The Base Path Less Traveled
By Mara Rudolph
(Originally published in the Summer 2012-13 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.)
Strolling across campus in a flowing tank top, high-waisted cutoff shorts and a pair of Chuck Taylors with her long, blond locks falling from a hippie headband across her forehead, Britt Vonk looks less like a softball player and more like she came straight out of a late-1960s Berkeley postcard. It’s easier to imagine her lying in the sun on Memorial Glade reading a book than picture her speeding along the base paths around a softball diamond.
The Netherlands transplant moved halfway across the world for her athletic scholarship after turning heads in Europe for her impressive performances with her club team and the 2008 Dutch Olympic squad. Instead of meeting Berkeley’s eccentricities with culture shock, she welcomed them. It was perfect fit when you consider that Vonk’s journey has been less about “finding herself,” and more about embracing it.
“There are so many different types of people here,” Vonk said. “It was very different, very new, and I liked it from the beginning. I’ve always been free-spirited, but it grew more when I got here. I’ve met so many new people – so many great people – that are on the same page and feel the same way about having a free spirit and inner peace. Berkeley’s the perfect place.”
Vonk loves the surrounding nature, which is perfect for meditating, and especially loves meeting new people at area food-truck gatherings.
“It’s something that reminds me of home,” Vonk said. “There’s a bunch of people that I don’t even know, and we all come together and eat food. Everyone is welcome.”
Now preparing for her senior year, Vonk has settled in to her American home and gets to play the sport that she describes as her life every day while getting a world-class education. But it didn’t always seem that Vonk would be able to play softball and attend a university simultaneously. It took a journey from Holland to the U.S. and China to make it happen.
Vonk’s global expedition began at age 10, when she tagged along to a friend’s softball practice with the Tex Town Tigers in her hometown of Enschede, a city nearly 100 miles from Amsterdam on the German border. Growing up, Vonk’s life was surrounded with sports. Her father, Theo, was a professional soccer player and is now a head coach; her mother, Tanja, was a professional water polo player; and her brother, Kaj, and two half-brothers played soccer.
“My parents never pushed me into a sport, they just allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted to do,” Vonk said.
Softball caught on, as did track & field in high school. But unlike the American youth sport culture, sports weren’t included in Vonk’s daily curriculum.
“Here in the U.S., you play so many different sports in school,” Vonk said. “Back home, the school system is very different. We don’t include sports in school, so I used to go to school and then play for my club team in my spare time. It was always kind of a struggle because I was playing at a pretty high level, sometimes traveling, and they didn’t have a combination of both. They treated me the same as every other student while I put so much other time into sports.”
By 2006, Vonk was playing with the Dutch Junior Team. She loved softball, and when she heard about combining school and sports as student-athlete in the United States, she was excited but unsure if it was an option for her. She only knew of a handful of Dutch players who were recruited by American universities.
“When I look at all of my teammates here, they had probably already committed when I was just learning about the possibility of being a collegiate athlete,” Vonk said. “It wasn’t something I had dreamed about my whole life. It was something I wanted to do but didn’t know if it was possible for me.”
Her athletic prowess proved it was possible. Vonk was 16 when coaches approached her to ask if she would be interested in stepping up to practice with the Dutch National Team after she was awarded “Best Hitter” following the MastenBroek Tournament.
With just a week before the national team was set to leave for a month-long training session in the United States, one of the athletes injured herself. Coaches asked Vonk if she’d like to fill in for the injured player. Most of the team members had trained together for four years to try to make the Olympic squad, but when Vonk stepped onto the diamond for the team’s American tour, she was the one turning heads. She made her debut in the opening game against the Philadelphia Force as a pinch-hitter. Pinch-hitting again in the following day’s game, she collected her first base hit and scored her first run. By the third game, Vonk was a starter in the middle infield, reaching base three times and scoring once.
“I played in a way where I had no pressure,” Vonk said. “All those girls, they were nervous. They still hadn’t finalized the team yet. People were still getting cut, and everyone was feeling the pressure. I didn’t think I would even get a chance. It helped me play really well. I hit crazy numbers, played really well on the field.”
Scheduled to play with the Dutch junior squad in the 2008 European Championships in Germany, Vonk assumed that when she landed in Holland, it would be the end of her run with the national team.
“The next day, I got the call to join the Olympic team. I cried,” she said.
Vonk was one of 15 softball players named to the Dutch Olympic delegation at the 2008 Beijing Games. At 17, she was the youngest of the 240 Dutch athletes in China.
“I wasn’t truly aware of the scale of what I was doing,” Vonk said. “My teammates practiced for it for four years. I came in three months before the Olympics, and I didn’t have that same dream. Going to the Olympics was a far-off goal, but it all happened so fast that I came back and I don’t think I fully realized the magnitude of it. You can’t compare that experience to anything.”
Though she hadn’t grasped the magnitude of her accomplishment, others did. Linda Wells, one of Vonk’s coaches with the national team and head coach at Arizona State from 1989-2005, recommended Vonk to Cal head coach Diane Ninemire. In the fall of 2009, Ninemire sent assistant coach John Reeves to scout Vonk in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Vonk’s team traveled for a weekend showcase.
“Coach John was the only coach from all the schools who approached me personally,” Vonk said. “I connected with him right away, so that first impression of Cal was already really good.”
She signed in the spring of 2010, hopped on a plane and arrived in the Bay Area a day before classes started in August. Though initially she was homesick, once softball practice started she embraced her new life, finishing the season with a .415 batting average, which was good for fourth in the Cal season record book. Vonk was also tabbed Pac-10 All-Freshman, all-region and second-team all-conference. She has since carried that success into subsequent seasons, and along the way has found plenty of moments of “inner peace.”
“Part of my free spiritedness is about living in the now,” Vonk said. “Experiencing everything we have at this moment and just being present in the present. One day, I walked up to the C painted on the hill overlooking the stadium. On that walk up there, you can see everything. There’s a swing on a super big tree, and you can swing and feel like you’re swinging into Berkeley. You see the whole Bay Area. It’s beautiful. How could I not feel blessed and happy with my life?”