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While many in the American rugby community and those watching from outside the borders continue to be intrigued by male crossover athletes taking up 7s, like Carlin Isles and the prospects of an Ahman Green (he’ll never suit up for the Eagles, by the way), women's head coach Ric Suggitt is stockpiling real-deal crossovers on the women’s team.
Perhaps the most famous name to flirt with rugby was Natasha Kai of US Soccer fame. That didn’t pan out, but Suggitt has succeeded in bringing in people like Jessica Javelet, who played field hockey at Louisville, and Liz Sowers, who played DI college basketball. Both Javelet and Sowers turned to American football after college. Elana Meyers-Taylor, an Olympic Silver Medalist in bobsled, is probably the most high-profile crossover to actually earn a cap, and she has that coveted blue checkmark on her Twitter profile to prove it.
One of the more intriguing crossover stories, though, is that of Alev Kelter, who represented the United States in both hockey and soccer at the age-grade level. She also played both as a Wisconsin Badger, earning Academic and Second Team All-Big Ten honors for her play on the soccer field. She was named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament team for her work on the ice.
Kelter played on the U17 National Team in soccer, going on tour to England and Germany. She won two World Championships with the U18 National Team in hockey, in Calgary and Germany, even captaining one of those efforts. And she narrowly missed out on the Sochi Olympics earlier this year.
How does a decorated athlete from Eagle River, Alaska make her way to rugby, you ask? Via another Alaskan crossover, of course. Lorrie Clifford, who earned a contract at a crossover camp hosted by Suggitt in 2013, played basketball at Western Oregon University and went to Chugiak High School with Kelter.
Clifford shot Kelter a message during her final soccer season at Wisconsin, saying she should consider playing rugby. With a soccer career to finish and an eye on making a run for the US hockey team ahead of the Sochi Games, Kelter put the suggestion on ice.
“I looked on the USA Rugby website and I saw these players, and I read their profiles and their bios,” said Kelter, “and I was like, 'This looks really exciting, I think I’m going to give this a try afterwards.' I kind of kept my excitement down, because I was still playing soccer.”
Then she finished her college soccer career and didn’t make the Olympic hockey squad, and for the first time in years was, as she puts it, “able to break a bone without getting in trouble,” when she received a phone call from Suggitt while snowboarding.
He invited her down to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. for a tryout in January, and all it took was a few days for Suggitt to offer her a residency spot.
"It’s not just the athletic part, it’s the intangibles she brings off the field – great personality, hard-working attitude, will try different things without any sort of expectation that she should be great at it right now, but she’s trying because she wants to be great at it,” said Suggitt of Kelter.
“That’s the key when we first saw her, was just her attitude, it was contagious. She’s grown up playing sports her entire life, and all we have to do now is teach her to play rugby. She can spin passes as good as the rest of them from the ground. On the move in the air, yeah she still struggles, but she’s getting there.”
As Suggitt tends to do with new players, he threw Kelter in the fire right away. With just over a month under her belt, she made the team for the Amsterdam leg of the IRB 7s World Series at halfback, usually a position reserved for someone with more developed rugby skills and experience. He did the same with Javelet, starting her at flyhalf early on.
Suggitt is trying to develop elite play makers in the midfield. So the crossovers he brings in aren’t just expected to be fast enough to run around everyone or powerful enough to run over them, they’re going to have to be decision makers and ball handlers.
“If we can find a halfback that is comparable to (Waisale Serevi and Ben Gollings), we might be able to exploit some things. That’s our trouble area, the halfback sort of area, and we’re trying to find a way to remedy that,” said Suggitt. “We do have speed on the outside, and we do have some good grinders in the front. We’re missing the Wayne Gretzkys.”
Gretzky was a center, and Kelter was a defenseman on the ice. But you get the point.
“We have Alev, and she’s a different type of player than Carlin Isles. Alev can already kick. Showed her how to drop kick, and she mastered it in a day. I lay out six spots around the field, and she just practices it, but that’s her strength. She can read the field because she’s grown up playing soccer and hockey,” said Suggitt, who relates the finer points of rugby to those of the sports Kelter knows more intimately.
“Once I talk to her in the things that she knows, the light just goes off. And that’s the fun part.”
Kelter’s struggled most of her athletic career to pick just one sport. Playing two at the same time at the major DI level is rare, but she pulled it off. Reaching the international level with two is even rarer, and she pulled that off. While it's made her a well-rounded athlete, the unwillingness to put down one and focus on the other might have cost Kelter a shot at the 2014 Winter Olympics. She won’t let it get in her way of playing in Rio in 2016.
“I’ve always been splitting my time between soccer and hockey. I knew it would catch up with me, which is why I was disappointed (in missing the Sochi Games), but at the same time there were other doors opening, and this door opened,” said Kelter.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to actually give rugby my full attention, because I don’t have school, I don’t have a job, this is it, this will be my job.’ It was the first kind of decision I’d made going with a sport full, and seeing if I could definitely make an Olympic team by focusing on one sport.”
Why commit to rugby, a sport she’d never played before, instead of doubling down on hockey, a sport she is already well versed and acclaimed in?
“If I spent four more years playing hockey, I’d like to say hopefully I’d be on that team,” said Kelter, “but I kind of made that decision based on this is going to be the first-ever women’s rugby team put together for the Olympics, and just being a part of something that’s trailblazing was an excitement and something that I wanted to pursue.”
Kelter played in two World Series stops last season, and her goal for the upcoming season is to make every leg. She’s received nothing but glowing reports from anyone who’s coached her in rugby so far, including former National Team coach Jules McCoy, who took her to Mexico with Tiger earlier this summer and raved about her ability. All signs point towards Kelter not just making the team consistently very soon, but becoming a valuable contributor. However, you won’t catch her getting complacent. As Rio gets closer, the competition at the OTC is heating up, and Kelter’s competed for an Olympic roster spot before.
"There’s people coming in and getting cut – it’s very similar to how soccer and hockey national teams do it,” said Kelter. “I think as we get closer to the Olympics, we’ll see it develop more as a professional setting, as we’re getting new gear and we’re being held accountable for what we’re eating. That’s good to see. Those are the things I see on both sides of hockey and soccer at the national level. You see the competitiveness, even the competitiveness at practice. When we’re scrimmaging each other, we’re fighting for positions, and that’s something you need to be the best.”