How to YouTube Your Way to the Olympics
I didn’t want to get up.
I was lying facedown in fresh powder at Alaska’s Alyeska ski resort, my entire body aching from snowboarding. I was tired, exhausted. My soccer career had just ended and my lifelong dream of playing hockey in the Olympics had been cut short. After dedicating years of my life to both sports, playing them simultaneously at the University of Wisconsin, I had no idea what was going to happen next.
When I was released from the U.S. women’s hockey team before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was a struggle. I had never been tried like this ever in my life. . I’d always been the player that would get the call-up or make the national team, and this was the first time somebody had told me “no.” I felt all the years of my parents driving me to practice and sending me off to countless tournaments had been wasted. I was encouraged to keep going and to count my blessings, but I was in a fog.
I just remember lying face-first in the snow for a while, like I was making the world’s laziest snow angel, thinking to myself, What now? Should I get up?
The cold snow on my face immediately reminded me of my twin sister and how we would exchange whitewashes and playful pranks every winter. I missed Derya, a blonde, shorter version of me, who always had a bounce-back attitude and a never-ending supply of encouraging pick-me-ups. Growing up we joked that she had won the “ultimate competition” out of the womb, beating me by a single minute.
I got up because I realized I was no less of a person because I had been born second. She beat me fair and square, and that didn’t mean I was a loser. Same with the Sochi team, I was no less of a person for not making it. I didn’t want that missed opportunity to define me.
I got up and went back to the lodge on the mountainside. When I got there I had a voice mail waiting for me.
“Hi, this is Ric Suggitt with USA Rugby. Do you mind giving me a call back? I’d like to see if you are interested in playing some rugby.”
My hometown of Eagle River, Alaska, truly is beautiful —an image of the American frontier. It has a feeling of being untouched, except by the hand of God. My town is a picturesque landscape with a couple of taller hotels. Beyond Anchorage is a land filled with rivers, mountains and wide open space, and beyond that, glaciers and tundra.
It was perfect for someone like me who was always running around, climbing mountains and trees, building forts, and basically never staying inside. I played as many sports as I could growing up, including soccer, hockey, basketball, softball, tennis and flag football. As I grew older, I whittled those down to soccer and hockey. I played varsity girls soccer and varsity boys hockey in high school.
I dreamed of playing both sports in college at a Division I school, even though time and time again I was told I would have to choose. I remember telling my mom and dad that I really loved both. They supported me and encouraged me to find someplace that would let me play soccer and hockey.
When I was 14 I started competing in the U.S. Olympic development programs for soccer and at national development camps for hockey. At 17 I played in the first ever IIHF women’s world championships, under coach Katey Stone. We took home the gold against Canada in Calgary. The following year I was blessed with the honor of captaining Team USA to their second straight world championship gold medal under Mark Johnson.
The University of Wisconsin wasn’t originally on my radar, but that changed when I got a handwritten letter from the soccer coach, Paula Wilkins. I looked further into the Badgers’ hockey program, and remembered that coach Mark Johnson, with whom I had just won a gold medal under was their coach.
When I visited the Wisconsin campus, it felt like home. The people were very friendly, everyone in Madison supports Badger athletics and the academics were great. Both coaches made home visits to recruit both Derya and me.
For the next five years — between hockey, soccer and getting my B.F.A. in sculpture — she and I really didn’t get much sleep.
I woke up in the morning and went to class, went to soccer in the afternoon and in the evening did lots of homework. Repeat. Once soccer season was over, we would jump right into hockey.
For soccer, I weighed about 140 to 145 pounds and I was in more aerobic shape. I would go on long evening runs or quick sprints for practice. With hockey, it was more anaerobic — 45 seconds on the ice, then a 60 second breather. I probably weighed about 150–155 for hockey. I was doing a lot more lifting than running.
Everyone has an off-season when they play just one sport. Derya and I didn’t have that. We loved always being “in season.” Honestly, I couldn’t have gotten through college without her. We constantly pushed each other to be better in both sports, as well as in academics.
My Olympic dream for hockey was never far from my mind. I felt I was on the bubble of girls who might make the team. So, when my senior year rolled around, I decided to take a redshirt year for soccer to focus solely on hockey and making the 2014 Sochi team.
I felt I showed well in the August 2013 camp. After that, there was a December camp, where they pick the players for the residency program. If you don’t get invited to the December camp, then you’re not on the residency squad, and if you’re not on the residency squad, your chances of making the team are slim to none.
The time to be invited to the December camp and get “called up” came and went.
This had been my dream since I was eight years old, and it had passed me by. I was devastated, an emotional mess. I went on a downward spiral and started missing classes.
My art teachers noticed, and called me out on it. When disappointment hits you, it’s almost impossible to see past what’s right in front of you. They helped me so much, and after a few months I started to find a purpose in creating again.
I hung up my skates, and gave everything I had to my last season of soccer.
After soccer, I needed a break. I needed the mountains to rejuvenate me. I needed home.
For the first time since I was a little kid, I could snowboard with abandon. I had no contracts to my name, I could break a bone and not get worried. I could eat a burger or have a beer and not feel like I was breaking training.
I looked at the fresh powder on Alyeska Mountain and told myself to go down it without any regrets, and to go off any huge jump I wanted. I was trying these crazy backflips, landing face first in powder, enjoying my freedom. After falling down again and again, and lying there, I had a realization.
“You’re not defined by the nos and yesses in life,” I told myself, “but by your purpose and values.” What’s my purpose?
And when I walked into the lodge, that voice mail was there waiting.
At first, I thought it was a joke. I thought Derya was playing a prank on me — I could see her recruiting one of her guy friends to call and leave a message. I immediately called my mom and I told her about the voice mail from the “Olympic rugby coach.” She said I needed to call him back and see if he was for real. She was all for me trying new things.
I called back.
Ric picked up and told me that he had gotten my number from Lorri Clifford, a former high school flag football teammate of mine. He explained that he was a hockey player, like me, and he thought I’d be an awesome rugby player. He asked me if I wanted to give it a try.
“I’d love to, Ric,” I said. “But I’ve never touched a rugby ball in my life.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ve got plenty here.”
I started looking up rugby clips on YouTube immediately. I didn’t even go back out to the slopes. I was just in the lodge, still shivering from the cold, watching rugby sevens videos.
I didn’t know the positions at all, but I knew there was kicking, so I started watching how-to-kick videos too. I even looked up social media profiles of the U.S. women’s team. (I know how it sounds, but I prefer to call it “tactics” and “getting to know your teammates” rather than stalking.)
Two weeks later, I flew down to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif.
The night before my first practice, I was so excited to meet the people I’d been reading about. I was nervous, because after all I didn’t know anything, and this was an Olympic team. Like any person, I had my insecurities about how I would do and how I would fit in.
Those insecurities faded the first day. The team welcomed me with open arms. They taught me how to tackle, how to pass. They were so excited about people wanting to know and learn rugby. There was no judgement. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had.
It’s tough to explain, but I think of sports as another form of art. If you get inspired, you just want to start creating. It was similar on the field — these girls were providing me an avenue in which to create and fall in love with something very genuine. I didn’t have to prove myself over again. I wouldn’t be as successful, and I wouldn’t be where I am, if I hadn’t had these awesome women teaching me and opening their arms to me. I wouldn’t know a thing without them. They brought out the best in me. I think that’s what being a great teammate is: bringing out the best in each other.
After a week of camp, during my one-on-one meeting, Ric said he wanted to sign me to a full-time contract right away.
I asked if I could finish school and get my art degree, something that I really wanted. He said, “Of course. Can you make it down here in March? That would give us two months before tour starts!”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course. I had to learn everything from scratch. Rugby has a lot of rules — a lot. They’re especially hard to learn when you’ve only been playing the game for a few months.
I specifically remember on my second tour in Amsterdam, I got a yellow card and was sent to the sin bin — our version of the penalty box — for continually making an illegal tackle on a girl because I didn’t remember the rules. See, after a penalty, you have to get back 10 meters before you can make another tackle. I had forgotten this and just kept tackling and tackling this one girl without giving her 10 meters. Oops.
Everyone in the stadium who was watching — most of whom had likely been playing rugby their entire lives — was probably thinking, What in the world is Coach Suggitt doing, and who is Kelter?
Even tougher than that, though, was the first time I was responsible for an injury.
I was playing in the Cancun sevens tournament, and I accidentally broke a girl’s leg while making a clean tackle on her. I was a mess as I watched her go to the ambulance, but all my teammates comforted me and told me that it happens sometimes, and that I had nothing to worry about. I saw the girl the next day. She didn’t speak English, but she came up to me holding a permanent marker and asked me to sign her cast.
I was in tears. I couldn’t believe it. In that moment, I saw the true beauty of rugby — the combination of intense battle and equally intense camaraderie. It’s so amazing that you can have the most excruciating physical test of your life against the most amazing athletes, and then turn around and befriend them — and then grab a guitar and sit together in the hallway of your hotel, singing and laughing. Girls from all walks of life and from all around the world. And If there’s an injury, no one’s holding it against you.
A few months later, after playing me mostly at prop, Coach Suggitt switched me to scrum half.
Scrum half is like a center in hockey or an attacking central midfielder in soccer. Scrum halfbacks have designated roles in set pieces, but for the most part they sweep, do a lot of kick offs, conversion kicks and distribute the ball to the playmakers, the fast backs or the strong forwards. Coach Suggitt saw my potential and told me I could be the best scrum half in the world. I said “O.K., I’ll try it. I’ll shoot for the moon.” I started watching more film, specifically of the best scrum halfbacks in the world, seeing what I could learn from them.
Earlier this month, I learned that my Olympic dream had finally come true. I was chosen as one of the 12 players that will pull on the Team USA jersey and represent our great country. It is something that is beyond an honor — it truly is amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my teammates, who taught me everything, without Ric Suggitt taking a risk, without people believing that this was a possibility.
I’m in love with this sport, but I wouldn’t be here without all the support from friends and family, and also without the many years I spent playing with my soccer and hockey family. This is the culmination of everything I’ve done in the past, the triumphs and the upsets. I needed to follow that path, I needed God showing me — through sports — that doors open and close for a reason.
It’s this … twilight zone of right here, right now. It’s peace and reconciliation, knowing I’m right where God put me. I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I’m getting on a plane to Rio.