University student and Sport Club athlete, Pinkelman earned himself the title of the youngest rugby Olympian on Team USA for the 2016 Olympic games. He was selected to compete as a Forward for the Men’s National 7s Team in Rio de Janeiro.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Pinkelman said. “It probably won’t sink in until we get to Rio.”
Pinkelman first discovered his passion for the game as a freshman at Cherry Creek High School.
“I played football as well, but I didn’t have a spring sport,” Pinkelman said. “So I went out to the first [rugby] practice and just kind of fell in love with it.”
Four years later, Pinkelman knew his rugby career was just beginning.
“I decided to keep playing in college because I just couldn’t stop,” Pinkelman said. “That never crossed my mind.”
Although he first considered other universities, Pinkelman ultimately decided to attend CSU for it’s noteworthy Sport Club rugby program.
“I knew CSU had a good program from their recruiting trips to the high school invitational and state tournaments I played in,” Pinkelman said. “So I knew they had a good program with a good history and that’s one of the main factors that pushed me to go to CSU.”
During his time at CSU, Pinkelman has continued to hone his athletic abilities and fuel his passion for the sport.
“I was a good player my freshman year, but I think I definitely developed a lot and learned a lot at the program at CSU,” Pinkelman said. “The leaders really helped push me in the right direction and get me where I am now.”
The CSU Men’s Rugby Team also served as the key that opened doors for Pinkelman to be able to compete at the national level.
“[The coaches at CSU] reached out to the national team coaches and told them to give me a chance,” Pinkelman said. “CSU really got me my first shot.”
Throughout his rugby career, Pinkelman has had the opportunity to travel all over the world while competing in international tournaments. His travels have taken him to Hong Kong, Africa, Sydney, and Paris to name a few.
Although Pinkelman has played on a number of rugby teams both at the state and national levels, the Sport Club program at CSU holds a special place in his heart.
“It’s a brotherhood for sure,” Pinkelman said. “It’s definitely great to play with all the guys on the team who have become my closest friends at CSU, my roommates, guys I’ll talk to and hang out with for the rest of my life.”
That brotherly connection translates off the field as well. While the CSU Men’s Rugby Team has certainly stood out on the field, they have made a positive impression off the field as well. The player-run organization requires its team members to participate in community service and fundraising.
“We have run CSU football games, RamRides, and done a lot of things around Fort Collins to help the community,” Pinkelman said. “You have to go work for all your own stuff, you have to do the community service, you have to raise money in order to travel. It also makes you closer to the team because you have to do all of those things together.”
Pinkelman has overcome many challenges throughout the years in order to be where he is today. As the youngest player on the national team, he is the only one still in school.
“It’s been hard going to CSU and trying to stay on track with school while doing all this traveling,” Pinkelman said. “I usually miss at least a month every semester—sometimes a little more. On the road it’s hard to get homework [finished] and stay focused, especially when you don’t know if you’ll have wi-fi in a lot of the places.”
In addition to academic challenges, Pinkelman has also overcome some medical complications. In 2014, the athlete was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease—a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract.
“When I first tried out for the U20s the symptoms were really bad,” Pinkelman said. “I was anemic from losing so much blood and couldn’t run very far without getting exhausted. I got cut at the last tryout because I just couldn’t focus. I was really sick.”
After his diagnosis, medication has allowed Pinkelman to manage his condition and continue participating in the sport he loves.
“Rugby has pretty much defined who I am,” Pinkelman said. “It’s the most important aspect of my life and the most time-consuming aspect of my life. It’s definitely shaped who I am today.”
As he looks toward the future, Pinkelman has several options to consider. After completing his final semester at CSU this fall, he will graduate with a degree in criminal justice.
“I want to do something in law enforcement, but I will also probably have an offer on the table to move to Chula Vista to train full time at the Olympic training center,” Pinkelman said. “I want to play rugby for as long as I can.” He even mentioned the possibility of trying for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
For now, Pinkelman is focusing all his energy on the challenge ahead and preparing for the games in Rio. He will compete along with Team USA on Aug. 9 against fifth-ranked Argentina in the first match.
“We’re just focused on the medal right now,” Pinkelman said. “Getting to the Olympics is obviously a huge accomplishment and a goal and a dream for a lot of people, but you don’t just want to go and be a participant. You want to go and win. You want to be a contender in the fight for the medal.”
While it’s true that the Sport Club program at Campus Rec boasts a myriad of talented athletes, you don’t have to be an Olympian to become involved. Pinkelman offers some advice for incoming students at CSU and students who are considering joining a sport club.
“Just don’t be intimidated and just go for what you think sounds like fun,” Pinkelman said. “Not any of the clubs at CSU are going to reject you—they are going to accept you with open arms no matter the talent level. Just reach out to them. If you’re a student coming in, get information and come out to practice and you’ll enjoy it and you’ll have fun.”
The USA Men’s Rugby Team finished 9th overall in the Rio Olympic Games. In the key match of the tournament, the team lost against Fiji who went on to win the Gold medal. Although Pinkelman is returning from Rio without a medal, he is still gold to us—Green and Gold that is.