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Story and Photos By: Mark Janzen
For the first time since Ric Suggitt passed away, Alev Kelter and Suggitt’s wife, Jenn, embraced. It had been nearly a year.
Just steps from the Westhills Stadium pitch in Langford, B.C. and just moments after the United States opened the Canadian stop on the World Rugby Sevens Series with a convincing win over Russia, the American star from Eagle River, Alaska was in tears.
For Kelter, Suggitt, who was USA Rugby’s Sevens head coach from 2010 to 2015 and unexpectedly died of a medical complication on June 27, 2017, was more than a coach, Jenn was more than a coaches wife, and their kids were more than a coaches family.
Kelter, 27, was a babysitter for the Suggitt’s children, became friends with Jenn and with Ric…well…actually, Ric was the person who helped to turn her into one of the best rugby players in the world.
And it was Ric who was the one who left a message on Kelter’s phone on a mid-December day in 2013.
From the top of Mount Alyeska, snowboarders and skiers alike are above the clouds. As they make their way down the mountain, the Girdwood Valley comes into focus. Less than an hour’s drive from Anchorage and just over an hour from Eagle River, this is Kelter’s home hill.
That day in mid-December, she sat at the top of the mountain for an hour. It was cold. That didn’t really matter.
It was an unprecedented moment of mountainous solitude. Alev had never snowboarded without her twin sister, Derya.
“It was just me and this mountain.”
Growing up, Kelter was a multi-sport star, and seemed to excel at every sport she tried. There’s reasonable anecdotal evidence to support claims that she could have carved out careers in hockey, soccer, tennis, basketball or swimming – and Derya was right there with her.
After dominating most comers throughout their youth, the sporting duo made their way to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as rare dual-sport athletes, competing for the Badgers in both hockey and soccer.
Both on the ice and the pitch, Alev was a star with international potential. In 2009, she captained the U.S. to a gold medal at the IIHF World Women’s U18 Championships, while, in the same year, her soccer-playing prowess saw her become one of 24 players to attend a U.S. U20 national team training camp.
With her focus eventually leaning towards hockey in the latter stages of her university career, it seemed her Olympic dream was only a matter of time.
But then, all in one gut-wrenching moment, it appeared Kelter’s Olympic dreams disappeared.
In the lead-up to 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Kelter was cut. Just like that, she was done and despondent.
“I didn’t know what to do.”
She went home to Eagle River and, eventually, she just went snowboarding.
On a perfectly powdered Mount Alyeska, Kelter figured she only had one run in her anyways. It was too cold for anything more.
“I remember thinking, I’m going to snowboard down this mountain with abandon,” she says. “I’m not going to worry about anything right now. It’s just going to be me and fresh powder.”
She hit every jump she could. She landed face first plenty of times, but carried on. But after her last failed jump, she just fell back and laid in the snow.
“I didn’t want to get up.”
Derya will never let Alev forget who won the first competition.
“I won who’s older,” says Derya, who will forever have one minute of seniority. “Alev, you can be an Olympian, but let’s not forget who won the first battle.”
From the outset, the Kelter twins defined competitive.
“She became two inches taller because she sat on me for nine months,” Derya admits with a laugh. “That’s why Alev (will suggest that) it’s not about speed. It’s about positioning and being tactical.”
Whether it was rollerblading down the street, playing capture the flag, juggling a soccer ball, or skateboarding, everything was a competition.
“For me, competing is a way of life,” Alev says. “And (Derya’s) the reason why I’m so competitive. She’s the reason I’m successful today.”
So, it was no surprise that it was Derya’s voice – the one that instilled Alev’s ultra-competitive attitude – that kept coming into her mind while she sat there in the snow. “What the hell are you still doing laying on the ground? Why are you sulking? Get back up and try again.”
In that moment, she battled with the “no” that USA Hockey had said to her. She fought and eventually won.
“I’m not going to let this define me.”
Standing back up on her board, Kelter made her way down the rest of the mountain and into the lodge.
That’s when she saw a voicemail from a number she didn’t recognize. The number was Suggitt’s and the message was asking Kelter if she would try her luck with rugby.
After first determining it wasn’t a prank call set up by Derya, Alev returned Suggitt’s call. He had heard about the Kelter twins from former USA sevens national team player Lorrie Clifford, a graduate of Chugiak High School, the Kelter's alma mater.
“I’ve never touched a rugby ball in my life,” Kelter told Suggitt.
“Oh, we have plenty here,” he responded.
Two hours, several phone calls, and more than a few prayers later, Kelter decided to give rugby a shot.
“What’s the worst they can say? No? I was at that ‘worst’ already.”
Two weeks later, Kelter arrived in California in January of 2014. Five days after touching a rugby ball for the first time, Suggitt offered her a contract. Two months later, with a plan to finish her degree in order, she joined the national sevens program full-time.
She’s been part of USA Rugby ever since.
Lining up to kick what would be the game-winning convert against the host Canadians in Langford, Kelter already had two tries and two successful conversions in the bag. She had scored in the second and fifth minutes and converted Jordan Gray’s try in the first minute and her own try 60 seconds later. With the last play of the quarter-final contest on her boot, she clutched up, slotting the conversion to send the U.S. into the semifinals.
It was a moment that capped a telltale match. The hard-running Kelter was the try-scorer, the convert-kicker, and the heartbeat of the American squad.
With or without the ball, she’s the player who never stops. Finishing this past World Series with a team-leading 168 points (fourth overall) and 18 tries (seventh overall), she is the USA’s all-time leading point-scorer (seventh overall), with 483 points in just over four years.
“When the game is on the line, she wants the ball in her hands,” says women’s sevens coach Richie Walker. “She has a big engine and she brings a confidence to our team and we really follow her.”
Just over two years after taking up the sport, Kelter’s Olympic dreams were revived. With a rugby ball in her hand, she represented the U.S. in Rio, helping her country to a fifth-place finish in the first-ever rugby sevens event at the Olympics. The following year, in 2017, she joined the Eagles fifteens side for the World Cup and helped the U.S. to a fourth-place finish.
While her meteoric rise within rugby has been impressive, it’s likely fans have yet to see the best of Kelter.
The last year and half has been the most challenging of her life. Amidst her success on the field, Kelter experienced the passing away of two close friends, her grandfather and, of course, Suggitt.
Yet, as her mother, Leyla Kelter, says, “Her faith and the rugby community gave her resilience. That whole community has given her the strength and I think it actually made her even more resilient.”
Indeed Alev pressed into her sport as a way to cope with her grief.
“My sanctity was rugby,” she says. “I could step on the field and I could know the process and trust it and know my teammates had my back. It’s peaceful. It’s serene.”
It also brought up an opportunity for Kelter to rethink rugby.
“I was okay with being mediocre because I was afraid to give it my all in fears that it would hurt more if we failed.”
Now, she’s different. And, in a scary proposition for her upcoming opposition at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, she might be even better than ever.
“I’m using rugby as a way to glorify those who have passed and to understand that it’s okay to give everything and still fail. What’s the worst that can happen? You might as well give it 100 percent and show growth. There’s no use being lukewarm when you’ve been given a platform to inspire.”
And that right there is Alev.
“It’s no more complicated than the fact that Alev can push through anything and any type of adversity,” Derya says. “Through a win or a loss, she always is always the most positive player on the team.”
Before every game, Alev tapes her wrists. On the tape, she inscribes her inspiration:
Ric, Dede (Grandpa in Turkish), Erin, and Meghan.
Then, she’ll take the field, with her people, her sporting experiences, her inspirational twin, her faith, her otherworldly athleticism, and her never-ending drive to succeed as she aims to lead the U.S. to heights unseen.