Kaitlyn Kelly called out for the password to something or someone she saw in the woods as she patrolled at 2 a.m.
Following procedure when engaging the enemy, she called out contact and the three Ds. Then she fired her gun.
When her rifle jammed, Kelly pushed ahead anyway. She put her gun down and tackled the first person she saw, only to hurt herself after the weight of her gear and he crushed her left wrist.
It was the summer before her sophomore year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point during a training exercise and, little did she know, the incident was the beginning of her rugby coaching career.
The injury led to eventual surgery, which, in turn, led to her staying at West Point as a graduate assistant, helping West Point’s first-year women’s rugby head coach and lead Army Women’s Rugby “B” Team.
She never imagined coaching long term. But, on a fall day in 2012 at Vermont’s Norwich University, something inside Kelly changed. When she looked at the field preparing for her coaching debut, Kelly glimpsed into her future and liked what she saw and how she felt.
“I remember being more nervous about coaching than I had ever been playing because I had felt so out of control of the circumstance,” said Kelly. “I could only hope I prepared the team well enough that they followed through with the policies in place and succeeded. When they did, it was a unique feeling of victory and accomplishment I had not felt before.”
From that point on, Kelly found ways to stay connected to a sport that has become her passion. High school, the Army, clubs. If there was a chance to coach or play, Kelly was all-in at any level, any time. It’s that dedication, combined with her success that earned her the 2019 All-Army Coach Soldier Athlete of the Year award.
“I never want to become stagnant in my growth as a person or coach,” said Kelly, who is an Army captain with the 55th Sustainment Brigade. “It also allows me to network and meet new people to further promote the game of rugby and help kids use rugby as an outlet.”
Before rugby became the love, basketball was her passion. Her father, Paul, a former basketball player, introduced Kelly to the sport.
Growing up in Arlington Heights, Ill., Kelly followed DePaul Basketball, where her parents held season tickets. She was also a regular at DePaul’s summer basketball camps.
It was there at age 9 she first met Maggie Dixon. Dixon, then a DePaul assistant, became a mentor and an older sister for Kelly as the two drew closer over the years. When the Army hired Dixon as its head women’s basketball coach, she kept tabs on Kelly, believing she could fit right in at Army.
Kelly wasn’t so sure. She came from a military family, but wondered if West Point was for her. Dixon convinced Kelly to attend and everything seemed in place.
But, in April 2006, Dixon died of a heart attack at age 28, a month after leading Army to its first NCAA Tournament berth in her only year as head coach. Kelly, then a junior in high school, learned of Dixon’s passing while watching ESPN. The news devastated Kelly. Two weeks before Dixon died, she and Kelly were planning Kelly’s official visit. Now everything was up in the air.
Out of respect for Dixon, Kelly honored her commitment to West Point, but her passion for basketball ended after she spent a year at the USMA Prep School and her team won only one game. Upon arriving at West Point, Kelly instead found a new sport after a friend introduced her to rugby. Kelly had never played rugby, but gave it a try. She took to it instantly.
“After the first hit, I thought, ‘I love this,’” said Kelly, who competed on two national championship teams in college.
It was her tackling ability that drew the attention of other West Point classmates the night she took down the other cadet during the training exercise that broke her wrist. Upset by what happened, the cadre’s leader asked who tackled one of his Soldiers.
Kelly’s platoon leader told them who it was and that she was a member of the school’s women’s rugby team.
“He didn’t have much to say after that,” Kelly said.
After graduating from West Point in 2012, Kelly played at Fort Bragg (N.C.), while posted there, and then coached at the base after a knee surgery ended her career. Kelly moved to nearby Southern Pines, where she became the first coach of the local women’s program.
Once she completed her five-year commitment to the Army in 2017, Kelly continued to hold other positions in promoting women’s rugby, while in the Reserves.
Since 2017, she has been the head team manager and assistant coach for Scion Rugby Academy and, since 2018, has worked as a head coach for DC Youth Rugby, which oversees programs at Bell Multicultural, Anacostia and Cordova high schools in Washington, D.C.
Kelly coached the Armed Forces Team in 2017 and 2018 and was one of 22 American rugby coaches selected to travel to London, last October, on a Premiership Rugby Scholarship.
When she isn’t working as the chief logistics officer for a rental management company, the 31-year-old Kelly is the head coach of the All-Army Women’s Rugby Team. She was also integral in starting the first All-Armed Forces Women’s Rugby Tournament last summer, which her squad won by outscoring its opponents 116-5 in four games.
“She focuses on what you bring to the table,” said Lauran Glover, who first played under Kelly in summer 2018. “She’s good at picking up on your individual skills and looking at
how those skills complement each other on the field.”
Maggie Dixon’s impact
Although she never played for Dixon, Kelly considers Dixon one of her coaching inspirations, especially once she became a coach, herself. When Kelly thinks of Dixon, she sees a template for success by following three principles that Dixon lived by: lead, teach and prepare.
“She was the example I didn’t know I had until I reflected on our time together,” Kelly said. “She was a trailblazer in the realm of female coaching, especially in her field.”