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Talking to Tom Mitchell, Team GB Rugby 7s captain

Tom Mitchell is an Olympic silver medalist in rugby sevens, a former Varsity Match winner in rugby union with Oxford, and the father of a 4 month-old child: “There’s nothing like having a child to get you back to the swing of having a normal life.”

Tom has recently come back from Tokyo, where Team GB’s Rugby Sevens squad came in 4th place, unable to stand on the podium like they did in Rio 2016. Writing on his Instagram, Tom reflected on his journey: “As someone who has been fortunate to have come home with a medal and without one, any youngsters should know that hard work and following your passion are worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, achieving your goal feels great, and not achieving what you set out to get is painful for a while. But both outcomes contain emotions that only last for a while. The deep sense of fulfilment that comes from pursuing a passion and dedicating yourself to it lasts much longer.”

Tom captained the team both times. After an “amazing high” for Team GB, coming from behind to beat USA in the quarter final, it was a “mix of emotions” for Tom as he was ruled out of Team GB’s semi final against New Zealand and the bronze medal match against Argentina the following day due to injury. “I thought we had a good chance of bouncing back from that defeat to come back into the bronze medal match. It’s a little bit difficult to get a feel when you’re injured. Obviously, I’m still around the squad and doing what I can to try to help them prepare, but you are never quite sure where the team’s at going into the game. I thought we were in a good place but we just gave them some easy tries and unfortunately against any top team in sevens, you do that and you are very unlikely to come out on the right side of the result.” 

Oxford was the “launchpad” for Tom’s rugby career. After completing an undergraduate course at the University of Bristol, Tom came to Oxford for a graduate course in Historical Studies.

“In all honesty, a lot of my memories are dominated by what was going on with the rugby club, and my experience with The Varsity Match,” he confessed. “The best thing about that journey was some of the relationships from that group. In terms of the lesson I took forward from that was how powerful it can be when you are all focussing on one goal and one aim. That was something that really marked my time at Oxford- people’s commitment to the project and to the goal.” 

The men’s 2011 Varsity Match was particularly memorable for a number of reasons. Tom Mitchell scored a try,  the Dark Blues won the match 28-10, and OURFC captain John Carter played on with an unsightly black eye, after he took a nasty punch to his eye from Cambridge forward Dave Allen. “He was a brilliant leader and a talismanic figure,” Tom said of his former captain. “I took a lot of lessons from him which I have carried forward into my own leadership of the England and GB teams. He was a great character.” 

The nature of captaincy has changed since 2011. Having to endure the uncertainty of lockdowns and the cancellation of the Olympic Games in 2020, Tom had the task of trying to keep his team’s morale high as its captain. In a “pretty dark summer” in 2020 when Team GB Rugby Sevens lost its National Lottery funding and support, and subsequently lost all its sources of income, Tom had the challenge of “trying to make people alright with the unknown”. This involved “trying not to put too much pressure on myself” and “knowing that there were limitations out of my control”. Through the torrid times of the pandemic, Tom and his teammates trained together over Zoom and created an online Friday lunchtime coffee club. When restrictions eased, the players would find a park equidistant to all team members for running and other training sessions.

“It was a tough time for the squad. Actually, the resilience in the squad was something that I found really inspiring. It was a real credit to the guys involved that they dealt with it the way they did because it could’ve been very different and we wouldn’t have finished 4th at the Olympics. Most of the guys would not have made the team if they had not been able to process it so well; who knows what squad we would have ended up taking?”

Team GB Rugby Sevens got their National Lottery funding back in December 2020, taking them through to 2021 for the one-year-late Tokyo 2020 Games. Tom was “pleasantly surprised” when he arrived in Tokyo in mid July, as the Games “had the excitement” synonymous with normal Olympic Games. Although the result was not what he had in mind, it was “powerful” for Tom, as one of Team GB’s 376 athletes, to be “part of something much bigger” in a competition where “all of the sports come together to drive in the same direction”. 

Tom has the Commonwealth Games and the Rugby Sevens World Cup in South Africa to look forward to; it is not known as to whether Great Britain will be able to compete together or as separate nations at the World Cup. For now, Tom will be taking a break and “enjoy some of the freedoms that come with not training and not having the demands of competition”. 

I concluded the interview by asking Tom whether he would be open to the prospect of taking up another postgraduate course at Oxford any time soon: “I’ll have to see if I still have the ability to still write essays!” Let’s hope Tom polishes his essay writing skills and one day brings Oxford yet more glory over Cambridge in The Varsity Matches.

Photo credits Sam Mellish, courtesy of Team GB via Tom Mitchell .

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