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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Chelsea Zgrabik Steps Into Justin’s World

Chelsea Zgrabik may be a name that is only familiar to Atlantic Sun and long-time Team USA fans, which is an unfortunate shame. A stellar player on a somewhat-underwhelming team, Zgrabik’s star shined brightly during her entire career in an Eagles uniform.

That's Chelsea in the middle of the bottom row
of this Eagles pyramid
In her final three seasons as a collegiate athlete, Chelsea started all but four of the games she played in. A three-time all-conference selection, Chelsea clubbed forty-two home runs over that same time period.

A two-year member of the Team USA Junior Women’s National Team, Chelsea took home two championship gold medals during her time in the red, white, and blue, helping Team USA reign supreme at the 2010 Pan Am Games and 2011 World Championship.

Chelsea was named the ASun co-player of the year in 2013, and in her senior season was an all-conference first team selection and an academic all-conference.

Interviewing Chelsea is certainly a new highlight of my career. This interview is lengthy, but I highly recommend you take the time to read it. It’s THAT good. Chelsea is a storyteller, and she does an incredible job at passing along several anecdotes from different points in her career.

Justin’s World: How did you get started playing the game of softball?

Chelsea Zgrabik: I honestly don't think there was one reason why I started playing softball, but I was a multi-sport child when I was younger. I pretty much did everything. I played basketball, soccer, softball; I played ice hockey for a year; did horse back riding; taekwondo; I almost did it all. I did all of that when I lived in Ohio and when I moved to Florida in 7th grade, I realized that I was not going to be able to do everything so I really had to make a decision and choose one. So I picked softball. I was between basketball and soccer as the other two choices, but I wasn't a big fan of running and I felt like I excelled more at softball! And it stuck.



Justin’s World: Tell me about the process and what factors led to choosing FGCU as the spot for you to play and study?
CZ: *laughs* This is actually a funny question because originally I had not chosen to go to FGCU; I had chosen to go to FIU in Miami, but due to some personal reasons, that school was definitely not the choice for me and I ended up leaving the school shortly after the fall semester started. But I had always loved FGCU's campus and I had been recruited by FGCU the same time that I was recruited by Michigan and FIU, so when I left FIU, I knew that I had already fallen in love with FGCU's campus and I knew one of the players on the team already who played travel ball with me. So as soon as I got home from FIU, I applied to the school and shortly after that sent an email to coach Deiros explaining my situation and if he would be willing to accept me on the roster for the following year (I had to sit out 1 year due to losing my year of eligibility). He replied asking me to come in to talk to him and that he was definitely willing to give me a spot. 

Obviously, Deiros had recruited me prior to attending college and since one of my travel ball teammates was currently on his team, he actually talked to her about what had happened and if I was looking to go somewhere else before I had even emailed him. That made me feel a lot better because it showed that he had already knew about what happened and was interested in me coming to the school. I can't tell you how nervous I was to go in and talk to him, but as soon as I stepped foot on that campus going to meet with him, I knew that the school was definitely where I wanted to go. I felt like I was already at home on the campus and the idea of a new D1 program that was just starting to be able to play post-season actually had me excited because I wanted to help grow the program. Before I signed with FIU, when I was being recruited, I thought I wanted to go to a big school and everything and, don't get me wrong, I still wish I had the chance to go to a bigger D1 conference school, but I started to realize that with FGCU's program, I could be part of the reason that the D1 program takes off and I liked the idea of building a program. FGCU just had the right atmosphere and the right program for me to immediately know that I was at the right school. And it is only an hour away from my home in Venice, FL, so it was the perfect distance to be able to be close to my family, but still feel like I was away at college. I loved it. 

Justin’s World: Let's talk about Team USA for a moment here. You were a two-year member of the Junior National Team in 2010 and 2011; describe what it was like the first time you stepped on the field wearing the red, white, and blue.
CZ: Oh wow, the first time I stepped foot on the field with that jersey, it was unlike anything else. It is such a hard feeling to describe because it is something every girl dreams about and we grow up hoping to be there one day, but I felt like I was on top of the world and I just wanted to do everything possible to represent team USA to the fullest of my ability. Even before that though, when I had gotten my box of apparel and my uniforms, I was in awe. I still couldn't believe that I was given the opportunity to represent team USA, and I was doing it by the side of some amazing girls and athletes and I had great coaches to back me up. It was absolutely a dream come true, but when I actually got to play the first game (practice), we were down in Colombia and it really hit me. I was able to feel like I was there for a reason and it is a moment I will surely never forget. I felt like all my hard work had paid off and even though I wasn't done yet, it is one of those moments where you see yourself completing one of your dreams and that moment is just so euphoric but so indescribable at the same time. 

Justin’s World: When you first got invited to tryout for Team USA, tell me what were the first things that went through your mind.
CZ: *laughs* The funny thing is, I had no idea I had gotten invited initially. I had actually just created a whole new email address and the USA team had gotten a hold of my old email, so I hadn't even seen it. My coaches from FIU and my travel ball coach (Mike Morgan) actually called me and said, "Uhh hello?? Why haven't you responded to the email about the USA team tryout?!" and I told both of them "I had no idea that I had an email!" They told me that the deadline to accept was that day at 2 pm or noon (sometime soon), so you can imagine my panic of going into my email and frantically typing to respond to the email after I got that phone call! But after the anxiety was gone and the email was sent, I just sat there sitting on my bed staring at the email thinking, "Oh my god, this is happening" and I just sat there in utter disbelief and I was smiling and laughing and in shock at what I was reading. I was so excited. Then of course, the phone calls started pouring out to my mom, dad, and my friends. I was thrilled that I was getting the chance to go out to the tryout. Then I started getting a little nervous and I thought, "I gotta get in the gym and back in the cages!!" and I worked my tail off getting ready to go out to the tryout.

Justin’s World: And moving (back) to your collegiate career... is there one experience, opponent, or something similar that you wish you had had the opportunity to experience?
CZ: I wish I had the chance to experience the College World Series, of course, but I can tell you that I would not have traded my team and my experiences with them for the world. Yeah, we had our ups and downs, but doesn't every team? I would have loved to made it to the World Series, but I had so much fun with the girls on my team and we had some great experiences from our conference championship and going on to beat Florida in the first round of regionals (and the first year of our D1 post-season eligibility), to karaoke and playing "Heads up!" on the bus rides, in the hotel, and everywhere else we had free time. We played some great teams and we had some awesome opportunities and it was definitely 3 years of my life I will never forget... and 20+ girls that will always be my friends. 

Justin’s World: Throughout your career, you've been named to numerous all-conference and all-region teams, and taken home many awards. But is there a certain piece of hardware in your trophy case that is particularly special to you or may even be your favorite?
CZ: Ooh that's tough. Obviously my overall favorite (or most special) trophy was winning the Gold medal in Africa with the USA team, but as for college, I would have to say my favorite award would have to be my Player of the Year award I received in 2013. I was absolutely shocked to receive this award and even though I was selected as the Preseason POY, there's one special reason why I hold this one close to me and why it will always be my favorite award...  Only three weeks prior to the conference handing out the awards, I had hit the biggest road block of my life... I tore my ACL. It was in the 7th inning against USC Upstate and I was running to catch a foul ball near their dugout (1st base line) when I collided with my first baseman. As soon as she hit me, I knew something was wrong because I felt a loud "pop" and immediately felt like my leg was just hanging there, it didn't feel fully attached anymore. I immediately hit the ground and just started screaming "Something popped! Something popped!" I knew I wouldn't be returning for that game. After my coaches had lifted me into the dugout, I was immediately taken into the trainer’s room and wrapped up in an ace bandage and sent home for the night until I could get to my orthopedic in the morning. That had to be the worst night of my life, knowing that something was wrong, but not knowing exactly how bad it was. The next day, I went to my orthopedics and the first words out of his mouth were "Yep, you tore your ACL". I knew that ACL reconstruction has a high recovery rate getting back into sports so I was bummed, but I wasn't too upset. Then he kept talking... He went on to say, “You might have also torn your MCL and your meniscus... you might have the unlucky triad." My heart sank. I was absolutely in tears from both pain and worry. They sent me to get an MRI immediately and the results confirmed that I had completely torn my ACL, partially torn my MCL, and strained my PCL... My doctor told me less than 1/2 of an inch more (if that) of movement and I would have dislocated my knee and my career would have been over. Hearing those words tore me apart; how close I came to ending my career from an injury, but now I knew that I was lucky and I actually got the better of the diagnoses because at least my knee could still be fixed. I had surgery 4 days later with complete success, started rehab the next day and I ended up traveling with my team to Jacksonville the next weekend. I could not travel to conference due to possible complications that I could have from surgery, but then my coach sends out a text and congratulations (as they were out of town), stating that I was chosen as Player of the Year, and I almost broke down in tears. I could not believe that, after missing two regular-season series and the conference tournament, that I still received the POY award. I was in utter shock and so happy to hear that. It just made me that much more determined to beat my injury and get back on the field ASAP. That was by far one of the greatest moments of my life, getting chosen by the coaches of the conference and also knowing that I was fully on my way to recovery from a near career ending injury. 

Justin’s World: When did it really hit you that your career was done? Describe that feeling for me if you can.
CZ: Well, after we had lost the game in the conference tournament, I realized that it was over and of course, all of the seniors were crying because we knew that it was over, but I think I was quieter in the morning on the way to the airport. I had this feeling of emptiness, almost like I had lost something close to me, which I did because my career was over. That whole day, the game kept repeating into my head and all I could do was reminisce on my career. It was a weird feeling, but it was definitely a somber mood the whole day. I don't think it really fully set in that it was completely over though until this fall semester (2014) started. Once it got to that time of the summer, when people were getting dorm stuff and moving back onto campus, I started realizing that I wasn't going back and then it really set in that it was over. After I started seeing pictures of my teammates doing softball training and practice and team bonding things, I then realized that softball was COMPLETELY over. I realized just how much I missed it; regardless of the 7 am workouts and the daily practices, I missed everything about it. I wanted to go back and change my name and put on a wig so I could play again! *laughs* I played softball for 17 years and I didn't want it to end. I still wish I could go back! 

Justin’s World: Was playing ball post-college an option you considered?
CZ: Absolutely! I still have thoughts about trying to play professionally and I know I had a serious injury, but I am still hoping for an invite back to the National team. That would be the one thing I am still hoping for. I give hitting and catching lessons now and I will still take my free time to hit whenever I can and throw like I used to at practice. You would think I was still playing the way I am still training! But I am still up for any softball opportunities. 

Justin’s World: Now, with your playing career done, what are your plans for the future? Both when it comes to softball and life in general?
CZ: For softball, right now I am coaching with my old travel ball coach Mike Morgan with his 16U/18U team, Team Mizuno-Morgan, and I plan to keep doing that for as long as I can. I am also giving lessons at Extra Innings in Sarasota alongside my coach. I am actually finishing up my last few classes to hopefully apply to PA (physician assistant) school next year. I graduated with my degree in Psychology with a minor in Sociology, but I hadn't really known for sure what I wanted to do career-wise until last summer. I had thought about PA during one of my internships in high school, but it wasn't until last summer when I really decided that was the route I wanted to take (which explains why I have a few classes left to take). I am currently working at a hospital ER right now as a scribe for Scribe America and this will count for some clinical hours that I can add to my applications when the time comes. So I now have two jobs and I am going to school part-time until I finish up my last few classes. I'm super busy, but not any different than being a full-time student-athlete!

Justin’s World: What do you hope people remember when they hear the name "Chelsea Zgrabik"?
CZ: Ooh... If there was anything that I would hope people remember when they hear my name, it’s that I left a legacy and that I was a great person on and off the field. I try as hard as I can to help out young girls in any way possible, whether it be helping the get better skill-wise; helping them with questions about recruiting (now that I can talk to them about recruiting! Ha.); or college in general. I want to be remembered as someone who put a stamp in softball history, at FGCU especially, and I want people to remember that I was always there to help them because, from my point of view I have been through everything... the loss of eligibility, transferring schools, the professional level, the complicated work load in school, and the injuries, so I can provide a wealth of information and I want to make sure that young girls know what I went through so they feel prepared and comfortable  for the process of recruiting and being a college athlete. I am adamant on one thing, and that is making sure that during a girl’s recruiting years, that the school they choose is a school they absolutely could see themselves at for four years. There are a lot of people that don't realize that “verballing” as a freshman looks good socially, but they really have no idea who they are going to be in four years. I really push my girls that I coach to fully take the time to look into the schools that are recruiting them and the pros and cons of each. I want every one I come into contact with to know that they are about to have the best four years of their life, and then they can make their decision. I would hate to see the kids I coach or teach go through the same thing I went through. I pride myself in being honest and providing an endless slew of information for them to contact me whenever they want. Most of them have my cell phone and I tell them to text me if they ever need anything because I want to help them!

Justin’s World: Let's end on a fun one! Say you were stranded on a deserted island and could take any three things with you. No boats, no phones. What would you take?​​
CZ: Oh, tough one! What would I take... hmm. I guess I would take a large box of matches for fire, a knife for whatever I need it for, and I would probably take one of my friends (even though they would really hate me if I took them to a deserted island with me!) That way I can kill/build whatever I need with the knife to eat and survive, cook and stay warm with fire, and have some company so I don't feel completely alone *laughs* I honestly would like getting away from technology for a while so no cell phone might be nice!

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