Olympics: Phone call leads former UW women’s hockey, soccer player Alev Kelter to rugby pitch
Alev Kelter had just finished a snowboarding run when her phone rang.
The call came on a December day in 2013, and it resulted in Kelter preparing to represent Team USA women’s rugby at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
On the other end of the phone was Ric Suggitt, the coach of USA Women 7s at the time, who asked if Kelter would be interested in trying her hand at rugby. Kelter, who played both hockey and soccer at the University of Wisconsin, had never played rugby before.
But Suggitt was always looking for crossover athletes, according to Kelter, and he flew her to the team’s training center in Chula Vista, California.
By March 2014, Kelter (first name pronounced uh-LEV) was full time.
“I gave it a shot and ended up loving it,” she said. “I was always curious and never tried it because I heard it was a dangerous sport. But I found out it wasn’t dangerous at all.”
Until that point, the closest Kelter, 25, had come to playing rugby was participating in flag football in high school. She said her friend played in college, as well as her dad, Scott, who played at the Air Force Academy during his college days.
The day Suggitt’s call popped up on her phone, Kelter was in her native Eagle River, Alaska. She had recently been cut from the 2014 U.S. women’s hockey Olympic team that would go on to win silver in Sochi.
“I know doors open and close for a reason,” Kelter said. “ ‘No’ wasn’t going to define me.”
So Kelter said yes, and when one Olympic dream died, the next was born.
Kelter and USA Rugby begin their Olympic run on Saturday, with medal matches occurring on Monday.
Kelter knew she had a chance to stick with the team during her first match, a scrimmage against Canada. Within a week, she said, she picked up the game with relative ease, learning she can take tackles just as easily she dishes them out.
Another key for Kelter during that tryout period was limiting her expectations.
“No pressure on my back led to a great time,” she said. “Being a student of the game and wanting to learn more just really led to a fun atmosphere.”
The transition has proved successful. The 5-foot-7 scrum half led the U.S. team in scoring during the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series this season with 79 points and helped the U.S. to a North American Caribbean Rugby Association title and a silver medal at the Pan American Games in 2015.
Kelter credits her experience in hockey and soccer as providing a strong foundation for her rugby career. Aside from the physicality of both sports, she’s used tactical points from each sport and implemented them into her style of play in rugby.
Kelter can kick the ball in rugby with finesse because of the different kinds of kicks she learned in soccer, she said. From hockey, she carries over her knowledge of gap-control to ensure ball carriers don’t slip by her.
“Having played both, it’s just made me one of the best rugby players in the world,” Kelter said. “I definitely wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t played both sports at a high level.”
UW women’s soccer coach Paula Wilkins, who recruited Kelter jointly with women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson, remembers her as one of the most physical players she’s ever coached.
While Wilkins is somewhat surprised she’s playing rugby, she can see her excelling, and said it’s remarkable how quickly she picked up the sport.
“I think her physical ability, which is one of the best I’ve seen, was definitely there,” Wilkins said. “I think she tackled some people playing soccer.”
On the soccer pitch for UW, Kelter was named to the All-Big Ten Conference second team her freshman and sophomore seasons. She finished with 12 goals and 12 assists.
On the ice, she recorded a season-high nine assists in 2011-12, her junior season, and scored 15 of her 17 career goals her senior season. Kelter finished with 28 points and had to miss a considerable amount of time each season to fulfill her duties on the soccer team.
As a scrum half in sevens rugby — traditional rugby is played with 15 players on the field — it’s Kelter’s job to distribute the ball after a teammate of hers gets tackled. But since the sevens game is much more fast-paced than a normal game, she said she has to be ready to play all positions at any moment of the game.
“They have to be on all the time,” Kelter said of scrum halfs. “It’s similar to a quarterback or center-midfielder.”
In this day and age when youth sports has taken off and specialization in one sport is common among young athletes, Kelter is a perfect example of why that’s probably not the best idea. As someone who had been advised she could never be a two-sport athlete in college, her advice is to try everything.
“Everything you’re passionate about, try it,” Kelter said.
It wasn’t too long ago Kelter tried rugby for the first time.