Imagine winning your first cap for your country at 15s having never played the game before. That was the reality for USA star Alev Kelter, one of several crossover athletes in the Women’s Eagles squad at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, when she lined up at outside centre against France in Beziers just nine months ago.
A gold medallist in age-grade ice hockey and a top-level footballer in her youth, Alaskan Kelter always dreamed of making it big as a professional in either of those two sports. Never did she imagine that rugby, which she only took up at the age of 22, would be the vehicle to get her to the very top.
“It’s kind of a crazy story, my rugby career,” she told World Rugby. “It has been a whirlwind, controlled chaos. I’m surprised at every corner because new things come about and I am learning so much. I am just like sponge ready to take it all in. I can’t believe the things I have been able to be a part of, it is such a blessing that rugby found me.”
While left heartbroken and “in a fog” after just falling to make the cut for the USA ice hockey team for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, rugby offered another route to realising her lifelong goal of competing at the Games.
“I’d watched the Olympics on television ever since I was four years old, and that’s where I’d always wanted to be. So, making it to the Olympics was a dream come true.
“If you’d have told me, ‘Alev, you’re going to go to the Olympics only three years after first touching a rugby ball,’ I’d have said you’re a lunatic.
“To be a trailblazer and a pioneer for the sport of rugby in general, not just the women’s game, was unbelievable.”
A call out of the blue set Kelter off on her remarkable rugby journey.
“I first started playing rugby when Lorrie Clifford (former US Women’s Eagles sevens player and fellow Alaskan) gave my number to Ric Suggitt, who was the head coach at the time and he phoned me to ask if I’d come out to a training camp in January of 2014. I called him back and told him I had no experience of playing rugby and his response was, ‘we’ve got plenty of balls here, see you in two weeks.’"
CATCHING THE RUGBY BUG
"It’s kind of a crazy story, my rugby career. It has been a whirlwind, controlled chaos."
As a former hockey player himself, Suggitt, who sadly passed away last month, saw qualities in Kelter that he knew would make her a top-class rugby player.
“I looked up the girls on YouTube to try and figure out their height and weight to see what position I might play as well as watching a ton of rugby. I was watching Jillian Potter smash people and Vic Folayan skin people on the wing, they were two people who I looked up to before I attended the camp," Kelter said.
“When I turned up, everyone welcomed with open arms – more so than you could ever imagine. They taught me how to tackle, how to pass … it was the most selfless thing ever. To teach somebody that might take your position is unheard of in other national teams I’ve been involved with.
“The love and passion they wanted to share with me was something very contagious and I wanted to be a part of that.
“I was kind of sick with nerves at first but, deep down, I had this gut feeling (it would be okay). Putting your shoulder into someone in hockey is very similar to wrapping and rolling in the tackle. Taking risks and putting myself out there is something I’ve always been known for and I wasn’t afraid to try something different one more time.
“I ran around for five days and ended up in a scrimmage in Canada and scored a few tries. The girls were amazing to be around. They were from all walks of life and were every shape and size which was awesome.
“After those five days, Ric said he wanted to contract me. And, a couple of months later, I was down at the training centre again, this time as a full-time player.
“It didn’t really kick in that I was a professional until I went on tour and got my first (sevens) cap," Kelter added. "Seeing Lorrie, another crossover player and fellow Alaskan, doing that had inspired me and, in China (Guangzhou), I got to experience what my idol had done, and pull on the jersey.
“It suddenly hit home that I was playing rugby for a living. Nobody at that point could take that away from me.”
Kelter has been a key figure in the US Eagles Women’s sevens team ever since, playing well over 100 matches on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. In June, after captaining the side in five tournaments this year, she was named in the 2016-17 Series Dream Team.
BACK TO FRONT
In four international appearances in 15s, Kelter has yet to taste victory, losing twice to both France and Canada, but the 26-year-old is enjoying the challenge of adapting to the longer format of the game.
“I’ve a bit of a confession to make – my first cap happened to be my first-ever game of 15s as well," she said.
“Everything in my rugby career has kind of gone backwards; I came to the game late and started with sevens as opposed to 15s which is what most people start with and then specialise afterwards.
“I was kind of proficient in sevens and they said, ‘we think you’ll be an awesome back, do you fancy trying 15s?’ I said, ‘absolutely, the more rugby I can play the better I can become.' I love it that there are two different games.
“I still feel a little bit insecure (in 15s) as I don’t know all the strategies and game-plans, but I am just as excited as I am nervous about playing in the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Fifteens is like a game of chess, it is another challenge.
“As I said earlier, life is about taking risks and making yourself vulnerable. It’s been a hell of a ride for me.”
Look out for WRWC 2017 pool previews on rwcwomens.com later this week.