Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — When Sophie Fulkerson’s doctor placed his hand on her shoulder, she felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach.
The words that came next still ring in Sophie’s mind like a broken record.
“We’re going to set you up for surgery in two weeks,” the doctor said, solemnly.
With tears in her eyes, Sophie immediately looked at her mother, knowing her junior volleyball season had reached an early end.
“It was difficult. Anybody who knows me knows that volleyball has been my life since an early age. That’s what I’ve put my passion into,” Sophie said. “When that ended, going home that day, I don’t think I’ve felt more heartbroken in my entire life.”
On Sept. 1, 2018, while playing in the championship match of the Unioto Invitational, Sophie collided with a teammate while going for a loose ball. And immediately, pain set in.
“The previous weekend, Unioto had beaten us and it was a pretty close game. So I was psyched about it,” Sophie said. “It was about six or seven serves into the game and one of my teammates bumped into me. I went to the back of the court in so much pain. My shoulder felt like it had completely fallen out of place.”
Sophie didn’t play again that day. Sophie hasn’t played since.
“I knew the pain was bad enough to be season-ending, if not career-ending,” she said.
An MRI showed a fully torn labrum and a bankart lesion — a lesion of the anterior part of the glenoid labrum due to anterior shoulder dislocation.
That’s how Sophie’s junior volleyball season reached an abrupt end. But a new journey, one that would bring a new wave of hope and a different outlook on life, was just beginning.
Sophie just didn’t know it yet.
As a freshman, Sophie logged 134 kills, 30 aces and 144 digs onto her resume. She then topped those numbers as a sophomore, posting 205 kills, 61 aces and 237 digs.
Over the course of those two years, the Cavaliers were 33-15 overall and won two conference titles — one in the South Central Ohio League and one in the Frontier Athletic Conference.
So, with momentum behind her, to say she was excited for her junior season to begin is an understatement.
“I was so ready for my junior year to start. I wanted to win a championship, I wanted to earn conference and district honors. I had goals,” Sophie said. “When I went to the doctor at first, I was actually initially misdiagnosed. They told me I was just sore. I had hoped they were right and that I’d be fine. But it didn’t get better. So we got a second opinion and the MRI showed that it was completely torn. Just heartbreak. That’s what I felt. It was hard knowing what I loved had been taken from me.”
Out of Chillicothe’s 70 sets played in 2018, Sophie was a part of just 25. Still, in that time alone, she managed to tally 108 kills, 14 aces and 61 digs. The Cavaliers went on to win the Frontier Athletic Conference title — the program’s fourth consecutive league crown.
But Sophie, who was understandably excited for her teammates, was forced to watch a championship season unfold from the bench while attending physical therapy sessions.
That’s where her injury taught her a first lesson.
“I’m so proud of my teammates for what they accomplished. They earned that title,” Sophie said. “Sitting on the bench was hard for me. But I think I learned one of life’s greatest lessons and that’s that not everything is going to be about you. You have to put others before yourself.”
The lessons, however, didn’t end there.
Maybe … just maybe … Sophie suffered a season-ending injury for a reason.
“I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want to spend volleyball season sitting on a bench. But it’s not always about what we want. It’s more about what we need,” Sophie said. “These last six months have been monumental in my life. In my eyes, I just knew that God had a plan for everything. That’s how I look at things. Everything happens for a reason.”
Because of her injury, for the first time in her life, Sophie said she started to focus on things that mattered in a life sense … away from the field of play. Her mom, Shonna Phillips, and grandparents Mike and Vicki Chestnut, topped the list.
“They’re my whole world,” she said of her family. “I realized, through the injury, that every single game … my grandparents, my mom, they were sitting in the stands, cheering for me. None of them would’ve ever missed a game. Even when I was hurt, they were still at every game. So I realized they weren’t there to watch me play volleyball. They’re there to be my support system and to love me. There’s nothing greater than that. When I was upset, my mom was my shoulder to cry on. I realized that I had been taking those things for granted.”
And, her faith also soared to new heights. Just another lesson learned.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in church and I believe that’s what has pulled me together through all of this,” Sophie said. “I’ve struggled with it at times. Kids at school, when you tell them you’re a Christian, will say, ‘That’s fake. That’s not really who you are.’ It takes a lot of courage to stand up for what I believe in. I’ve found so much love and passion through Christ and the people I surround myself with. Wearing the cross around my neck … it fills me up. When you pour your heart out to others and focus on the important aspects of life, that’s when you really change.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
With a new outlook on life, Sophie also has a positive prognosis concerning her return date.
This past Tuesday, she went to the doctor hoping to be cleared to play softball … another sport she’s fallen in love with.
While that didn’t happen, there was positive news involved.
“I was in there and I was waiting for the doctor and just kept thinking, ‘Man, my shoulder feels great.’ When he walked in, he grabbed my shoulder and pulled it around and it still kinda hurt,” Sophie said. “He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to play softball.’ He says, ‘Well kid, that’s not going to happen.’ So I told him I wanted to run track and he said, ‘You got it. Just no jumping or hurdling.’ So I’m super excited about that.”
Sophie adds track to a long list of activities she’s involved in. Track allows her to earn her fourth varsity letter at Chillicothe this spring — adding to volleyball, softball and boys tennis.
But outside the lines? That’s where she really makes a difference.
She serves as the Executive President of Chillicothe’s Student Council and is a student liaison for both the school’s Keys to Success program and Board of Education. Last year, she started a program called “Friends to Friends,” a club that she says “binds kids together to break stereotypes within the school.”
She also had a hand in creating an All-City Council, where four students from every school in Ross County are handpicked to represent their peers. The group recently held their first meeting, where they discussed three things: how to unite all Ross County schools, what they can do to serve their community better, and problems that each school faces while coming up with ways they can work together to find a resolution.
“That’s where I guess you could call me a nerd,” Sophie said, laughing. “I love serving on Student Council, I love representing my classmates at Board of Education meetings. Sometimes, I’d much rather do those things than play volleyball even.”
But make no mistake about it, getting back to the court for her senior year is still a top priority.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of time in the gym and that’s what fueled my fire before the injury,” she said. “But I cannot wait to be back in there and just do my thing. I’m excited to just get back to the grind. I know that sounds crazy but I can’t wait to get back to it.”
Sophie, who wants to major in Education with a minor in Youth Ministry, has visited several colleges. However, both Asbury University and Huntington University — both Christian schools — have stood out above the rest.
“Both of those … I just love the environments and when I went, they were volleyball visits,” Sophie said. “So depending on the shoulder and how next season pans out, I’d love to play volleyball. That’s the goal.”
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Sophie Fulkerson has transformed a tragic event in her life to a positive. But that’s all about perspective, the way she dealt with the injury head on.
She could’ve moped. She could’ve thrown a pity party.
But instead, she stood tall in the face of adversity and whipped its tail with all her might.
Wherever life leads her, success will follow. Sophie’s proven that continuously.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I wouldn’t have started to focus on things that matter,” Sophie said. “I’ve given a lot of time to schoolwork, I’m spending a lot more time with family and friends and I’m dedicating my life, for the first time, to something that’s not sports.”