Alev Kelter poses for a photo at the Olympic Training Center on Jul. 21, 2016 in Chula Vista, Calif.
U.S. rugby star Alev Kelter thought she had 2020 carefully planned in January. Coming off the women’s sevens team’s best season ever, she wanted to be at her best and help the squad go into the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 primed to win their first medal.
Everything she did, or thought about, was aimed for an improved performance as a scrum back. In Kelter’s first Olympic Games — and indeed the sport’s Olympic debut for women — Team USA finished fifth four years ago in Rio. After an overall second-place finish in the 2019 World Rugby Sevens Series, Team USA was primed to be bona fide medal contenders in 2020.
Her tight focus and determination took a hit in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally: No Olympic Games in 2020. The World Rugby Sevens Series season suspended after five tournaments. Training stopped. And no more in-person time with her teammates because of self-distancing and stay at home orders.
“We really went from being at the pinnacle … and playing well a few months away from the Olympics this summer … to everything being gone,” said Kelter, a native of Alaska who now lives in San Diego.
Being so close to the Games, and then knowing the grueling cycle of training and competition will continue into 2021, is a challenge for any elite athlete. Kelter needed to reset her mind and then focus on gratitude for still having the Olympic opportunity ahead of her.
“It was devastating, to say the least, for a lot of folks,” said Kelter, 29, who is Team USA’s all-time leader across several statistics in World Rugby Sevens Series play. “But we are blessed that this is our job. We really have to love what we do in order to do it. When it goes away, like it has right now, you start questioning what is your true purpose? Why do you really play? What keeps you going?
“It’s a come-to-Jesus moment. I am no less human because the Olympics did not happen. I am still an amazing person. I picked myself up, told my teammates, ‘Let’s go,’ and, ‘We can do it.’ We have refocused, and we are going forward.”
Kelter said she has not only maintained her fitness during the pandemic pause but has gotten into the best shape of her life. And that is a significant statement, considering she was a varsity athlete in ice hockey and soccer at the University of Wisconsin. She did not approach this down time as offseason mode; rather, she worked harder because she had fewer distractions.
She also has had a good workout partner, as her twin, Derya, moved from Los Angeles to San Diego to spend the quarantine together. Derya works in medical sales, so she works remotely from Kelter’s cottage-style house.
There are also plenty of fresh eggs, thanks to Kelter’s coop of four chickens in the courtyard.
The USA Rugby staff dropped off workout equipment to each of the players when the shutdown started. Kelter has made the most of the equipment, plus taking to the streets and grassy areas to run, inline skate and work on rugby technique. The team has remained close and connected by workouts over video chat, and the coaches are sending strategy videos and funny content to keep morale high.
But no matter how much she prepares, Kelter admits the obvious: rugby is a gritty, physical team sport that has strong players in very close contact. She needs to be back with her teammates to really practice.
She hopes for the Sevens World Series to resume in the fall — the U.S. is ranked fifth with three tournaments remaining — but knows rugby will need strict safety protocols to protect the players.
“There is no way around rugby being a contact sport — we’re not social distancing here,” Kelter said, with a laugh. “We’re touching the same ball, we are touching each other, we’re hot and sweaty, so it’s good to know people are thinking a lot about how to protect us.”
Kelter said frequent testing for the COVID-19 virus and antibodies likely will be the norm. She was recently tested for COVID-19, finding out that she was negative.
She has faith that rugby can be made as safe as possible and the Eagles can resume all activities. Kelter is looking forward to the camaraderie of being on the pitch, and having that emotional connection renewed.
“The things you miss, which you can’t do on Zoom, are the high fives, the handshakes, the hugs,” Kelter said. “It’s being part of the team. I want that back.”
In the meantime, the Eagles are trying to remain connected with the community. The players are writing to thank nurses for taking care of COVID-19 patients. They’ve also done live workouts on Facebook, for a $5 suggested donation to COVID-19 charities.
In addition, Kelter has joined fellow Olympian and cross-country skiing gold medalist Kikkan Randall in the 100 Miles in May Challenge.
The goal of the fundraiser is to help Healthy Futures, a charitable offshoot of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Healthy Futures promotes and supports physical fitness programs for more than 20,000 kids in the state. Participants in the challenge pledge an amount, and then can walk, run or move in any way, to get to 100 miles.
“I’m so happy to be part of this, because it does so much good,” Kelter said. “It’s part of the values we live on this team. We give back, we want to part of supporting those in the community who are helping others. So I’m there.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.