Q&A: Alev Kelter's Multisport Journey to Rugby, Why Team USA Is in the Mix for Gold

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Alev Kelter is a two-time member of the U.S. women’s rugby team. She was the team’s top scorer at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where Team USA finished fifth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sports Illustrated: I’m sure you’ve answered this question a million times already, but for our readers, do you mind telling us how you first got into rugby?

Alev Kelter: I played Division I ice hockey and soccer in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With my twin sister [Derya], we both played Division I. I was released from the Olympic ice hockey player pool for Sochi in 2014, and I was deciding whether or not to play pro soccer or go play hockey overseas. And I had a missed call from the Olympic head coach, Ric Suggitt. And the short story is he basically asked if I would give rugby a try. After not making the Olympic player pool for ice hockey, I was ready to pivot and shift my life—try something new and take a risk. I flew out to San Diego two weeks after that phone call, two months later was contracted and two years later made an Olympic team.

And all of that happened as a testament to my teammates being selfless and teaching me every ounce of information about rugby. I’m still learning every day, but those women that were training full-time at the training center at the time were the strongest women I had ever met. And not only mentally but physically. And also just selfless. So I started my Olympic rugby career in March of 2014, and have been at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista [California] since.

SI: How much did you even know about rugby before that phone call?

AK: Nothing. My friend Annie had played rugby at St. Olaf and she was like, “Alev, I feel like you’d be an amazing rugby player,” and I was like, “O.K., well I’m under contract for ice hockey and soccer; I can’t get injured.” She was like, “No, it’s pretty safe. It just seems like it’s gonna be a good fit for you.” So like every Christmas when I’d go home to Alaska, she’d tell me about rugby. She sent me some rugby shorts and a mouthguard and was like, “I’m just encouraging you!” And it’s kinda funny that that was like the only information I knew about it. I had a teammate that I played flag football with in high school, and she had transitioned from basketball to rugby—her name was Lorrie Clifford. And she gave Ric Suggitt my number. I’m forever grateful for Lorrie and Ric, who could see what I couldn’t see, which was that rugby was a really good fit.

SI: Did you know at the time that rugby had been added to the Olympics? Was that part of the appeal?

AK: I had known that it was on the radar. When I first said yes to it, I didn’t know that that would be an opportunity for me. This is something that I really wanted to pursue with no strings attached. He said just come here and give it a try. It’s not like there was a lot of pressure involved in it. It was just, let’s see if you wanna run around, get tackled, tackle people; and if you like it, we’ll talk from there. The worst they could say to me was no. And I had just heard that no, so for me it’s about my purpose going forward, which was just to take a risk, and have fun and to really invest in the people around me.

SI: And how do you think your experience playing other sports has helped you as a rugby player?

AK: It has had an amazing impact, playing different sports. Soccer, I think the vision of the field, and passing and being a center-midfielder really translated to being a playmaker in rugby. I also think that the physicality of ice hockey—I played boy’s hockey growing up—really helped me learn how to put a shoulder in somebody. And the gap control and working in threes, it’s very similar to how you play in hockey. So a lot of the skills correlated. Especially for me. I attribute all of my kicking skills in rugby to the elite level that I played at in soccer. And all the years that we’ve been working on the different parts of the foot passing and all the skills of touch control. It’s all very relatable.

And I really encourage people to try different sports. It all helps with the vision of the game. The experience of hand-eye coordination. It really fights burnout. So it’s good to try a lot of different things and fall in love with all of it.

SI: Yeah, a lot of parents think their kids should specialize, and a lot of people are on the other side and say play everything. So obviously we know where you come down on that issue.

AK: Yeah, definitely play everything. But it’s really important that when you have a passion that you go as far as you can and then listen to yourself. Be honest with what you want and go from there.

SI: You’ve been on teams with different kinds of athletes. How would you describe rugby players?

AK: They’re truly multifaceted athletes. You have the fastest on the team to the biggest hitters. It’s truly an all-inclusive sport. We need every shape and size. In sevens in particular, you need the fastest and the strongest and most agile. So I feel like you get a little bit of everything. You have kicking, you have passing, you have catching. You have throwing people in the air for line-outs. It’s just really exciting. But these rugby players are rugged. They’re tough. And you won’t see anyone faking an injury or flopping on the field. It’s an all-around very tough sport.

SI: So I want to ask about your background. Are you sick of people asking you about growing up in Alaska and what that was like?

AK: No, I could never get sick of people asking me about Alaska. It’s such an amazing state. And for me, it was the ultimate playground for exploring, adventuring. When I was young, Derya and I would build tree forts in the backyard and hike mountains, and come home before it got dark. Then when it didn’t get dark, we would never come home! So my mom was like, “O.K. well we have to figure out a good time to make sure we’re balancing everything.” But yeah it was truly God’s country and the biggest playground you could imagine.

SI: I think a lot of people probably have pictures in their mind of snowbanks and ice all year. I did look at the Wikipedia page for your hometown of Eagle River—obviously I did a lot of research here—and it looks like there’s plenty of green in the photos there. So as an athlete, I’m guessing you played sports outside even when it was cold. How much of the year are you able to play sports outside up there?

AK: Well in soccer, it’s like a three- to four-month ring of summer. But we played in the breakup weather where there’s still snow and we had to shovel off our turf fields and play. But it’s just a bit different. And then when it was snowy, we played ice hockey. So it’s just a different mentality. When weather wouldn’t permit it, we’d be inside playing a different sport we loved. Or a lot of high schools or elementary schools had ice rinks outside. We would play capture the flag on skates. So it’s just a different upbringing than a Southern California high-schooler would have.

SI: Before we get to Tokyo, what was your favorite part of your experience in Rio?

AK: I think for me it was just being the first-ever female rugby team to participate in the Olympics. Forever we’ll be written in history as the inaugural [U.S.] team, and that is a blessing. To be a part of it just gives a testament to all the women who came before us and paved the way for us. And just for me to have that on my shoulders, and acknowledge that, is just something for me that when I look back is so wonderful. And also the support system that was there. I think I had 25 to 30 people from my family come to Rio and support us, and I’m gonna miss that in Tokyo but they’ll be with me in spirit. Just how the world comes together for a couple weeks is just unbelievable, and to see it and to be in it is another experience that I don’t think words can capture.

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SI: Looking ahead to Tokyo, could you just explain your position and what your main responsibilities are on the field?

AK: I started at scrum half; I’m now a center. But I can describe both. A scrum half is involved in every play. In the scrum, they’re halfway in the middle and putting the ball into play. Their position is the link—they link the playmakers to the centers to the fast wingers out wide. They are kinda the workhorse, and specifically their skill is to pass. And then the center’s role is that link between the playmakers and the speedsters. Their quality is to be agile, to be evasive, to hit the hard line, to go through people when they need to and to create space for the wingers when they need to. So they’re a little mix of your stronger players with your most agile players. They have to have speed to catch up with their wingers, but not the Naya Tappers of the world, where they’re the fastest out there on the field.

Basically they’re just creating a triple threat. They can pass, they can kick and they can run too. They’re still scoring tries, but they’re mostly kind of like your center-midfielder [in soccer] where they’re running all over the field, but they’re basically an outlet, they’re the connection between the defense and the forwards. They’re shaping the pace of the game. Your centers are pretty strong, but they’re also really good at side-stepping and footwork.

SI: So how do your positions on the rugby field compare to your positions in hockey and soccer? Does your mentality and athletic profile suit you better for similar spots?

AK: Absolutely. I played defense in ice hockey, and it was more of a protecting role for the goalie, but also I would jump up in the attack. I was more aggressive in the attack when we would have a counter-attack. A lot of that skill is gap control, is learning when to step up and hit the player or when to poke check. For rugby, it’s very similar. When you’re defending a tackle, a lot of it is early alignment and footwork, and then when to tackle. So a lot of the skills relate. Again, like I said, being a center midfielder in soccer, and seeing the pitch and being a visionary, is very conducive to playmaking in rugby. And that was very helpful, coming from soccer to rugby. And the ability to see a couple phases ahead in rugby is really advantageous. So definitely soccer helped with that.

SI: So in training, what are the specific aspects of your game that you’ve been working to get better at?

AK: For our team overall, it was our culture—building cohesion with each other and focusing on ourselves. And for me, it’s honing in on those details of my superstrengths. It’s power, it’s pace, it’s footwork. And then communicating under fatigue. Sevens is a full-size football field with 14 minutes of running, tackling, kicking, passing, everything. And when you’re tired, the communication just drops. So fighting through that fatigue and still communicating.

SI: How high are the team’s expectations for Tokyo?

AK: We have an expectation of being on the podium. And personally, I have an expectation of us gold medaling. But it’s anybody’s game any day. There’s a respect to the opponent, there’s a respect to the game. It’s gonna be the team that’s most cohesive and plays and executes their skills at the highest ability that will come out with the win. Any given day that can be the Kiwis, the Aussies, Team USA. But we’re in the mix. We’re top-four in the world right now and have beaten every team. So we know we can do it, it’s just about the preparation, and staying consistent and confident in our execution.

SI: And is there anything that you are hoping to use your platform as an Olympian to accomplish?

AK: Yeah, absolutely. I think we have a social responsibility to stand up and fight for what’s right. There’s no room for discrimination. Whether that’s trans rights, or Black Lives Matter, or women’s equity and parity, we are there to build everyone up. And if we see something and we know it’s wrong, we need to speak out and be influencers in that space and use our platforms to do good. And sports are watched all over the world, and it’s one way we can get our voices heard and get issues and problems solved quicker, if we speak out.

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