Alev Kelter has built an athletic legacy that few could even dream of. To call her an “all-around” athlete only scrapes the surface of her capacity, versatility, and drive. Growing up in Alaska, Alev tried her hand at all sorts of sports with her two brothers and twin sister, Daria. Early on it was clear that her natural athletic abilities would make her a stand out. By age 14 she was recruited for the Olympic Development Program in soccer, but she did not want to only pursue one sport and give up on her hockey dreams. With the encouragement of her mother she played both ODP soccer and competed on the US National Youth Hockey team. She credits her equally gifted twin sister for pushing her to be a better athlete and individual. Daria also competed at the national level in both sports and each of them were heavily recruited by Division 1 universities. When it came to committing to a school they didn’t want one anothers decisions to hold too much weight, so their father had them write a “Top 3” list of colleges on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope. When they opened them simultaneously, it appeared that the University of Wisconsin was the first choice for both of them.
Alev and Daria were recruited to play both soccer and hockey for the University of Wisconsin – something nearly unheard of at such a high level. The hockey team was coached by Mark Johnson, a former NHL player and Olympic gold medalist for Team USA’s “Miracle Team.” The university had a strong history of recruiting players who played at the professional level after graduation and Alev was excited to train with women of such caliber. She was always a student first, and an athlete second, and so was grateful that coaches and professors were flexible to accommodate her rigorous training and practice schedules. Following in the footsteps of her family, she started college as a pre-med student, but it only took one GenEd course in sculpture to sway her to becoming an art major; a fact that she took until her senior year to break to her parents. She discovered passion and freedom in her art classes, but unlike typical courses with portable books and papers, her studies were confined to studio time, which only compounded the complexity of her schedule. But, true to her character, Alev showed incredible commitment and work ethic in managing her studies and sports throughout her college career.
For some, playing even one Division 1 sport would be enough of an achievement, but Alev set her sights higher; she not only dreamed of competing in one Olympics, but aspired to play in back to back summer and winter games. The 2014 games in Sochi were on the horizon and Alev had been on – and even captained – the two previous U18 World Championship women’s hockey teams. Despite her obvious leadership and skills, she was not called up for the December Olympic training camp. “I was devastated,” says Alev, “I felt like I let down my family and friends, like all of the work wasn’t even worth it.” She returned to the classroom distracted, deflated, and depressed, something her art professors picked up on immediately. They encouraged her to take some time, give herself space, and pursue the support that she needed to gain perspective on the situation. As her fourth year of college came to a close, Alev headed back to Alaska to be with her family, the mountains, and for solitude.
Soon after arriving she picked up her snowboard and made a solo trek to one of her favorite nearby mountains. Without her sister, family members, or any other voices in her head, she stood on the peak, surrounded by fresh powder, and thought to herself, I’m just going to tackle the mountain with abandon. Regardless of if she crashed or fell or nailed it, she felt deeply that she had something to prove to herself. About halfway down she attempted a backflip and landed flat on her back. She stayed there in the snow and sun, all alone with her disappointments and grief. “As I laid there, a really strange memory came to mind,” she recalls. Her sister used to always rub it in that she was born first and Alev came second, a common jest among competitive twins, but in that moment it dawned on her how often she always felt “second.” She was constantly striving to get ahead, to define her position, to prove she belonged. “I had to tell myself, ‘You are no less of a person because you came second. You are no less of a person because of what just happened [with hockey],’” she says. She peeled herself up from the snow, set herself on the board again, and continued down the mountain with a new determination to not let this one “no” define her.
Some may just call it providential, but for Alev it was a clear act of God that when she got to the bottom of the hill that day and walked into the lodge, there was a voicemail on her phone from the coach of the USA Women’s Rugby team inviting her to join their training camp in San Diego. “I was convinced it was a prank by my sister,” says Alev. The coach, a fellow former hockey player, was recruiting talented athletes to play for the team and didn’t seem phased by her lack of experience. “I told him that I had never touched a rugby ball in my life and he said, ‘It’s ok! We have lots of balls here,’” she jokes. With nothing to lose, she decided to give it a try. Her only hesitation was how she would be received by the other players who already knew the sport and had been competing international. Fortunately, her arrival was nothing like she had feared. “They welcomed me with the biggest open arms you could imagine,” remembers Alev. Even though they could be potentially taking one anothers’ spot on the team, each woman truly wanted what was best for the program. “It wasn’t the coaching staff that taught me, it was the other women,” she says. They taught her to pass and tackle, how to avoid injury, and the intricate rules and strategies of the game. There she experienced friendship, patience, and honesty, which together fueled an amazing vulnerability and unity among the team. Virtually all of the athletes had crossed over from other sports and each experienced the learning curve of transitioning to rugby. After a few short months, Alev was competing with the team and two years later she paused in the middle of a speaking engagement to open an email with the headline “Congratulations!” and was able to finally call herself an Olympian.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil were not only monumental for Alev, but for the sport of rugby. It was the first year since 1924 that men and women’s rugby was featured in the Olympics, which made that event a historic one. Not only was she representing the USA, but she was introducing her nation to the sport. The team took fifth at the games, but were the only ones to tie the gold medal winning team and Alev was the first American woman to score a try at the Olympics.
She sustained a neck injury during the 2017 season that sidelined her for over a year, but she was confident in the value of supporting her teammates from the bench. Rugby is an intense contact sport and, in light of that, she has learned to be grateful for being relatively injury free for several years. The up and coming women on the team are phenomenal athletes and she looks forward to teaching, coaching, and encouraging them, just like her more seasoned teammates did for her. This year involves an international six-stop series before gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where Alev hopes to make an appearance. Even though her journey to the Olympics looked nothing like what she expected, she is grateful for every twist and turn, victory and disappointment that brought her to rugby, to her teammates, and to a confidence in her identity. She no longer feels pressure to define herself by what sport she plays or what dream she achieves, but by the inherent value she has as a unique individual.