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Two-sport star Alev Kelter heads to Rio Olympics

Hockey player will go for gold with U.S. women's rugby sevens team

by Cutler Klein @CutlerKlein / Staff Writer

Seven years ago, Alev Kelter captained the United States Women's hockey team to a gold medal at the 2009 IIHF U-18 World Championship, along with future hockey stars such as Amanda Kessel.

Now, Kelter is competing for gold again, but she has traded her skates for cleats and her hockey stick for a rugby ball. Kelter will be competing with the United States women's rugby sevens team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, Kelter, 25, was raised on hockey and played on the boys teams through high school. She played in the Women's U-18 World Championship for the United States twice before playing hockey and soccer at the University of Wisconsin. After finishing her seasons in those sports, Kelter got a call from then-USA Women's Sevens coach Ric Suggitt, after a recommendation from a friend in Alaska, asking if she would give rugby a shot.

The similarities between the two sports were noticeable to Kelter immediately.

"You work a lot in threes," she said. "It's really fast-paced, like hockey. It has a lot of physicality. You have to be aggressive. When I played boys hockey, you put a shoulder in someone. In rugby, it's the same.

"You have to have that same controlled-angle line going to hit someone on defense. Control is huge. If someone is faster than you, you have to respect that. That came naturally, but also in rugby, you still put a shoulder in someone, but you have to wrap them and roll."

Rugby returns to the Olympics this year for the first time since 1924 in the form of rugby sevens. It is played on the same-sized pitch as a normal rugby union game, but with seven players instead of 15, and two seven-minute halves instead of 40-minute halves.

United States coach Richie Walker, who was an assistant under Suggitt when Kelter joined the team, noted a few key skills that translated from the rink to the pitch.

"She can scan a lot of the field and that also comes from hockey, where you try and pass the puck up to your teammates," Walker said. "She does a great job of exposing weaknesses in defenses. She's got really good vision, which adds to her good running lines. She does go into contact and she's really strong. She's the kind of player that just wants to go forward every time."

Walker said when Kelter came to the Olympic Training Center to try out for the team, he knew she had serious potential in rugby, but she needed to learn many of the rules.

"It was a little tough at first, but she has a real passion for the game," he said. "She will never let anything set her back. She practices and trains really hard, and even in her own time. So, when you give her a task to do, she'll go out and do it until she gets it right. I think playing other sports let her pick up things a lot better and a lot quicker. She is really good and works really hard and will do anything she can to make sure she gets it done properly."

Kelter said her teammates have helped her adjust to the game, and have made the transition a lot easier.

"Maybe about three or four months in, I really grasped rugby," Kelter said. "I'm still learning. There are things I still have to be reminded of constantly by my teammates. They're amazing. They've taught me everything."

There could be room for more current and former hockey players to take an interest in rugby. According to Walker, the gritty and tough hockey player style fits perfectly in the rugby sevens game. The two sports share a common need for speed, the ability to evade defenders and score as much as possible.

"It showcases America's talent," she said. "We're rough, we're tough, we're fast-paced and we're producing some of the best athletes in the world. I think having a great hockey team and rugby team will showcase that to the world.

"I truly think it's America's sport, and I think the fans will find out soon enough. Hockey is pretty big, too. I love it so much. I miss it every day. At the same time, I know that there's a lot of doors opening and closing for a reason, and I'm blessed to get another shot at an Olympics."

As for selling rugby to hockey fans, Kelter has a simple message: See for yourself.

"I think it's not going to need to be sold," she said. "I think people are going to see it and they're going to want to play it. You fall in love with it. You either love it or you don't. You either like tackling and like getting tackled and like hitting people, or you don't.

"If you love hockey and you understand the game and you see the side of mutual respect with your opponent and knowing it's an all-out battle out there and then afterwards you grab a beer or coffee and you hang out, you'll see it's the same thing with rugby. The camaraderie and teamwork and all that is the same, if not even more so."

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