By Matt Pagels | firstname.lastname@example.org
Education is important. But sometimes when an offer so great is right at your fingertips, you have no choice but to drop the books and put it on hold to pursue your dream.
That’s what former Flagler College softball catcher and outfielder Robyn Draper did this past spring.
The 25-year-old Canadian got the opportunity of a lifetime when she was offered to play professional softball overseas. While nursing an injury that made her physically and mentally unable to play at Flagler, Dutch club Iber Lengua Terrasvogels in Holland came calling with an offer to play professionally.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a step back and into the life of Draper.
Finding her niche
“When I was younger I never really thought about professional softball, but I was watching an international softball competition in my hometown and I always dreamed of playing for my country,” Draper said.
In 2006, she obtained that goal by playing for the Canadian Junior National Team in the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, as well as competed in the 2007 Junior Women’s World Championships in Enschede, Netherlands.
“This is actually where I realized I could take my love of the sport to the next level and play overseas,” she said. “Ironically, the professional team we played as an exhibition game before the World’s is one of the teams I play against now.”
Robyn’s father, Mike Draper, credits her mother for helping her, as “she was the one who took her to games and tournaments, as well as coached a couple of her teams.”
Susan Draper said many miles of traveling, countless hours practicing and endless opportunities to execute set Robyn on the road to success.
“Seven Provincial Championships, Canadian National MVP, Canadian Junior Team captain and numerous gold medals set the stage for Robyn to earn a softball scholarship to the United States,” she said.
And indeed it did. In 2008, Draper attended State College of Florida, formerly known as Manatee Community College. During her freshman year, Draper, among others, was part of the Suncoast All-Conference First Team, including a nod for the Region 8 first-team all-state selection by the FCSAA (Florida College System Activities Association).
A year later, she was one of two players who earnedFCSAA/NJCAA Gulf District All-Tournament honors, according to the Official Website of State College of Florida Athletics. Things were looking up, but after her sophomore season, Draper suffered a minor setback.
“After my sophomore season I had a shoulder surgery, so I red-shirted and rehabbed while helping coach at my community college,” she said.
In 2010, Draper decided to change directions, literally.
“I met (Flagler Softball) Coach Kristen Overton during a tournament we were playing at when I was coaching and she was recruiting,” Draper said. “A couple of weekends later, I came on a visit to Flagler and fell in love with the school. I had good chemistry with Coach Overton and being so far from home, being comfortable was huge for me. Flagler felt like the right place for me.”
Positives and negatives at Flagler
Draper went through some ups and downs while playing at Flagler. She stayed under the radar her junior year, as she played 46 games with 39 starts, and had a batting average of .236 with a total of 30 hits (including two doubles, a triple and two home runs). They finished with an overall record of 42-18 during her first year stint with the team.
During her second and final season with the Saints, Draper became a second-team All-Peach Belt Conference selection. She was also selected as the “Diamond in the Rough” for the month of May.
“My senior year, our team finished nationally ranked number eight and made its first World Series appearance,” Draper said. “We won the Southeast Regional Championship and the Super Regionals.”
Not only did they win, but she was a big part of the reason why.
“Robyn was the key to our success this postseason, as she was the hottest player on our team,” said Coach Overton on the web siteathletics.flagler.edu. Draper batted .500 in eight postseason games.
Even though it was a successful senior season, Draper was hampered by a hip ailment during the entire year, hindering her quest to become a proficient athlete.
“I played my entire senior season on a torn labrum in my left hip,” she said. “I had to sit down with my coaches and trainers and discuss what was my best option, and I knew that for me, playing was the only option. So we came to an agreement that I would have restrictions on practice and conditioning in order to be able to play during the games.”
According to methodistorthopedics.com, acetabular labrum tears (labral tears) most often affect active adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It usually causes pain, stiffness, and other disabling symptoms of the hip joint if the labrum is torn or damaged.
“There were times I literally ended up in a wheel chair after games because the pain was just too much,” Draper said.
After the season ended, Draper waited to hear from a couple of teams overseas, but there was no sense of urgency coming from the other side. As a result, she made point to get surgery to fix the lingering issue.
“My initial surgery was only supposed to be an hour long, which then turned into a five-hour long major hip surgery,” Draper said.
Arthroscopy is commonly used to repair the torn labrum, and while each hip arthroscopy is specific to the individual patient, certain elements such as treatment of the labrum, shaving of the bone and removal of inflamed tissue are the common factors pertaining to many hip surgeries, according to UCSD Health Sciences. The doctor informed her a full recovery would take a year and a half to two years, but that didn’t stop the good news awaiting in her inbox.
The waiting pays off
“As I came home from surgery and opened my email, there it was, the email I had been waiting for,” she said.
Draper received an offer to play overseas, but because of the surgery she turned it down. “I stayed in Florida for four months after surgery and did some intense rehab. I am beyond grateful for the trainers, especially Jennifer Rinnert and Eva Beaulieu; they were great with my recovery.
Draper returned home to Canada with a new incentive. A semester away from graduating Flagler, she decided to search for a full-time job and save money in order to go back to school. She said she “had no aspirations to play anymore.”
“I felt maybe this was God’s way of saying it’s time to hang up the cleats,” she said.
A month later, Draper slowly got back into the mix by helping coach a hometown team, which made her realize she wasn’t finished with her softball career just yet.
“I have a couple friends that play over in Holland, and I reached out to them in April,” she said. “Knowing the season had started I knew my chances were slim, but maybe there would be another team looking. Me taking that initiative was the best decision of my life.”
In May 2013, Draper signed a contract to join Terrasvogels, officially labeling her as a professional softball player.
“I got my work visa and they had me on the next flight out,” Draper said. “I literally up and left everything. I quit both of my jobs, packed my stuff and got on a plane not knowing what to expect. All I knew was I had to put school on the back burner and pursue my dreams.”
Her mother stood by her side, as she did from day one.
“She was here [in Canada] preparing to return to Florida when the opportunity arose to play for Holland,” she said.
Rapid change and excitement undermined one major problem: Draper had not played in a competitive softball game in over 11 months because of surgery.
“I had no idea if my hip would hold up, but I couldn’t turn down this offer,” she said. “I came over here with the mentality that I would give 110 percent of what I had, and if I failed and my hip went out so be it. When I got here I had a lot of making up to do, but I was determined to be at my best again.”
The Professional Life
After countless hours dedicated to strengthening and re-establishing her body at a playing level, Draper became healthy.
“I’ve been playing with no pain,” she said. “It’s incredible that I beat the odds and made a great comeback at the highest level.”
There may not have been much recognition while playing at school, but now Draper finds herself being an icon.
“I wake up and play the sport I love for a living and it’s great because in our town, if people see you wearing our team name, they know who you are and will ask you about the games. It’s great.”
One can assume once you make it to the big leagues, your work ethic drops, but your paycheck remains the same. Draper says she is training harder than ever.
“My roommate and I are both the foreigners on the team, so we work out a lot more because we know these teams pay a lot of money for us to come over here and we want to be able to produce the best athletes for them.”
“My days consist of working out, practicing and then game days on the weekend,” Draper said. “We do get a lot of time to travel and see things, which makes the experience over here so much better, and of course we have a monthly income.”
Draper is already off to a good start and proving to her coaches she was worth the money.
“In September, we won the European Cup, which is one of the top honors in Europe. I hit a grand slam in the championship game for a 6-2 win over the Czechs.”
“I am amazed at her journey so far and she knows how blessed she is,” Susan Draper said. “She will win with style and lose with grace. That’s my Robyn; humble, thankful and grateful for all opportunities given to her. To put it in her words, ‘she’s just living the dream.’ ”
Jud Damon, Flagler College’s director of athletics, is happy to see Robyn flourish, too.
“Robyn is a great young lady, a hard worker and a very talented softball player,” Damon said. “We are very proud of her and wish her great success in her professional endeavors.”
Draper says her success has a lot to do with her parents.
“They have sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am today, and I can only pray one day to be half as amazing as they are,” Draper said. “They’re my motivation to want to be great.”
A long way from home
There are four words to summarize her story: work ethic, sacrifice, perseverance and dedication.
“I have overcome a lot to be where I’m at today,” Draper acknowledged. “I have battled with depression, near death, other ailments, a shoulder surgery and a major hip surgery that should have prevented me from playing this year. I think everyone needs to know, if you have a dream and you’re committed to that dream, anything is possible. Obstacles will come your way, but how you handle them will determine your fate. Softball saved my life, and to be honest I think if I didn’t have those obstacles, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to be at the level I’m at now.”
Draper’s whole life was dedicated to softball, and with thousands of other softball players competing for that one spot on a professional roster, she managed to stand out above the rest and make a name for herself.
“For her to have an opportunity to play on the international stage is a true testament to all her hard work and perseverance,” Susan Draper said.
And if you think her parents are worried she’s overseas, guess again.
“I’m not at all worried about Robyn playing in Europe,” her father said. “If you know Robyn at all, you’d be more worried about Europe.”