A voicemail drew former hockey and soccer standout Alev Kelter to the Rugby World Cup Sevens
It was 2013 and Alev Kelter, then 23, stood on top of a mountain near her house in Eagle River, Alaska, clutching her snowboard with both hands. Her mind was elsewhere. She was replaying the just-concluded Olympic ice hockey team tryouts over and over in her head. She had been so close. But she'd failed to make the final cut for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Alev had a plan -- she was going to make the Winter Olympics, and then turn around and make the soccer team for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. But it hadn't worked out that way, and here she was, trying to feel something -- anything -- after watching her dream fade away.
As she stood there, Alev took stock of her athletic career. She was finished competing with the Wisconsin Badgers soccer and hockey teams. For the first time in several years, she could break a bone, and nobody would care.
She decided to try every jump and flip, navigating the snowy mountain with abandonment.
Alev tried a backflip, it was a fresh powder day on the course, and she knew the ice would cushion the blow if she fell. She landed face first on the snow. She lay there for several minutes feeling the snow on her face, feeling numb and cold all at once.
As she lay there, she thought: "Am I a loser because I didn't make the Olympic team? I gave it my all, and now I have to pick myself up."
Then Alev rose, dusting the snow off herself, and headed to a nearby lodge. She checked her phone. There was a missed call and a voicemail from an unknown number. She played the voicemail back to herself: "Hey Alev, I got your number from your high school's flag football team. How would you like to come play rugby for Team USA? Give me a call."
It was Ric Suggitt, the late head coach of the USA Women's Sevens Olympic team, who casually rattled off a message that would reset her athletic career.
Alev was full of unbridled excitement as she dialed her mother's number, asking: "Would you be OK with me playing rugby?"
"Rugby? Sure, why not," Leyla replied.
Two years later, Alev made her Olympics debut for Team USA in the inaugural edition of rugby sevens in Rio, a variant of the sport where seven players play seven-minute halves instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves.
Growing up, Alev was the definition of a crossover athlete. She played basketball, ice hockey, soccer, baseball, volleyball and swam. In high school, she decided to pursue ice hockey and soccer more seriously. She figured if she dedicated more time to just two sports, she'd eventually make both Olympic teams.
It was organized chaos trying to get Alev and her twin sister, Derya, from one sport to another. Their father, Scott, a fighter pilot, decided a detailed spreadsheet was the only way to keep them in check. They'd get their allowance if they stuck to the spreadsheet.
The Kelters hated losing more than they loved winning. The twins' parents put them in sports camps just so the kids would stay together and safe. Throughout their childhood, it was all about outperforming each other, both on and off the field. Derya recently found their pre-school teacher's notes. The playground report read:
"Derya stole a crayon from Alev. Alev bashed Derya's head on the chair. Ice was applied. Resumed play. Alev tripped Derya. Derya got up, pushed Alev. Both hugged. Resumed play. "
They were also each other's confidantes and held each other accountable -- when they needed to do an extra pushup during a workout session or hold off on that extra french fry.
At 14, Alev tried out for the Olympic development program in soccer and made the national camp. "OK, I guess now I should stop hockey," she told herself. But when she went home, her mom looked at her and said, "No way. You can't quit now. We've spent so much money on hockey [equipment]." Alev went on to make the national Under-14 hockey team as well.
Alev was so good at both sports that something unique happened: she received division one scholarship offers from the University of Wisconsin for both ice hockey and soccer. She decided it wasn't time to give up on either sport yet. Derya received a full scholarship to play soccer at Wisconsin, too. The twins would still be by each other's side.
Alev thrived at Wisconsin. She initially enrolled as a pre-med student. It seemed like a safe bet, but it felt off. She eventually went on to pursue a major in fine arts and sculpture. Alev wanted to be an artist like her grandmother, who created beautiful paintings. Art made sense to her. Art and sport are similar in her mind.
"Sport is performance art, you can create, you can work off of space. Each game is a canvas on which you draw, create and collaborate with [teammates], so you have to spend hours perfecting the art, just like you would with drawing and sculpting," Alev said.
Playing two college sports meant not having an offseason. She'd play soccer during spring, train to get in shape for hockey for two weeks in the postseason, then it was time to hit the ice. "Alev had an innate athleticism that made her compete at a level above everybody else," Derya said.
When Alev fell just short of her Olympic dreams in ice hockey, she couldn't help but think that maybe she should have specialized in one sport early on.
"I could have chosen one sport then and began to specialize and maybe then I'd have made the Olympic hockey team, but I would have lost a little bit of myself in the process. I still loved soccer," Alev said.
Her experience playing two demanding collegiate sports would eventually make her the ideal candidate for Team USA at the Olympics -- just in a different sport than anybody expected.
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It was a few months before the 2016 Summer Olympics, and Alev was speaking at a high school in L.A. The topic was women in sports, and she was taking questions. Her eyes were darting over to a wall clock every few minutes. At 8 p.m. she'd know if she'd be playing rugby in Rio.
"I am going to let you in on a secret. The Olympic team is going to be announced tonight, so I might take a break between the session to check my email if that's OK," she said to the crowd.
At 8 p.m., she refreshed her email once. Nothing. Twice, a message popped up. "Congratulations," it said. She dropped the phone, tears pouring down her face. Apologizing profusely, she hugged everybody around her, laughing and crying at the same time.
She still remembered clearly the first time she stepped on to a rugby field, two years before she read that email. Athletes who've been training for years were running down the field, ball in hand, practicing their tackles and passes. She didn't know the first thing about the sport. "I don't even know how to hold a rugby ball," Alev said to coach Suggitt. He responded, "Cool, we have got a ton of balls here, you can only get better from here on out."
That was when she fell in love with the sport. Her teammates were willing to spend extra hours practicing with her. The coaches and staff did everything they could to teach her the sport. It was all about inclusion. She saw women of all shapes and sizes. Alev felt like she belonged.
When she played her first tournament in 2014, she was still learning the sport and didn't know the retreating rules during penalty (not retreating 10 meters at a penalty results in another penalty). She creamed it and was given a yellow card. It was a humbling experience, but it only made her want to get better. She stayed back after practice for several hours perfecting her passes. The ball tracking and the defense were similar to that of soccer, the tackling similar to hockey. She could see herself improve within months.
Today, at 27 years old, she is one of the leaders of the U.S. squad, helping the team get to No. 5 in the overall standings in this year's World Cup Sevens series. The U.S. won bronze in the Canada Sevens tournament, giving it a good chance to medal again in the World Cup event in San Francisco July 20-22.
Soccer exploded after the women won the World Cup at home in 1999," said Emilie Bydwell, USA Women's Rugby high-performance director. "We are hoping the Los Angeles medal will do that for women's rugby in the U.S."
Alev's dream of playing for the United States at the Olympics has already come true. Team USA took fifth place. But she has a new goal -- to medal on an Olympic stage. And for rugby to get the recognition, it deserves in the country.
Recently, she took U.S. Women's squad to Anchorage, and they became the first national team to play at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds, which overlooks the peaks of the Chugach State Park and the Gulf of Alaska.
"Playing with my team in Alaska was one of the best experiences for me and I can't wait for the country to see that rugby is a beautiful sport and embrace it," Alev said.