Standing opposite Donald Imes — a 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior linebacker for the River Ridge High School football team — Kelsi Stockert doesn’t look imposing.
But that didn’t stop the 5-3, 145-pound Stockert from driving Imes to the ground at Hawks’ practice Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s because I took his power away,” Stockert said. “And without power, you have nothing in any contact sport.”
Stockert — a 22-year-old Tumwater graduate and member of the U.S. national women’s rugby team — lined up 5 yards away from Imes, who barreled toward her before she grabbed his left knee, dug her right shoulder into his torso and flipped him to his back on the grass.
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All to the roaring cheers of his teammates.
“The rugby tackle is all about manipulation of the body; you want to control that tackle,” Stockert said.
For Stockert, the instruction supplements her ongoing training as she attempts to qualify for the seven-player U.S. national women’s rugby team — also known as the 7s Eagles — which will compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next summer.
“The way I see it — if I can teach it, I have to be able to master it,” Stockert said.
She traveled to Chula Vista, California, on Sunday for coach Jules McCoy’s first high-performance training camp, which will start to narrow the pool from which the eventual Olympic team will be chosen. Stockert is one of 39 women invited to the camp.
Dan Dillashaw, a former coach of Stockert who now primarily coaches for Prairie Rugby Club, said she is by far the most talented individual he’s ever coached.
“It’s like the old Sesame Street thing — one is not like the others,” he said.
The Rio Games is the debut of rugby 7s in the Olympics. The sport hasn’t been in the Olympics since the summer of 1924 in Paris, when the U.S. men took gold. The women’s team will have 12 roster spots with seven starting positions — standard rugby is either 15 players per side (union) or 13 players (league).
“It’s a new process for everyone and anyone because we’ve never done this before as a team,” Stockert said.
And Stockert hasn’t done this as a player.
She started playing rugby for Budd Bay her freshman year of high school, and played with the Budd Bay Bandits until last year, when she joined the Seattle Saracens club team.
Stockert was a cheerleader for Tumwater her junior and senior years after transferring from Capital. She was the captain her senior year, when Tumwater last won the Class 2A state football title in 2010.
CHANGE IN PLANS
After graduation, Stockert was in discussions to join Penn State’s rugby team as a freshman. Those plans changed when she found out she was pregnant the following August.
“It was a hard time for me because (playing rubgy) was what I wanted, what I dreamed of,” Stockert said. “But, for some reason, I knew that baby inside of me was going to be something good.”
She credits her daughter, Lily, now 3 years old, with saving her life. Stockert was involved in an abusive relationship with Lily’s father, which eventually culminated in a domestic violence case that resulted in his arrest shortly after Lily’s birth.
“If it wasn’t for her, I think I’d still be in that abusive relationship, not wanting to play rugby, not wanting to pursue my dreams,” Stockert said. “I don’t know, I just lost myself in a way. Lily really brought me back to life and showed me what it was all worth. That’s why I started playing rugby again.”
Pretty quickly, too. Stockert played in a tournament three weeks after giving birth to her daughter in May 2012.
“I’ve never felt so exhausted in my life,” Stockert said. “My legs felt like Jell-O, but it was worth it.”
In 2014 Stockert joined the Seattle Saracens — partly at the encouragement from Dillashaw and his wife, Jodi — who compete in the British Columbia Rugby Union’s premier league, and was part of the U.S. Division I women’s championship team in June. She outscored the rest of the league with 26 tries.
Stockert estimates she drives more than 700 miles weekly, trekking between her job at Budd Bay Promotions and Apparel in Olympia, workouts and practices in Seattle, and often up to Canada for Saturday games.
Lily is usually on the sideline.
“She loves watching rugby,” Stockert said. “She’s always yelling, ‘Don’t tackle my mom,’ and ‘Yeah, Mom!’ and ‘You’re not nice!’ ”
CHANCE FOR BRAZIL
She and Lily nearly moved to California this summer, after Stockert gained attention while playing for the 15s Eagles at the Women’s Super Series in Alberta, Canada, which ended in July.
A week after returning home, the 7s Eagles reached out to her. She attended a training camp in Chula Vista last month. Before she could sign her first professional contract, then-coach Rick Suggitt was replaced.
So, she returned home to prepare for this week’s high-performance camp, train with friends and family, and tackle a few high school football players.
“I was able to just take it as a good thing,” Stockert said. “I had a month to be home, where I’m most comfortable, to train with the people I love the most.”
This week could be the next step in her rugby career, which could lead to the Olympics and Brazil.
“It’s really all kind of up in the air,” Stockert said. “I just know I’m going to go down there, try hard, and impress who I can.”
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When it comes to tackling, football taking lessons from rugby
Rugby-style tackling is all the rage in football right now given the rise of concerns over head injuries. Four high school football players have died this season. Earlier this month, Evergreen High of Seattle player Kenny Bui died as a result of a head injury he suffered during a game against Highline.
River Ridge coach Steve Schultz, who has been emphasizing the technique for the last year, believes it is the safest alternative.
“It’s not head across the body,” he said. “We take the head completely out of it by using this style.”
To help his players master the technique, he enlisted the help of Tumwater graduate Kelsi Stockert to teach it. Stockert plays for the U.S. national women’s rugby team.
“Anytime I can put someone who’s an expert in front of my guys — male or female, it doesn’t matter — I do,” Schultz said.
Stockert visited practice twice last week to offer brief instruction on rugby-style tackling. She focused on teaching the players how to get low, hook a leg and stop momentum — a departure from traditional football tackling.
“Football has kind of been the same pattern of play, the same style for years now — hit the snot out of someone,” Stockert said. “But now, they’re realizing that hitting the snot out of someone isn’t the safest, and it’s not as effective.”
It’s also more efficient. Schultz said since implementing the new style, his team’s tackling proficiency has improved from 85 to 95 percent because it throws opponents off balance and stops momentum.
“If you’re a small guy going against a tall guy, you can still get them,” said senior River Ridge linebacker Donald Imes.