BYU’s Jordan Matyas hopes to build women’s rugby through fight for Olympic medal

The former BYU rugby player and the USA Eagles kicked off their Tokyo Olympics with a win over China.

(Courtesy USA Rugby) Former BYU standout Jordan Matyas has become a key member of the United States' women's rugby team. The Eagles opened Olympic play with a win over China on Wednesday.

Jordan Matyas is, by all accounts, one of the sweetest, kindest, selfless people you could meet.

“I think I’ve always been a people person, and sometimes I put other people before myself,” Matyas said. “But I just really enjoy having a genuine connection and allowing everyone around me to be able to feel safe and heard and seen and cared about.”

Just don’t come across her on the field.

The Team USA women’s rugby player is one of the best in the world at a sport known for its brutality. Mild-mannered away from the game and dominant on the pitch, Matyas is almost like two completely different people. But her mindset is always the same when it comes to her family and teammates: to help people. In this case, she’s helping Team USA in the goal of winning a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The former BYU women’s rugby player made her Olympic debut Wednesday night, as Team USA beat China 28-14. The women will next face Team Japan at 3 a.m. and Team Australia at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.

When Matyas first found out she had made the roster for Team USA, she was overwhelmed with joy. Her father said she had been worried that she wouldn’t make the cut in the days leading up to the roster announcement.

“She was a little ‘Dad, I don’t know yet,’ but I was like, ‘you’ve been with the team for 5-6 years, so you’ll be fine,’” her father, Evric Gray, said. “But she wanted to make sure. She was happy, super excited, and obviously, I was, too.”

That mild demeanor has been one of the characteristics that has made Matyas stand out from most other athletes in rugby, a sport that is known for its physicality and often described as football without pads.

During a recent press conference with co-captains Kristen Thomas and Abby Gustaitis, in which the pair were asked about Matyas, Thomas began to cry when describing her teammate. Thomas said Matyas was a great teammate and is super supportive.

At the end of the day, the team is an extension of Matyas — a family of sorts. So, the former BYU player believes the team’s success is more important than her own.

Her father believes that Matyas has cultivated that mentality from each sport she’s played and each place she’s played at, but the foundation was set by her late mother.

Gray, who played basketball at UNLV and professionally, also had a hand in teaching his daughter about putting the team first. The other stuff will work out eventually, he said.

“Before her mom passed away, she instilled that into Jordan,” Gray said. “I think she’s about ‘team first.’ She really doesn’t have anything negative to say about anyone. She tries to keep it to herself if she has any problems, but she’s ‘team first.’”

Besides prioritizing a team win, Matyas also understands that putting her personal goals aside for the good of the team serves as a way to help the sport.

“I think that your team is just greater than the self,” Matyas said. “Also, with the opportunity we have to grow rugby in America, our success together is so valuable to our country as a whole because it really sheds light on the sport and we are able to be that inspiration to young girls. I think that if I was only worried about my own success, that would kind of take away from how amazing the team is and the sport in general.”

Rugby was first played in the Olympics in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, but went away for nearly a century after that. The sport was brought back to the Olympics in 2016 — largely in part due to American women.

The Americans also had a hand in changing Olympic rugby from the traditional 15-a-side, 80-minute version to the faster-paced seven-a-side game.

“I’m happy that women’s rugby is a part of rugby coming back in the U.S.,” Gray said. “I’m for it. I’m all for it. I’m glad it happened. And I’m sure the other countries, ladies as well, from all around the world, are happy that they brought women’s rugby back into [the Olympics].”

While Gray is unable to be in Tokyo to cheer on his daughter, he will be watching from his home in Salt Lake City. Because their family is all spread out, he said, there won’t be any watch parties, but he’s staying up to date with Matyas through text.

So far, Matyas has sent photos with NBA players Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, as well as WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Sue Bird — one of Gray’s favorite players.

“She’s enjoying her Olympic experience,” Gray said.

Tribune reporter Julie Jag contributed to this story.