Olympics 2016: How an American turned down Columbia's med school to play rugby for Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO – Isadora Cerullo already had begun applying to some of the Ivy League’s most prestigious medical schools three years ago when an unexpected opportunity caused her to veer off course.

The coach of Cerullo’s club rugby team in Philadelphia informed her that the Brazilian national team was seeking international-born players to bolster its roster in advance of the 2016 Olympics.

Playing at the Olympics never seemed like an attainable goal to Cerullo until that email landed in her inbox. The former standout fullback at Columbia University progressed quickly for someone who discovered rugby only as a sophomore in college, but she hadn’t yet received much interest from the highly ranked U.S. women’s rugby team.

Isadora Cerullo (right) competes for Brazil’s Olympic rugby team. (AP)
Isadora Cerullo (right) competes for Brazil’s Olympic rugby team. (AP)

Vying for a spot on Brazil’s roster was more realistic even though Cerullo grew up in North Carolina and had visited her parents’ birth country only once ,when she was 9. Brazil’s newly formed rugby federation was so eager to become more competitive that it offered tryouts to any qualified player with a parent or grandparent born in the country.

“For me it wasn’t a tough decision,” Cerullo said. “I knew I really wanted to do this. My parents were really nervous about me playing rugby instead of going to medical school, but they eventually understood once they realized that my heart was behind it and I’d dedicate myself to it 100 percent.”

Cerullo is one of 19 athletes born outside Brazil yet competing anyway for the host nation. Many are seizing the opportunity to become an Olympian in a sport in which their birth countries are deep and formidable but Brazil is not as strong.

Host countries at the Olympics typically epitomize this trend because they qualify automatically to compete in sports in which they traditionally would not be eligible. That often sparks a scramble to improve quickly by adding foreign-born talent.

Whereas Olympic giants like the United States, China and Great Britain boast medal contenders in many sports, Brazil has more holes to fill. Rugby, fencing, field hockey, golf and water polo are among the sports in which Brazil has added foreign-born athletes during the buildup to the Olympics.

Serbian-born Slobodan Soro is expected to start at goalkeeper for Brazil’s men’s water polo team this week. The 37-year-old won a bronze medal with his birth country at the London Olympics but became a naturalized Brazilian citizen last year after his role with the Serbian team diminished.

Spanish-born brothers Xavier and Pau Vela Maggi both qualified for the Olympics, but they’ll compete under different flags. Xavier, 26, will row for Brazil, while Pau, 30, will row for his birth country.

Brazil’s field hockey team has an especially heavy foreign presence. Six of the team’s 18 players were born elsewhere and a seventh has lived in England since he was 6 months old, yet most of the players belted out the Brazilian national anthem in unison before their 7-0 pool play loss to Spain on Saturday night.

“The anthem was a really special moment for us because of all the hard work we’ve put in trying to build this team,” said Holland-born Yuri van der Heijden, whose mother is a native of Brazil. “The players on this team are like my brothers. As we stand together, we’re like one family.”

No Brazilian sport was more brazen or pragmatic in its recruiting than rugby.

When Brazil appointed Sami Arap Sobrinho as president of its rugby federation in 2010, he implemented a 20-year plan to help the country evolve from minnows to sharks in the sport. Increasing TV exposure, funding and youth participation throughout Brazil are the biggest keys, but Sobrinho was smart enough to recognize that taking advantage of the Olympic spotlight was also crucial to his cause.

Slobodan Soro, born in Serbia, is the goalkeeper for Brazil’s men’s water polo team. (Reuters)
Slobodan Soro, born in Serbia, is the goalkeeper for Brazil’s men’s water polo team. (Reuters)

Hoping to attract the talent necessary to compete at the Olympics, Sobrinho in 2013 organized a global media blitz throughout Europe, Oceania and North and South America. The campaign featured the slogan “Rugby Players Wanted” and urged Brazilian descendants abroad to “be part of the dream.”

“The idea was to find players who could help take us to the next level,” Sobrinho said. “We made it clear that we wanted international players but that we would not import non-Brazilian players. Other countries you have other nationalities who are brought on board to gain citizenship and play for the country. That’s not the case for Brazil. We were looking for French-Brazilians, American-Brazilians, someone with a double citizenship. We thought that bringing those guys on board would expedite our process.”

While nearly half of Brazil’s men’s rugby team is foreign-born, the women’s squad is on the cusp of a top-10 world ranking with almost exclusively domestic talent. Cerullo is the lone player on the roster born elsewhere, and she did not get off the bench in either of Brazil’s pool play losses against international powers Great Britain and Canada on Saturday.

That Cerullo is here in Rio at all is pretty improbable given her background.

The former Columbia Medical Center research assistant and Harrison Surgical Scholar always seemed destined to be a doctor by age 30. She had never seen a rugby match, let alone played in one, until five years ago when a friend invited her to a men’s match at Columbia, and the captain of the women’s team noticed her in the stands.

“She’s like, ‘You look athletic and you look like you’re enjoying this. You should come out for a practice,’ ” Cerullo said. “I had absolutely no idea what was going on at first, but everyone was really patient with me. I loved it right from the start.”

That was the launching point for a journey that has taken Cerullo from rugby novice, to college standout, to Olympian. The path may not end in Rio either because Cerullo is strongly considering staying in Brazil and continuing to pursue rugby after the Olympics. She’s starting to feel at home living just a 20-minute walk from the house where her parents once lived in San Paolo.

So is medical school still in Cerullo’s future? Says a smiling Cerullo, “We’ll see.”

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