Country singer Gary Allan released his broken-hearted tune “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” more than a decade ago now, long before the lyrics would turn out to mean the world to Katelyn Driscoll.
“Life ain’t always beautiful, sometimes it’s just plain hard. Life can knock you down, it can break your heart.”
Go ahead. I dare ya. Pop on that song within earshot of the outside hitter for the Oregon State volleyball team and there’s a good likelihood she’ll finish the rest of the words for you. Not with tears that would make any country singer proud, but with an ear-to-ear smile completely at odds with the song’s initial few lyrics.
“You think you’re on your way, and it’s just a dead-end road at the end of the day.”
She’s got her reasons though. Reasons why the song’s so important to her. Why her smile’s always there, despite life trying its level-best to knock her down, break her heart, all the while giving her perfect turn-by-turn directions to that dead-end road at day’s end.
Driscoll is…a presence. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. For starters, she’s 6’5”, which is reason enough. But no, that’s not it. There’s a vibrancy that surrounds her - in the tone of her voice (which can boom with excitement when she talks about her family, friends and teammates); in the laughter that’s never more than a second away; and definitely in the gleam of her eyes – a gleam Gary Allan would be embarrassed to display during the singing of a sad country song.
“Three hundred houses in our neighborhood, everyone knew everyone,” Katelyn says of her hometown of Littleton, Colorado. “Dinner at the neighbors. Trampolines. The dock at the waterside of a nearby lake. That’s where I grew up.”
It wasn’t much of a surprise that she gravitated toward sports. Her father, Patrick, is in the mortgage industry, but used to lock arms as a professional rugby player with the Denver Barbarians. Her mother, Brenda, is an interior designer, but carries a sporting background of her own in cheerleading and, yes, volleyball.
Volleyball now makes perfect sense, in hindsight, but it was swimming that topped Katelyn’s list back in the day. “Oh yeah, loved it,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “I was a huge swimmer growing up.”
She was pretty much huge with most sports – long as it meant being around friends. Ask Patrick and Brenda how much those friends meant to their daughter and you’ll probably find “the world” tucked right in the first sentence of their answer. Driscoll herself admits she can be a little overprotective when it comes to family and friends.
Kind of explains why, when a friend pushed her to try-out for volleyball, she agreed without blinking an eye. It was only a matter of time, right? After all, her mother played the game. But the other reason volleyball (often called the sport that men invented, but women perfected) now made total sense was that Katelyn’s 5’6” was on a steady path to 6’ and eventually on to 6’5”. Plus it didn’t hurt that she took to the game in a heartbeat from a standpoint of both skill and desire. Asked if she agrees with that scouting report, Driscoll shrugs and says, “I was tall. I could hit the ball.”
The first recruiting letter came from Clemson University in South Carolina. A recruiting FORM letter to be more accurate, or as she now describes it with an embarrassed roll of the eyes: a recruiting form letter “of interest.” None of which stopped her, of course, from running straight into the kitchen to tell her mother, “Hey Mom! I’m going to Clemson!”
If only it had been that easy. Things have a way of getting complicated when tall outside hitters who strike the ball with power start raising eyebrows. Form letters of interest soon become actual recruiting letters, and a good share of those go on to become Division One scholarship offers. In Katelyn’s case, offers to play at UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Hawaii and Oklahoma – just to name a few.
But the one other offer that was sitting on that table in Littleton, Colorado, mixed in with the rest of the envelopes, was one from the University of Colorado. Driscoll had already decided it’d be good for her to attend a school not in her own backyard – a place where she could grow on her own. Which made it all the more surprising when she decided to head to nearby Boulder.
“I told myself, okay, I’ll go for a year and see if it works out,” Katelyn says, growing serious for a moment. “But now I know it was an early, immature decision to go somewhere so close to home, which…kind of led to a bit of a falling out,” she adds, without elaborating.
So, with a stack of scholarship offers long relegated to the recycling bin, Driscoll went back to square one, revisiting the schools she realized she should have been focusing on all along. Including one in Corvallis.
“I’d pushed Oregon State to the back burner,” she admits, “which was a mistake.” Especially for someone who grew up having dinner at the neighbors. Trampolines. The dock at the waterside, remember? A place that’d feel just like that, she remembers thinking. “I didn’t have anyone I knew there, but it really did feel like home. Everybody in athletics interacting with everyone in the other sports. You don’t see that at most colleges.
She picked up a quick, hard case of homesickness, of course, but managed to shake it off within a few weeks. It wasn’t too long after that, though, when the first strains of a sad, still-unheard country music song started playing in the background – ready to accompany an unexpected string of injuries. Driscoll struggles with it even now. “Look, I only had a dislocated pinky before college,” she notes, wiggling it just to make sure, “then all of a sudden I start getting all these injuries. And I wasn’t healing well at all. It’s hard, y’know? I was there at every practice, but I wasn’t on the court.”
But the pain of not playing was nothing compared to what she was about to experience. One of her very closest friends in high school took her own life, sending Katelyn – a young woman who valued, and still values, friendship so much - into a shock zone of both emotion and grief. She went back home to comfort and mourn with friends who were feeling the same, but knew she could only stay so long before the college calendar would call her back.
“But the struggles make you stronger, and the changes make you wise. And happiness has it’s own way of taking its own sweet time.”
It was when Driscoll returned to Corvallis that her decision to attend Oregon State fell into clearer focus – teammates rallying around her, supporting her, doing everything they could. That’s what family does when a member of the family’s in pain; hurting from the loss of a close friend, hurting because she couldn’t take part in the sport that was the very reason she was here.
Or was it?
It’s sometimes easy to forget these aren’t just “athletes” we’re talking about, they’re student-athletes – a description Driscoll was taking very seriously. As with a good many college students, the first major often gets kicked to the curb the minute another is discovered. And in Katelyn’s case, the discovery was speech communications.
“Didn’t really plan on that one,” she grins, raising her eyebrows, “but I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s taught me a lot.”
One of her Speech Comm professors, Colin Hesse, couldn’t agree more, noting that, “Katelyn’s one of those students who you know is there. She’s very inquisitive. Lets you know what material she likes, what she doesn’t like, what she doesn’t agree with.”
And even though the parade of injuries was still preventing her from making a consistent impact on the court, Hesse says that inquisitive nature was allowing Katelyn to make an impact in the classroom. “When I read her papers, I could see how she was choosing terminology that fit into her own life. Her writing improved so dramatically, I always love seeing that. The last paper she gave me was definitely the best one she’d written.”
The unexpected loss of a close friend always becomes a part of the surviving friend’s life. But there are things to be found that can help shape the role those memories play. Driscoll received an invitation to take part in one of the “Beavers Without Borders” trips – a series of humanitarian excursions to areas that need it most. For those who’ve been a part of the effort, the impact is often hard to describe. Former OSU football player Markus Wheaton doesn’t waste words when he says, “It changed my life.”
“I went on the Dominican Republic trip,” Katelyn says, her eyes lighting up once again. “We planted a field just using sticks, worked six hours a day,” before adding with a good amount of awareness, “the people there were amazing. They base their whole lives on family, friendship. Lots of love and laughter. Kids aren’t usually around tall athletes, so I was giving out a whole bunch of piggyback rides.”
“No, life ain’t always beautiful. Tears will fall sometimes…”
Driscoll’s a senior now - her collegiate days counting down much too quickly for her liking. Yes, the injuries have kept her off the court more than she could have imagined, and yes, there are some fans who give a wink and a nod to the term “student-athlete.” But Katelyn has grown into an example of where the two words are very much in the proper order.
“Yeah, I kind of stumbled my way into Oregon State, but I can’t imagine myself anywhere else now.” She finishes the thought with a heavy dose of gratitude, “I can’t see any other place that would have stuck with me the way OSU has.”
Good few years of her life? Here in Corvallis? “Oh, absolutely,” she nods hard enough you worry she might hurt her…wait, scratch that. “Best years of my life. No question.”
And just when you think the finishing lyrics of Gary Allan’s song might find a way to stay as dark as the opening ones, Katelyn Driscoll will rattle them right off for you – every word committed to heart.
“Life ain’t always beautiful. But it’s a beautiful ride.”
Photo and story courtesy of Beaver Athletics.
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