Winner of three championships, with as many teams, on two different continents, Britt Vonk has had a very good, and busy, season.
The Netherlands native, and UC Berkeley Alumn, has played softball for teams in Australia, Italy, the United States and on the Dutch national team, and that’s just in the last year.
We caught up with Britt while she was training for the playoffs with her Italian teammates. That’s right, her season is still in full swing and there may yet be a 4th title/team to finish out her year.
Tell us about your softball roots…
I started playing pretty late. I was 10. As you know, softball is not a huge sport in Europe, or Holland. I had this friend of mine, who I’m still friends with, in middle school. She was like, ‘You should come checkout softball. We need players.’ I was, at the time, running track and was more interested in a team sport anyway. I really enjoyed it and stuck with it.
When I was 14 an American coach was the first one to tell me about the whole college system. I had no idea. No one really knew. It was like this light bulb went on in my head and I thought, I want to do that. That’s my dream, to go to the States.
So since I was 14 I just started working toward that goal. At 16 I joined the Dutch national team. They were, back then, training for the Olympics, so it was crazy even being asked to join the team. There were also two American coaches then. They invited me for some training.
One of the girls got hurt so I went with the team to train in the US. I did really well and joined the team right before the Olympics.
After the Olympics I went to a showcase in California. Cal and Stanford and Washington, all the big-named schools, were there.
What did you study at UC Berkeley?
I had interdisciplinary studies. It was a mixture of three fields. I studied Sociology, History and Peace & Conflict.
Was International relations your goal?
Yeah, human rights, that kind of stuff. It was really cool.
You finish studying and then what?
I was doing other jobs until a few months ago. Softball got back into the Olympics and, two years ago, Holland was ranked in the top four worldwide. Our state provides money for Olympic athletes so we got back in that group again. Now we’re full time paid athletes. It’s a year-round job to train for the national team.
It’s nice to hear the money is being used for the athletes. Some federations have to use a great deal of their Olympic funding for facilities and equipment needs.
Yeah, the State sets it up with a certain structure that they have to follow. Like, you’re getting this amount of money but you also need to spend it on your players. It cannot just be spent on upgrades.
It’s so cool. So awesome. We had it during the Olympics back in 2008 and I think it went on until 2010. Then, because we weren’t in the Olympics anymore, we just lost the funding.
You’re in Italy right now so what are you doing in terms of your training?
I’m in Italy now until October, playing in the playoffs here.
You’ve lived in Italy, the US, Australia, The Netherlands – is that all of them?
Where I’ve lived yes, but I’ve traveled, obviously, to a lot more.
When you go to these teams are you moving by yourself or with family?
By myself. When I was in Australia I traveled around there and I also went to Southeast Asia like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam for like four months. I traveled there and then went home.
You’ve moved a lot. How are you dealing with the cultural and physical changes?
Moving to the US was the first time I was really on my own. Knowing I was going to spend the next five years there it was a big step. Back then there was no FaceTime and Skype was new.
To be honest, I was really homesick for like four or five months but the cool thing about softball is you’re always surrounded by teammates.
It’s not like you’re going to go to a country just on your own, by yourself, with no one around you. You’re going to spend time with your teammates. That really helped.
Back then I couldn’t speak the language very well so that really helped. It doesn’t matter where you’re gonna travel, if you’re with your teammates it’s fine. You have people around you.
I like the culture shock every time when I go somewhere new. Just having to adapt. I’ve noticed myself really, adapting as a person, to the people around me. It’s cool. I think you grow as a person.
Do you have any advice for someone new to the process?
Just be open-minded I would say. Be open-minded wherever you go.
Do you find yourself picking up the mannerisms or customs of the people and culture surrounding you?
The more you hang out with a person, yeah. I do that.
Do languages come easy to you?
In Italy I follow some of it. If I were to stay for a couple more months I think I could make my way around. I think I have an ear for it.
What’s been your favorite takeaway from those experiences of traveling?
Seeing the different cultures. Not only the country itself but the softball culture, how different it is.
It was cool to notice, because there were two Americans that came over last week for the Cup. It was the first time that they actually saw European softball. Seeing their reaction and how different we play. It’s very different.
What’s different about it?
I think the different mentality. Europe is obviously a bit behind compared to the US, in terms of just skills. But I think Europeans have sort of more fun or something. It’s not really professionally played. They have a regular job and they just do it for fun and there’s just more passion in it I think.
I think not a lot of people realize that, if you’re in the top level of your country you are a professional player. Even though you don’t get paid you are playing in the top league. You’re the best in your sport in your country playing in the best competition.
We’ve heard from baseball players who say it’s hard to make friends with teammates on the professional level in the US because they may be competing for the same job plus, depending on team movement, one of them could be gone the next day.
That sounds so familiar because that same thing happens in the NPF (National Pro Fastpitch) too, in the professional league in the US. It’s so competitive, not like you’re on a short leash but you’re also like, if you don’t perform you’re gonna get cut you know? So yeah, it’s hard to find that balance of wanting to perform and wanting to earn your spot but also being a good teammate.
It’s always a challenge at the beginning of season because that’s when you start seeing what the lineup is and who’s going to play, or not, so yeah, I think every team has to go through that. Our team, I think, was really good at it. Accepting their roles.
Do you get any backlash in the US because you’re not a US player or does your performance, or that you trained there, outweigh all of that?
Some people do know, some people don’t. I mean, obviously my teammates know, and some other players, but it’s not out in the open that I’m the only foreigner, because I think I am the only foreigner, so it’s not a problem.
Do you feel any cultural differences in the way the game is played between the US and Europe in terms of team approach to the game or the social aspects associated with the game?
I think, in the NPF you should definitely see it as a job. You’re there to work and you’re going to get paid for it. If you don’t perform well, you’re out. In Europe, not so much. That’s why I loooved last week. It was so relaxed.
I can tell, as a player too, I perform better under those circumstances than I do back in the US where you just have so much pressure on you all the time. So yeah, I love that part about European softball.
How did you get picked up by the NPF?
My senior year at Cal they asked me if I wanted to get into the draft, if I was interested. But back then it was five years of softball and I couldn’t even think about softball. I just needed a break. So I thanked them and said maybe next year.
I really wanted to go to Australia. In Australia I was talking to this one Australian girl about how I was thinking about the NPF. She told someone there that I was interested and I got an email asking if I’d like to come out and that’s how it happened.
So you skipped the draft and got a direct job offer instead?
Will you go back to Australia this winter?
No. I’ll stay in The Netherlands. Our national team coach is not allowing us to go anywhere besides Japan or the States because the league in Australia, or Italy, is just not good enough, for him, for us to leave and not train with the national team.
As a player, do you find it difficult to play across the spectrum of competitiveness and skill level?
Definitely. That’s very true. I guess the part of it being more relaxed is very nice but sometimes it can also, not be too relaxed, but you still want to play hard and have quality play.
To be honest, in Italy, they have this rule that only one foreigner can pitch and the other game an Italian has to pitch. It’s just really low level and, yeah, it’s just not as enjoyable its true.
Do you need to be challenged more?
Yes. I think I was very ready to go to America because I thought the level was not as good here. I mean, we play two games in a weekend and then one game is competitive because you face a foreigner, if you’re lucky. The other game is just not as challenging and you see yourself kind of just going backwards too as a player. You’re not improving.
Is it difficult to keep up your own training regimen, to keep yourself to the level you want to be as a player?
Definitely, especially if you’re from Europe, I think, because you can’t find it here. You have to go somewhere to find it. If there aren’t any good pitchers or players in your country then you’re kind of just stuck there.
Do you cross train with baseball, or in a different sport, to help keep physically on top of your game when you’re not mentally training for position play?
In Holland we play against men’s softball teams. Obviously they throw really hard and I think it’s good competition against them. This winter I played soccer. It kept me fit and, in the winter in Holland, you can’t really do anything other than go workout for fitness, so I played soccer too. 3-4 days a week I go to the gym but it’s not as fun either.
What are your thoughts on 2020?
Mmmm… If I think about it now, I’m already getting nervous. We were talking about it a couple of weeks ago, thinking about the qualifier. That makes me excited and nervous.
I think we have a really good preparation now as a team, now that we’ve got our status back as athletes. So I think we have really to train a lot and we have some great facilities now we can use. I think that’s going to be really good for our team. And I think we have a high chance, because we’re not for sure that we’re going. We first have to qualify. There are obviously only six teams going. We’re not even sure how the qualification will go. I think we’re going to hear that in the next few months.
If you were able to make it back, do you have anything from your first experience that you’re excited to re-experience in a different way and in a new country?
I was 17 in 2008 and, looking back, it was just all a blur.
Did you sort of just go with the flow, thinking it was natural, and not realizing what it meant at the time?
Yeah, exactly. I also made it like two months before the Olympics started so I wasn’t really mentally prepared and I think, because of my age, I didn’t really realize how big of a deal it was until I think maybe a year later in 2009. I really started to realize, ‘Wow. I went to the Olympics. This is like the best of the best. You know, it can’t get any better than this.’
I think I realized when I heard when we were out of the Olympics maybe. I just thought that was my only shot.
I think I enjoyed it to the fullest but I wish that I had known it was maybe my last time or something. It would have been different I think.
In some ways maybe it was better that you didn’t know?
Yeah, I think maybe it was probably good for my performance but like I didn’t take a lot of pictures or anything. I was just overwhelmed. So yeah, I think that would be different in 2020.
What was your favorite off the field experience?
In 2008? Meeting a lot of cool athletes. Just seeing all these different sports. I met Kobe Bryant, not even knowing that it was Kobe Bryant, which was really fun. No idea. Yeah, that was a cool experience.
After we were done I just enjoyed seeing Bejing. That was the first time I went to an Asian country so it was also a little bit of a culture shock. I saw The Great Wall. I really enjoyed that too.
Eventually you’ll be old enough that softball won’t be your career. Any ideas what that might look like for you?
Yeah, I think I have sort of in my mind that 2020 is my last season, even though I'll only be 29. I have a lot of other things I want to do. I still want to see a lot of the world and travel. I’m saving already, now, to do all that. So I think I want to continue exploring. And I’ve always had this dream that I want to have a restaurant on a boat.
It’s kind of a silly dream but I’ve always wanted to travel since I was young. I want my job to be portable, like I always want to be able to just move places. I was like, why don’t we just have a portable restaurant. I love food, and we’ll put it on a boat where you can move from city-to-city or country-to-country. Maybe like a tiny restaurant.
You’re going to be like the 2.0 of food trucks!
So you don’t get seasick.
Lots of players in the US, they stay in softball. I think I want to separate myself from the sport that I played for a while. I don’t think I’m interested in coaching. I have other abilities that I can use out there.
You don’t want to be the player that doesn’t walk away at the right time?
You seem to have struck a balance between your competitive side and enjoying life. How do you keep your competitiveness in check?
I haven’t really thought about that.
I made this promise to myself that I wanted to be the best player from Holland. Then I wanted to be the best player of Europe and now that I’m playing in the NPF I’m thinking that too. Like I do want to become the best there. Even though I know I might not be capable of doing it.
Not that awards mean anything but you know Kelly Kretschman, she’s one of the biggest players in the US and she’s like 36 years old or something. She’s been playing in the NPF for a while. She went to two Olympics and, she’s just a legend.
Still, at the age of 36, she won like Best Offensive Player in the NPF, of the highest competition, you know and I was like, 'What?' She batted like .500 over this summer. That’s so cool, you know. I would want that. I would want it, but at the same time I would not want to be 36 and still be playing. I would want something else too. So yeah, it’s kind of a struggle sometimes to decide what you want to do.
Kretschman also took home NPF Player of Year and made the All-NPF Team as an outfielder. She, in fact, batted exactly .500 with 58 hits, including 20 for extra base, 33 runs. In 2017, Vonk hit .337 with a .963 fielding percentage and hoisted the Championship trophy.
What awards have you won?
At Cal I made the All American team. Last Worlds I was Best Batter, which was pretty cool. I’ve won Best Batter awards but just in tournaments, like Europeans.
You play a couple different infielder positions. What’s your favorite spot and why?
Shortstop. You are kind of the leader of all the infielders and that’s the one position, I think, you use your athletic skills the most like your speed, your throw, your footwork – everything.
You mentioned a couple of times travel is a big part of your makeup. Do you inherit that or did you experience it as a child, or is that a you-quality?
I think that my parents were like that. My parents are also both professional athletes. My dad played soccer and my mom played water polo and they always traveled when they were younger.
When I grew up I lived in Spain for a year because my dad was coaching there, and we traveled around to countries. We moved a lot so, yeah, I think I got exposed to it pretty early on.
Do you think that is also a reason you don’t have an interest in a coaching career – like you see family in the second half of your life and you don’t want to have them uprooted?
Yeah. I think so. And like you said, I want to end on a good note. And then just start something new. Softball is a huge part of my life but I don’t think it’s my life like that.
It doesn’t define you.
Anything you want the world to know?
I think as a person you always need to continue to improve yourself so always try to find things that make you learn, that teach you different things that you don’t know.
Just always finding things that maybe make you uncomfortable and shape you as a person. Improve your sense of self. Expose you to uncomfortable situations.
I think that’s a very important thing in my life, that I know that there are still a lot of things I want to teach myself and learn so I will continue to find better strength.