Alev Kelter is such a bundle of positivity and warmth that it’s arresting when the multi-talented athlete reflects on where she found herself a decade ago, "devastated" at missing out on a trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi with Team USA’s ice hockey squad.

“I’d become all about my stats,” she said. “My focus was on who was contributing the most metrics – rather than enjoyment or becoming the best version of myself.

"In the end, they chose the people who were the best team-mates, while I’d been worried about pluses and minuses. I made a mistake, and I missed out.”

Fast-forward to the present day: the 33-year-old couldn’t be more in tune with the importance of performance intangibles. 

Emilie Bydwell’s side have reached four of six semi-finals in the HSBC SVNS 2024 series, and sit fourth with 82 points as they ready themselves for the bain-marie that is Singapore’s National Stadium. 

But numbers aren’t on Kelter’s radar right now.

“What matters is that we’re laying the foundation for an amazing Olympic campaign. We had no expectation for this stage of the season, placement-wise: it’s all about our own values coming through in our play.”

Rugby redefined

Courage, resilience, love, selflessness, and work ethic. Those, combined with the raw athleticism and strength of personality among the Women's Sevens Eagles, are a potent – and compelling – cocktail.

“Isn’t that the American way?” Kelter said. “Every walk of life comes together here – and every shape and size – which is something we didn’t want to lose in our rugby. 

“Ilona [Maher] is a big proponent of that, with her success and how she uses her platform, and this whole group wants to champion inclusiveness as we contribute to the ever-evolving definition of American rugby.”

Seventh in Dubai, fourth in Cape Town, fourth again in Perth, and fifth in Vancouver. Then, on home soil, a turning point: a podium finish in the City of Angels.

The convenient two-hour commute in Los Angeles helped, as did the vociferous support –  "it’s hard not to put out rugby like that in front of thousands of amazing fans" – but it was more than circumstantial: Los Angeles was a choreographed peak.

“We always talk about pressure and welcome it into our environment. As they say, it makes diamonds,” she said with a chuckle.

In a year where executing when the stakes are at their highest is critical, why not target their home tournament to simulate the must-win intensity of a season finale or Olympics?

Olympic destination

“The line to Paris is like a heartbeat. It’s not linear – it goes up and down – but it remains constant and that’s how we want our campaign to look. Los Angeles, Madrid, and the Games are our three focal points – where we’ll put all our eggs in one basket,” Kelter explained.

There would be tournaments along the way when they would try new things, "two steps forward, three steps back, and then continuing to climb" – but Tinsel Town was not one of those. 

“The mentality was, ‘we’re either in this and winning it, or we’re not’. We gave it everything. We fell a little short, but I was so proud of the way we played together, and we returned to the drawing board with such clarity.”

As Maher scorched her way into the Dream Team in California, another hero emerged at the Dignity Health Sports Park: Kelter’s flag-brandishing, cheerleading mother – who enjoyed as much air-time as anyone, and seemingly didn’t leave the stands or stop visibly bursting with pride for three days straight.

The Eagle lights up herself at the recollection. “It’s awesome that you guys got to see that, because she’s always been a star in my life. She’s a stakeholder in my journey as both an athlete and a person. She is such an inspiration.”

Leyla Kelter, "someone everyone wants to be around", brings us onto another charismatic woman at the heart of this group: former Eagle, recent high-performance manager, and now head coach: Bydwell.

Team Bydwell

“Absolutely amazing,” is Kelter’s instant reaction. “This team uses building imagery a lot, and she’s been levelling foundations, and painstakingly laying brick and mortar, for 10 years. She’s worn so many hats within this programme, and – now that it’s stable – we can skyrocket. 

“She’s doing what she loves: coaching, leading, shaping malleable minds, and asking us to be better humans while thinking about rugby in a different way.’

Finding a time for this conversation involved Kelter firing over the squad’s schedule for the day, which was a work of art – meticulously colour-coded and laden with detail. Par for the course with Bydwell at the helm.

“She’s so calculated and organised, but also utterly relatable, which has allowed her to bring on our wider squad really quickly,” Kelter said. 

“Our depth is getting stronger – as are our core skills, ability to strategise, versatility in attack, and world-class defence. Emilie is raising the bar in a male-dominated field and the way this team’s stunning people with what we’re capable of doing is testament to her leadership.”

The ultimate testament, of course, would be some major silverware – and those dates with destiny are, suddenly, within touching distance.

The USA are serial semi-finalists, and followed up their podium place in Los Angeles with silver in Hong Kong. But they are yet to scale an Olympic podium and will need to fight like tigers if they’re to defend last year’s bronze in Madrid. 

What will it take to ensure they cash-in their ‘contender’ status for something beribboned?

The answer’s simple. “At the highest level, the team who makes the fewest mistakes and has the most possession usually wins – so we want to hone our skills until they’re reliably world class.”

They work tirelessly to hit both individual and group standards, spurred on by a collective accountability – they’ve challenged themselves to leave the lasting legacy of an Olympic gong. 

In a bid to drive levels of in-house competition to unprecedented heights, they’ve, appropriately, headed to Hollywood for inspiration, and have been training with the theme ‘Fast and Furious’ recently. “What’s exciting is that – when we get it right – there’s no stopping us.”

Singapore test

They’ll be challenged no end in Singapore’s steamy cauldron, with no Maher, Naya Tapper or Alex ‘Spiff’ Sedrick – and know they’ll have to be courageous.

“This will test all we’ve done so far,” Kelter admitted, not least their treasured cohesion and chemistry. “A huge part of this squad’s identity … is being able to look to their left and right and say ‘I trust you. Let’s do this’.”

Alev Kelter has crammed plenty into the 10 years since her Sochi heartbreak. Two Olympics, World Cup campaigns in both formats of the game, skippering the Loonies to the inaugural Premier Sevens crown, a crucial role in Saracens’ 2022 English Premiership title, and closing in on 1,000 points on the circuit over the course of well over 200 matches.

You wonder what now tops what must be a pretty short ‘Still To-Do’ list…

“You know what?,” she said. “I haven’t even thought about that. I’m so focused on enjoying this time with this team.

"The culture’s changed this cycle, and we’ve all bought into one another, which is really special. I’ll probably reevaluate that at some point, but I’m going to savour this Olympics before I’ll allow myself to ask, ‘what’s next?’.”

A brief pause, and with that smile: “Hopefully, by that stage, we’ll have won a gold medal.”

By Claire Thomas