From the body-check of missing out on the Winter Olympics to becoming a star for the US sevens side, this is the tale of Alaska’s Alev Kelter

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As Alev Kelter is lured around the corporate box, pressing the flesh and repeating her story, the paparazzo snapping away cannot hide her glee. As we ask twin Derya if those shots will be used to torture her sister later, she replies: “Oh, you have no idea!”

Getting hauled back to earth isn’t new for Kelter but before she was a rugby star, lauded on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, her biggest humbling happened when she still wore skates.

“I played ice hockey and soccer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” the 29-year-old tells RW during the LA Sevens. “After college I had an opportunity to try out for the US Olympic hockey team. I had been in that programme since I was 14, so it was kind of natural. But I was third cut from the Olympic team for Sochi in 2014. It was devastating to me.

“When I went home to Alaska, I was trying to figure out what was next. And it was kind of providential. I received a phone call from Ric Suggitt, who was the Olympic coach at the time for USA women’s rugby. He said, ‘I’d love you to come to San Diego and train for a couple weeks to see if you like the sport. I think you’d be a great, great fit.’

“I was so nervous. I had just been cut from the Olympic team so I was pretty down in the dumps. I just wasn’t sure so I called my mom, to get her blessing on anything. And she said, ‘What’s the worst you can do? What’s the worst they can say – no? You’ve just heard that!’

Power play: The story of USA's Alev Kelter

Ice warrior: Kelter in action for Wisconsin Badgers (University of Wisconsin)

“So for me it was pretty inspiring to say I’m going to take this risk and it’s literally not about my performance or anything. It’s about my purpose and, for me, it was to build the platform and to reach as many people as possible. What better way to do that than the Olympics?

“That’s why I had such a deep passion for the Olympics for hockey. I thought about it for soccer, too. I’d always split my time between them. This was the first time that I specialised in just one thing – I just never thought it would be rugby.”

A central midfielder in soccer, Kelter says it was not about control there but rather that she saw the field differently from some peers. Once past her nerves, her perspective on rugby shifted too.

Of her discovery Kelter says: “It was beautiful, like I was reborn, right?

“The ethos of this game, its integrity, its respect, its camaraderie and family, brotherhood, sisterhood…”

Power play: The story of USA's Alev Kelter

Hand off: Facing the Black Ferns (Getty Images)

And you also get to smack people?

“Sure, it’s like ‘catch me if you can’, and it’s all-out. Whereas in soccer it was always like, ‘you’re too aggressive’ or in hockey it’s like, ‘you can’t hit!’ Now it’s all out there. It’s like this ultimate battle, but there’s this ultimate respect level to it too, which I thought was amazing.”

Kelter first got her hands on a rugby ball in January 2014. Five months later she was contracted by the US. By 2016 it was off to the Olympics in Brazil. Now it’s about preparing for another Games, this time in Tokyo, albeit after a year’s deferral due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Kelter describes her introduction to the game as a “crash course”. Thrown straight in, she didn’t know you had to get back ten metres at certain restarts, she didn’t know you couldn’t hit anyone high. But she did have the athleticism and believed she would pick it up.

“It was beautiful, like I was reborn, right?”

According to the Alaskan, 12 years in elite programmes for other sports taught her the value of discipline and accepting how to keep working when things get tough. She is also thankful that there are pathway programmes for younger girls to play, a vital avenue for growing the sport, she tacks on.

Warren Abrahams, until recently USA women’s sevens assistant coach, has two stories about Kelter. One highlights her skill level, the other her character.

Abrahams was taken aback during one of his first sessions with the team when he clocked Kelter kicking restart after restart, first left foot, then right, then left again. Something he had seen England’s men work at over time.

His next memory was in the midst of a tournament, pressure on. Kelter came up to him and handed over a note, filled with observations she had made over their last six weeks together, including a picture of Abrahams’s daughter and a reminder on the lines of ‘keep smiling’.

Power play: The story of USA's Alev Kelter

In training: Preparing in Sydney (Mike Lee/World Rugby)

A centre in 15s but a scrum-half in sevens, Kelter talks about utilising a growth mindset in order to embrace change. Life has moving parts. The story goes that the Kelters moved four times before Alev and Derya were nine, owing to father Scott’s career in the Air Force.

Alaska was were the twins were forged, and Alev jokes that life there could make even us rugged and adaptable. She is proud of the fact that the wild state has more registered youth players than any other in the US. She feels Alaskans also embrace the notion of coming through tests together; in weathering a shared hardship there grows respect. Then there’s the hiking, climbing, fishing and shooting. Alaskans relish the primal situations. Can rugby hone such instincts?

“When I was in Rio for the Olympics all I could think about was surviving,” Kelter reflects. “It was about making it known that I was a decent athlete, keeping up with the crew. My first three months (in rugby) was just learning how to tackle. The second three months was perfecting the pass, then it was ‘If I can be the best kicker in the world, I’ll be on the pitch!’

Power play: The story of USA's Alev Kelter

Olympic shot, 2016 (Getty)

“I had more opportunities, experiences and visions to grow from and the more you play, the more those things happen innately. It can become second nature. So you have to play. It’s hard to watch!

“Sevens is about seconds – if you turn off, that could be a try. We have a sports psychologist who teaches us that our thoughts and feelings are natural, they’re going to come up, but you then get to decide which ones to address, to buy into.

“At the end of the day, how do you stay present? You set anchors. You might have a connection with your team-mate or a breath with your friend or, you know, you wipe the grass when you make a mistake. But you have to move on. So even if a mistake knocks you off your axis, you acknowledge it. It is keeping me present because I am acknowledging it. In a way it is good to have those moments.

“It’s ‘hey, I’m noticing myself being a little frantic’. Or ‘I’m noticing that I missed this routine’. Then you can correct it.

“I think there are some who use their superstitions as an excuse (to explain away mistakes) but acknowledging keeps you more present, in my mind.”

What Kelter has learnt to love in rugby is the diversity of needs. On a circuit where the try-snaffling wingers get lots of credit for their finishing, she nods her appreciation for the player who hits ruck after ruck. It is a game, she says, for every character. Sure, in the abbreviated form of the sport there are more opportunities to showcase flair – and let’s be honest, as sevens fights for its place in rugby’s global market, everyone is a salesperson. But she would never want to be on a team of ‘showboats’.

It is up to us to appreciate the myriad characters and player types within the sport. The game needs balance in several senses and while Kelter is clearly passionate, she also wants to make it clear that top-end rugby takes a lot of grit if you want to conquer it.

Power play: The story of USA's Alev Kelter

Facing the media: Before the Olympics (Getty Images)

Adding to this, with Tokyo in mind, Kelter says: “I told the team that we are set to leave a legacy, we’re set to ignite, unite and inspire, and what better way to do that than on an Olympic platform where millions are watching. I remember seeing the (astronomical) number that was written after our first game in Rio, of how many people watched our game. And that was an inspiration to us. People need to see it.

“It’s cool to think I had an opportunity to play soccer or hockey, but to pioneer something that was so amazing, that I knew would blow up in America… The thought of that was so appealing.”

In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, despite all the external pressures, Kelter relished slamming into every day of that event. As she puts it, it was “continuing to put yourself into that niche”. But that time, the Americans put so much stock in reaching the Olympic summit that they collectively decided it was best to miss the opening ceremony of the Games. They were at the closing party.

Next time, they vow to be there as the fireworks go off on Day One of the 2021 Games. Then comes the real action.

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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