USA Rugby Olympian Alev Kelter

How did you start playing rugby and how did you get introduced to all of this?

I started playing rugby after college. In my last semester, I was playing ice hockey and soccer at the University of Wisconsin and I basically was in the driver’s seat to see if I could play professional soccer or professional ice hockey. I got a phone call that said “Hey this is Ric Suggitt from USA Rugby we’d love for you to try rugby out, come down to San Diego and run around for a couple of days and see if you like it.”

At first, I was like there is no way, I never played rugby, how are they contacting me, what’s up this must be a mistake, this must be another person. But then I thought my name is kind of unique, maybe it’s not another person. So long story short I ran down to San Diego for 5 days and a month later I was contracted, and then two years later I made the Olympic team. Kind of crazy.

It also showed the testament of the woman I was around. I’ve been in high-pressure and competitive environments my whole life and the atmosphere that I showed up to was a full embodiment of amazing people on the field and even more amazing characteristics and human qualities off the field. They were so selfless, all the girls welcomed me with the biggest open arms you can imagine and they just said “Hey what can I do to help you? It’s awesome that you want to try rugby.” This really showed me the values of the game and the values of the sport of rugby. The coach who invited me, he saw the overall picture. He told me I would be a good rugby player once I learn but the girls and my teammates were the ones who taught me everything I know.

So with only two years of experience to go to play in the Olympics just shows the testament of their selflessness and their ability to lead and to teach and to share their passion with other people. That quality alone was enough for me to say “I want to be around these people!”

Would you say that was the major difference compared to the sports you played before, having this family?

Yeah, it’s this family, this camaraderie, I can go anywhere in the world and if you are a rugby player I know I will be treated well and be taken care of and even though we don’t know each other it just brings people together.

Integrity and respect are written in the laws of the game. How you treat the ref, how you treat each other, on and off the pitch. It’s an all-out battle on-the-field but then after the game, we’re best friends.

I played boys hockey growing up because there wasn’t a Women’s League. I remember when we played with the boys my mom would say “There’s no women’s team so she’s going to play in the team that’s available and if she’s good enough you will take her.” I know she really advocated for us to play on the teams to have people look at us as equals.  

When we played, I ended up making the varsity team and I was the only girl to place varsity. I needed a locker room because they wouldn’t let us get dressed with the boys, so they gave me the janitor’s closet. They cleaned out the janitor’s closet and I was just thinking “okay this is weird.”

But I found out shortly after that they were doing awards and little ceremonies after the game and I thought “well I am never going to receive the “hard head” award or never going to receive the “biggest hit” award or any of these things that the team is built on because I’m not even present.”

I know some of them would’ve voted for me a couple of times, they were my best guy friends that I played with, they were almost like my brothers but it was taboo. It was as if “she’s not a part of those because she’s not in the locker room.” So my mom said, “Okay, how are we going to get you in the locker room?” If you think of locker rooms too, that’s where you build camaraderie, that’s where you build chemistry and I know that even before games we have pre-game songs and pre-game stories or pump up things that we do, so it was really important to be in there.

My mom again backed my back and told them “Hey, how can we be all-inclusive, how can we be equal?” And they were just responding with “Okay, you’re suggesting she undresses and dresses in front of these men?” Of course, that wasn’t the case, but at a certain point, we’re comfortable. Go get your jock on and then come in and the guys will have their jocks on and we will all be equal. It turned my game around like that just by being included, we played more like a team with more confidence that we had each other’s back. We knew each other more and it was awesome.

There is always compromise and there are always people with hard heads but I think you have to come at it as my mom did. She was very deliberate in what she wanted and then also I hadn’t really come into myself yet as a strong woman. She just paved that way for me.

But there were a lot of people that were against it. They were thinking I was taking a spot for their son on the team or saying “How could she ever be in the locker room that’s sacrilegious and scandalous.” There are always gonna be those people.

With rugby, you also get a lot of people saying “Oh I didn’t know women played rugby.” Okay cool, let me enlighten you, let me talk about it, this is what it is. “Oh do you guys actually hit each other?” Yeah, it’s all equal. It’s the same size ball, same size pitch and we need every shape and size in rugby.

I thought that this is really cool because I played girls hockey in college and you couldn’t check. Why can’t you check? Guys can check each other. It was hard for me not to check because I grew up playing boys hockey. So I was checking everyone. But yeah, you will always have those people that are not educated or naive to the fact that women play sports.

I always say that it was the perfect transition from checking in boys hockey to rugby because in rugby you use their momentum to get them down, whereas in hockey you just put a shoulder and then you watch them fly.

How is it on the professional level? Do you experience any inequalities as a professional athlete?

It’s not in your face as much as that people would come to you and say “You don’t belong here.” It’s little things like, I’m gonna have an all men’s booster club that only supports the men and we’re not gonna support the women and when asked we’re just gonna say “Oh we’ve been supporting the men and we’ve done our duty.” It’s not very outwardly sexist to your face but then you find out the men got x, y, z, and the women got nothing.

For our Olympic qualification tournament, last Olympics the men received 11.000 $ per player for qualifying, and the women got nothing. I think it was an Olive Garden dinner after that qualification round for us.

They didn’t speak about it but then one night we were drinking and some of the guys were singing this song which was about “give me my money” and we were like “what money?” and that’s how we found out. That started our conversation about bonus structure that if they win tournaments or we win tournaments we need to be equal.

Part of it on the professional level is also that a lot of sponsors don’t know rugby in general in America, let alone women’s rugby. But that’s no excuse to not try and to change that pathway.

There are a lot of little stories and it’s hard to chat about it because you don’t want to come off as you’re complaining. You just want that equality, you deserve to share these stories and let people know. Half of the time people don’t even know that it’s happening and you’re just doing your due diligence by sharing and using your platform. I always think providing a solution to that makes that commentary so much more fruitful. This is happening, this is how I felt and this is a solution to it.

You also hear stuff like “You will never be in a big stadium because you’ll never sell out.” Well, actually if you break that glass ceiling and raise it, we’ll meet it. It might not be the first year, but in the second or third year, you better believe we’ll sell out stadiums.

It’s about providing us with equal opportunity and then we can say let’s look at the stats and see where we are at. I just think half the time we are stunted because people don’t believe it’s possible. That to me is a very naive way of thinking.

What are your thoughts about women’s rugby in the world right now. Do you think it’s growing and expanding?

Oh, 100%. I think even after the Olympics it was already one of the fastest-growing sports in America. We’re trying to get rugby in the NCAA so we have another avenue for women to get scholarships and their education paid for, it’s extremely important.

I think it’s all around the world, it’s definitely growing not just as a women’s sport. I think it’s such an amazing game to play and again that family mentality of it, of everyone having each other’s backs. That camaraderie is so important that once people try, it is addicting.

What are your thoughts on World Rugby removing gender designations from the 2021 Rugby World Cup?

I love that! People were saying that they would be confused but it’s not confusing at all, they rotate every 2 years. It’s never the same year the men and women are playing. If you are any bit involved in rugby you know which one is which. I think leaving that title out just shows how inclusive this sport is: Rugby is a family.

Were you excited about the Olympics and how did you feel when they got postponed?

Yeah, I was so excited. Think about the most pinnacle moment of my sports career coming into focus. 4 years is a long time to think about one big weekend. As it started coming into the horizon and sight, it’s hard not to think about that and get excited.

It’s really good just to live day by day and week by week. I like to say training block by training block because 4 weeks is a training block for us here, so it’s a good focus to have. But as the Olympics start coming into the conversation it’s hard not to be extremely excited about it. It’s a lifelong dream, it happened to me once before and it’s been a blessing and I would love to get another shot at it again.

Realistically it was a bit devastating on all fronts of emotional capacity. But we trained so hard on learning how to adapt and be flexible, to focus on our purpose and not just performance, so the transition mentally wasn’t too far behind. We asked ourselves how can we stay positive and flip this around, help our communities, and try new things we never tried before.

What are you doing right now in terms of training since the Olympics got postponed?

When it got postponed it was pretty serious. We went from training full time to being on our own. We got some gym equipment delivered to our houses, so we’re still training but right now we’re taking 5 months off. Normally you would’ve had the Olympics and then have your 5 months off and then you would come back for the next season. We are taking that break now.

We are still training but it’s been pretty lax and individually motivated. But when you come back you are asked to perform at a certain level and if you just chilled the whole time you might not be at the same level as someone who was taking these 5 months a bit more seriously. But I enjoy working out, it’s therapeutic for me.

You’re an inspiration for a lot of younger girls out there. Who do you look up to?

I have a couple of really strong women in my life, I look up to them. Mostly because they’ve been unapologetically themselves. I admire that about them and that they are not afraid to say no, stand up and speak their minds.  My grandma is probably the biggest influence. She lives on a farm in Ohio, she came from Turkey. She studied in London, she was playing tennis and modeling at the same time. She was a badass, which was at that time, in that era unheard of for women of that caliber. For me to have that influence in my life has been tremendous. I think those qualities shared with my mom. “The world is your oyster and there is nothing you can’t do.” Let’s take risks and try and succeed and if you fail it’s just another form of success. I had the best support from those two women.

And of course my twin sister, I can’t emphasize enough, I wouldn’t be the athlete or person I am now without having someone that’s a healthy competition growing up. We always pushed each other and even to the limits of getting on each other’s nerves. We pushed each other to be better and to also have those challenging conversations about life, about what sports mean to us, and how can we be successful in life and business. She has been a massive asset, right next to me.

Do you have any advice for girls who want to get started playing rugby?

I do! I think there are a lot of amazing qualities about rugby if you are interested in playing or just the thought of it, try it. Pick up a rugby ball and just try it. The qualities that it brings out... it’s just empowering. Especially for young girls; to be strong and also be female and that this is totally okay and doable.

You can hit just as hard as the boys and if not harder. Run just as fast and throw that ball just as far and don’t be afraid of those criticisms that come, those are always gonna be there. You just surround yourself with the best teammates and you guys can tackle it together. Don’t be afraid to take risks and don’t worry about your safety, everyone is going to teach you how to tackle properly and enjoy it!