I am the Toughest Out

23 surgeries by age 17? Check.

Stroke survivor at age 18? Check. 

Attending three universities JUST to play the sport of softball? Check.

Ended my softball career at the Women’s College World Series? Checkmate.

As I sat on the dugout bench and laced my cleats up, I looked out onto the field. The banner hanging off the fence of the dugout was facing away from me but it clearly read, “Women’s College World Series.” My teammates were laughing, Coach was writing the line up, the fans were tense with anticipation. I was reveling in that moment. The idea that it was even possible to be sitting in that dugout on the biggest stage that college softball had to offer was a complete shocker. Up to this moment, just 15 months ago I didn’t even know if I would ever be able to play the sport I loved ever again let alone to this magnitude. What series of unfortunate events had led to me feeling this way?

“Their Little Alien”

Photo: Kendall Burton

Photo: Kendall Burton

Back in a small town in Texas in 1996 it was a surprise that I was born with a severe unilateral cleft/lip & palate, my parents said I was their little alien. A hole in my face, a facial deformity was their and my new reality. The doctors explained to my parents that this road may not be easy. There was a chance I would have brain abnormalities along with being deaf and/or blind. 

Fortunately, none of that was the case, just constant plastic and ear surgeries to keep my little spitfire self occupied as a young kid. Lucky for me, I found the love of my life at age 8. 

It was easy to fall in love with softball because I could cover up my face as I performed. On the field no one cared if my nose wasn't symmetric, no one cared if my lips weren’t fully complete. Although kids are ruthless and persistent when it comes to something they deem abnormal, but I found it to be my superpower. I had something that no other kid had… perspective, and a pretty gnarly scar above my lip. 

After an entire childhood and young adolescence filled with surgeries, recovery and constant dental procedures, it was all about to come to an end. At 17 I had four surgeries at once to finalize my journey as a cleft/lip & palate patient. It was a portion of my life that I was ready to put on the shelf as a memory of strength and admiration, not my year to year routine. To me, it was time to move on to the great things that were ahead of me, college and being a student-athlete. Little did I know, the journey was just beginning. 

“Stroke Girl”

Photo: Barbara Davidson

Photo: Barbara Davidson

I am pretty disappointed on the creativity of this nickname to say the least, although “Stroke Girl” could potentially be a cool name for a comic book hero. This was my title as I walked the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in the Fall of 2014. Just two months into my first semester of college after only playing in one softball game, I survived an acute ischemic stroke in my dorm room hours after my grandfather’s funeral. This left me unable to speak, read, write, and carry on basic conversation. My stubborn and fighter attitude drove me to carry on with the life I envisioned for myself, my version of normal. For months nothing that came out of my mouth made sense, severe dyslexia kicked in and every other word I wrote was completely misspelled. Each morning the sun grew my motivation as I woke up everyday to attend speech and cognitive therapy. Therapy required me to complete 1st grade level worksheets and attempt to have my pronunciation of words be correct. Along with therapy I would watch each practice and hysterically laugh with my teammates when the word ‘function’ always came out as the word ‘fart’. But as the sun would set the night sky would grow my insecurity and doubt violently. Each night I would lay awake going over the daunting thoughts of actually being able to enroll back in school and if I could really make playing softball ever happen again.

The following spring I enrolled back in school still struggling with my abilities but pushed through. I started every single game with the Roadrunners receiving accolades along with pride in myself. But after two seasons at UTSA, I needed more from life and I wanted to better my education and softball career. And oh, the places I would go…

“Shoulda Been A Cowgirl”

Photo: Kendall Burton

Photo: Kendall Burton

This fearless and bold decision to leave my starting spot and best friends at UTSA to attend Oklahoma State University (OSU) seemed like the right one. Until my entire world crashed down on me not once, but twice. I moved my things and myself to Stillwater, Ok only to watch training sessions and practices just as I did two years prior when my brain was a pile of mush, but this time it was in the doctors of OSU’s hands. To them, I was a liability for their school, or in my eyes a ticking time bomb that they had to defuse. I was told I would never play college athletics again. Refusing to take no for an answer, I looked for another university to take my talents. I received eight other no’s. 

Depression took over. Anxiety was at an all time high. The idea of hanging up my cleats came closer and closer to a reality and the worse part, it was out of my control. But then the University of Oregon and the University of Georgia showed up. Yes!

“Go Dawgs”

Photo By: Steffanie Burns

Photo By: Steffanie Burns

So there I sat with “Georgia” across my chest at the Women’s College World Series.” In only 15 months of being a Bulldog, I had moved to yet another state and had my worst post-stroke seizure on the fields of California to date, experienced for the first time not having a starting spot, earned that starting spot, an ESPN feature article written about my story, and being a part of the most incredible team with a culture of grit, resilience and humor. I couldn’t have scripted my story any better to end my career on the most special place on earth with my best friends by my side and my heroes/parents in the stands. Through the tears, anger, pain, smiles, and laughter it was all worth it.

We all have a story we are telling every day with the decisions we make, the obstacles we face, and the victories we accomplish. It’s ok to cry through your down days and it’s ok to laugh through the pain, but you will never know what you’re made of unless you take those tears and those laughs and go for what you want. Just give yourself a try.

I am The Toughest Out. I am a fighter. I am a storyteller. I am unapologetically real. What story do you want for yourself?