U.S. gets kick out of rugby

Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Rio de Janeiro — Alev Kelter grew up in Eagle River, Alaska, a small town some 360 miles from the Arctic Circle, playing ice hockey against boys and dreaming of becoming an Olympian.

Her dream came true, but in a way she couldn’t possibly have imagined as a kid or, years later, while playing soccer and hockey at the University of Wisconsin.

As the Rio Games opened, the powerfully built Kelter took to the rugby pitch with Team USA.

Women never before had played rugby in the Olympics.

“It truly is an honor,” said Kelter, 25, new to the sport in 2014 only because she had stalled in the Olympic developmental programs in soccer and hockey. “I actually hadn’t thought about that. That’s really cool. Bui (Baravilala) set me up pretty well, so I just had to turn on the afterburners and score.”

Rugby Sevens, the Olympic version of the game, is different from the traditional 15-a-side game. Played on the same pitch but in seven-minute halves, Sevens is a spectator-friendly game combining speed, agility and power with passing and kicking — and a ruggedness that evokes American football.

The sport is growing in popularity in the U.S. and could get a huge boost from the Olympics, especially on the women’s side (the men are playing for the first time since 1924). It’s never going to be football, basketball or baseball, but it’s got a lot of elements Americans enjoy: speed, scoring and full-body contact without pads.

If you like de-cleatings and piles of players scratching and clawing for the ball, this is your game. Fijian Luisa Tisolo’s jarring form tackle of a U.S. player in the second half of the pool play opener would have made Clay Matthews proud.

“It’s pretty insane,” said Kathryn Johnson, a forward for Team USA. “It’s kind of unreal how much this could help grow the game. Especially women’s sports, having a full-contact game in the Olympics is pretty amazing.”

And so was their Olympic run.

The U.S. opened with a loss to powerhouse Fiji before bouncing Colombia. Then it had the unenviable task of facing reigning world champion Australia.

And didn’t flinch.

The Aussies, the Yankees of women’s Sevens, boast one of the fastest players in former sprinter Ellia Green. But the Americans drew 12-12 to reach the quarters.

That, however, is where it ended in a 5-0 loss to New Zealand.

Still, they are grateful to be here, on a pitch far from home, playing the game they love.

“Any rugby day,” Johnson said, “is a good day.”