Written By: Mark Janzen
Standing on the touchline waiting for her chance to enter the fray, Kelsi Stockert had a laugh.
Set to run onto the pitch as a late replacement, she casually chit-chatted with the person charged with directing the substitution traffic. Just before running out for the final few seconds of the United States’ quarter-final match with New Zealand in Dubai, Stockert was learning the man’s life story. It turns out he plays touch rugby and he coaches rugby and referees rugby. He also put a smile on Stockert’s face.
“He was just hilarious,” she says. “I like telling jokes and talking to people and having fun. That way, I’m not too freaked out. That’s when I’m at my best.”
A few moments later, Stockert became the hero of the day when she ran in the game-winning try at the death to knock off the defending champion Black Ferns, sending the USA to the semifinals with what was by far the biggest upset of the weekend.
Taking the ball off the back of a ruck, the product of Olympia, Washington, saw an opening and took her chance. Snatching the ball off the deck, she snuck through a gap in the defence and race down the middle of the field, taking the ball 60 metres untouched for the score.
About to dive and touch down directly under the posts, the American speedster wasn’t thinking about what a win over New Zealand would mean for her team and what it would mean for USA Rugby, nor was she thinking about what this could mean for her career.
“I’m just thinking: ‘Don’t knock it on Stockert. Don’t knock it on’.”
A conversion from teammate Alev Kelter sealed a dramatic 14-12 victory for the USA, stopping New Zealand short of the World Rugby Sevens Series semifinals for the first time since 2015.
For both Stockert and her USA sevens teammates, it was an early-season statement that there might be something extra special burgeoning stateside.
When Stockert, 24, made her Sevens debut with the national team last March in Las Vegas, her biggest supporter was in the front row. Amidst the noise coming from the stands at Sam Boyd Stadium, she could hear the high-pitched tone of her five-year-old daughter, Lily, screaming encouragement. The sign she brought simply read, “Go Mommy.”
Stockert’s ever-present smile was a little bit bigger that day.
“She is so supportive of me,” Stockert says. “When I have rough days of training and I come home, she gives me a pep talk and is my biggest cheerleader. She’s like ‘You’re so cool mom,’ and is always reminding me to smile.”
Since introducing Lily to the world in May 2012, Stockert has balanced a unique livelihood in the world of professional sports, raising a daughter while competing at the elite level of women’s rugby.
“It’s a little crazy,” Stockert says. “But it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
It’s a little crazier when you hear that the balance began just three weeks after Lily was born. Suiting up for her home club in Olympia, the Budd Bay Bandits, in the annual Super Saturday 7s tournament, Stockert was back on the pitch within a month of giving birth. She scored a few tries and her team won the tournament.
“It was really to prove a point,” Stockert says. “I’m really stubborn and competitive.”
The competitive streak flows through Stockert with abundance. She wants to the be the best at everything she does, whether that’s being a rugby player or being a mom. And she raised her daughter to be the same way.
Besides watching her mom play rugby, Lily’s two biggest passions are Brazilian jiu jitsu and boxing and even at a young age, she has to be the best.
“She is a mini-me,” Stockert says with a laugh. “She is so goofy and sassy and crazy and super competitive. And that is me.”
And it’s the drive and motivation seen in both mom and daughter that is the reason Stockert has made her way onto the international Sevens scene.
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In the lead-up to Dubai, USA women’s sevens coach Richie Walker sat down with Stockert.
His message was simple: You don’t have to do or be everything for the team. Be you and contribute in your own way.
“A couple of weeks before Dubai, she really took that on in training and really went forward and it showed in Dubai,” Walker says. “She needed to be more confident in herself and she definitely showed that. Just with that one play (against New Zealand) – I think she improved her confidence and I’m hoping that continues throughout the season.”
While Dubai was the fourth tournament Stockert has competed in on the circuit – along with her appearance in Las Vegas, she also made the squad for last year’s events in Canada and Japan – scoring against the Black Ferns was by far her biggest moment on tour.
It was also something of a culmination and reward for the years of effort she has put in since first picking up a rugby ball during her freshman year of high school.
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At the time, Stockert was mostly into cheerleading. Her mom had put her into cheerleading when she was five years old and she loved it. “I was pretty girly,” she says – although, at the same time, she admitted that having two older brothers gave her a bit of a rough and tumble side as well. When a friend dragged the cheerleading Stockert out to the rugby pitch for a practice with Budd Bay, at first glance it might have seemed to be an odd fit. In reality, it was a perfect connection.
“I instantly fell in love with the sport,” says Stockert. “Girls of every size could play and it was physical and it was just awesome.”
By her senior year of high school, she earned a spot on the USA’s U19 side, sparking her journey to the senior national team.
After playing with the Budd Bay Bandits (the club’s senior women’s team), Stockert eventually moved on to the upper echelon Seattle Saracens. It was with the Saracens where she started to get noticed as a winger. By the summer of 2016, she earned a starting position with the USA’s fifteens side for the Women’s Rugby Super Series – an event that featured New Zealand, England and Canada.
Against the Kiwis, she scored her first-ever international try.
A little more than a year later, Stockert featured again with the fifteens side, nabbing her fourth and fifth caps in a pair of autumn contests against France.
However, just a few days after the return home, she turned her focus to the sevens game. Kelsi, Lily and Stockert’s boyfriend Nick Evans, who is set to play with the San Diego Legion next year in the fledgling Major League Rugby, moved to Chula Vista, Calif. where she began training full-time with the sevens program at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
Running back towards her teammates, Stockert first jumped into the hands of Jordan Gray.
The broadcast commentator might have said it best. “Absolute elation in the U.S. camp. Kelsi Stockert has just made a huge name for herself.”
That moment was also a testament to her last year in Chula Vista.
“It’s so cool to see my progress as a full-time athlete,” she says. “To see my body composition. I am so much more fit than I was a year ago. And my knowledge of the game and my passing has gotten way better. I’m really excited to see what level of athlete I can become.”
While Stockert celebrated her try with teammates, back at home in Olympia, the Dillashaw family was as thrilled to see her success as anyone.
When Lily arrived five years ago, the Dillashaws – a rugby family through and through that includes Stockert’s close friend Dani and parents Dan and Jodi – did what rugby people do. They became her family.
When Stockert was travelling two to three hours each way to practice and play for the Saracens, Jodi became another grandmother for Lily. Dan, who coached the Budd Bay high school team, was another grandfather and Dani was another aunt.
“That is what allowed me to do anything and everything,” says Stockert, who was a single mom for the first three years of Lily’s life until she met Evans. “They believed in me and had faith in me that I was going to be something.
“It’s overwhelming how amazing the rugby community is and continues to be. They helped raise my daughter.”
And with the victory in hand, Stockert no doubt soon had an embrace with teammate Naya Tupper, who is Lily’s favourite babysitter and, like the Dillashaws, is another member of the family.
“Naya is Lilly’s best, best friend. She’ll come over and they just have so much fun together. It’s just amazing. As they say, it takes a village to raise a kid and my village is the rugby community.”
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Within that community nestled on the shores of Lower Otay Lake and with Tijuana visible in the distance, the American Sevens program is rising and Stockert is playing her role.
On some days, that’s making her teammates laugh. “Some of her jokes are really dry, but the girls still laugh,” Walker says. “You need people who make the girls laugh and have fun off the field and she definitely brings that to the team.” On other days, that’s leading her team to monumental wins.
“We clearly made a huge statement,” Stockert says of her team’s second place finish to open the 2017-18 series, which included a semifinal victory over Russia. “We feel like we are capable of being in the top four, if not the top team altogether.”
With the season-ending World Cup to be hosted in San Francisco in July, the goal is to be peaking when the stage is set at AT&T Park. “We want to be the best team in the world and to be honest, we’re capable of doing it.”
Beyond that, Stockert has an even bigger dream.
Lily will be eight years old when Tokyo hosts 2020 Olympics and Stockert wants to be there.
“Imagining what I could be like and what our team could be like in 2020 is really exciting.
“And that’s the goal.”