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When One Olympic Dream Died, Alev Kelter Found Another One

By Chrös McDougall | May 26, 2016, 1:08 p.m. (ET)

Alev Kelter poses for a portrait at the NBC/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot on Nov. 17, 2015 in Los Angeles.


UPDATE: Alev Kelter was selected to the 12-member 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Rugby Team, which finished fifth at the inaugural Olympic women's rugby tournament. Kelter scored four tries in Rio. She has served as team captain throughout the 2017 season.

There was a time only a half-century ago when women’s team sports in the Olympic Games were limited to volleyball.

Then there’s the modern era, when an athlete like Alev Kelter can end her two-sport collegiate career with Olympic aspirations in both only to find herself two-and-a-half years later knocking on the Olympic door in a third sport.

Kelter, a collegiate soccer and hockey standout at Wisconsin, remembers the moment rugby sevens came into her life.

It was December 2013, and Kelter had wrapped up her collegiate athletics career with no foreseeable future in either sport. No longer bound to any sports team, for the first time in, really, forever, she drove to Alyeska Resort, near her hometown of Eagle River, Alaska, and strapped on a snowboard.

“I realized I have no contracts right now, I am done with sports and I was just snowboarding,” she said. “I could break a bone and wouldn’t get in trouble. I kind of skied that slope with abandon, with nothing to lose, and I remember falling and laying there face planted, and I realized I don’t really have to get up.”

As she lay with her face in the cold snow, the heartache of falling short of her Olympic dreams began to dissipate. Getting cut from a team wasn’t going to define her, she decided.

And then Ric Suggitt called.

Having been tipped off about Kelter, a 5-foot-7 dual-sport athlete with a build like a bulldog, Suggitt, the U.S. women’s rugby sevens coach at the time, asked her to try the sport, which makes its Olympic debut in Rio.

Alev Kelter (R) runs towards a score while Luisa Basei Tisolo of Fiji (L) tries to tackle her during the match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Kennesaw, Ga.

“Two days later I was down running around in San Diego,” Kelter said, “and then a month later I was on the training team.”

Inviting her into the program was an easy decision, Suggitt said.

“That’s the key when we first saw her, was just her attitude, it was contagious,” said Suggitt, according to a story from RugbyToday.com. “She’s grown up playing sports her entire life, and all we have to do now is teach her to play rugby.”

She’s learned quickly. Kelter’s journey since joining the U.S. residency program in early 2014 has been as fast as a 14-minute rugby sevens match. Building upon the toughness and instincts learned over a lifetime in hockey and soccer, Kelter picked up the rugby skills and soon established herself as a key player for the Women’s Eagles Sevens.

Kelter, a scrum half, played on the U.S. team that secured the Rio berth by winning the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championship in North Carolina, as well as the squad the won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. So far this season she ranks second on the U.S. team with 63 points scored in 20 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series matches.

Now Kelter and her teammates wrap up their Sevens Series schedule May 28-29 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. From there, the final 12-member squad that will represent Team USA in Rio will be selected by July 17.

Kelter, whose already high energy rises as she talks about the sport, is hopeful she’ll be on that U.S. team. And though the Eagles sit seventh in the Sevens Series going into France, she’s bullish on their chances playing their “American style” in Rio.

“We’re going to be that team that is going to outwork a team that has more technical skill than us,” she said. “But tactically we’re going to know how to control chaos, play street ball, be excited and do a lot of different things. We’re going to basically redefine the game and fit our style of athletes, because that’s what we have.”

Still just 25 years old, Kelter has fully embraced her sporting renaissance. Although she’s previously represented the United States internationally — she played briefly with the U.S. U17 women’s soccer team and captained the U.S. U18 women’s hockey team to a world title in 2009 — the experience in rugby has been different.

Now not only is she able to dedicate her entire focus to one sport for the first time, she’s also found a communal culture in which she’s thrived.

“When I got there, teammates on the Olympic level welcomed me with open arms and they taught me how to tackle, taught me how to catch, full knowing that maybe I would take their position,” she said. “But they said, ‘If you get better I’m going to get better,’ and that’s the spirit of the game.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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Alev Kelter