When last we spoke, indomitable Abby Vestal, one of my all-time favorite athletes, was busy making arrangements before heading out of town to chase a dream.
She found someone (her brother) to live in her Lawrence house and care for her dog, someone (a former Kansas University’s club rugby teammate) to watch her pet snake and someone else (another KU rugby teammate) to watch her pet rat.
She was and still is busy trying to find sponsors to help her and her parents defray the costs pursuing her dream.
She was preparing to put her life on hold to challenge long odds. In other words, she had the world right where she wanted it. She was in her wheelhouse.
Tell Abby Vestal she can’t do something, and watch the Tasmanian devil of a competitor buck the odds and do it. Back in her days at Lawrence High, that meant, tell her she can’t play on the football team because it’s a boys sport. Then watch her become the team’s kicker. Ditto for professional football, where she became a kicker for an arena team that never did pay her.
On June 11, Vestal put her life on hold to move to Little Rock, Arkansas, site of the American Rugby Pro Training Center, one of a handful of invitation-only academies for Olympic aspirants.
That team from Little Rock won the Women’s Club 7s National Championship earlier this month in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the culmination of a tremendously successful summer for Vestal and her 13 teammates.
“I think the coolest thing I’ve learned is that I can trust the person to my left and the person to my right,” Vestal said. “I have their back, and they have my back. In all the games we played, it was so obvious that we care so much about each other and trust each other on and off the field.”
For Vestal and four teammates, the summer of celebration had not ended with the championship. Vestal flipped open her computer one day, opened an email, and froze at its words. “Congratulations,” it started, “you have been invited to the Olympic Training Center camp ... ”
The men’s and women’s national teams qualified in June for spots in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but that doesn’t mean the rosters are set. The search for talent is a never-ending process, and Vestal showed enough during a summer of scrums she is worth a closer look. The camp takes place Sept. 13-18 in Chula Vista, California.
“I wasn’t keeping my hopes up, holding my breath or anything,” she said of the days leading up to the invitation. “I told myself, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’ When it came, I sat there and stared at it, and of course I immediately called my parents. All the hard work is paying off and will continue to pay off.”
It’s been a big summer for former famous Lawrence High athletes. Bulldog of a lefty Albert Minnis, who led the Lions to the 2009 state title in his junior season, was promoted Monday to the Houston Astros Double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Minnis, 23, was drafted out of Wichita State by the Astros with the first pick of the 25th round in 2013. He’s in his third professional season and consistently has ranked among league leaders in groundball-to-flyball ratio. That’s a nice quality for a situational left-handed reliever who will enter games with men on base. His strikeout numbers were better this season than in his first two, another encouraging sign.
Vestal and Minnis haven’t realized their ultimate dreams yet, but they’re doing everything in their power to keep themselves in contention, thanks to such strong competitive spirits.