Cooper Strong

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

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| This is the 90th story of Our Life Logs |

When I was a little girl, I can remember my dad saying to me, my brother, and my sister: “Your papaw was a good man, and I’ve tried my best to stick to my morals. Now, it’s your turn. You all are the last chance at preserving our legacy. Make our name mean something in this little town.” From an early age my brother, my sister, and I wore the Cooper name like a uniform.

My kindergarten school photo.
My kindergarten school photo.
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I was born in 1971, and raised in Tick Ridge in Ray, Ohio. Tick Ridge is a tiny plot of land in Appalachia. The closest amenities are a few clusters of housing, a church, and a few commercial buildings. While the people of Tick Ridge are few, they are mighty. It’s home to country kids who are used to a hard day’s work and supporting their family. Isolated from bigger towns, we thought everyone lived like we did. We didn’t know we were poor, because well, everyone was. We cared more about being the fastest and strongest more than we cared about what owned. I only had one pair of shoes until I started playing sports, and they were a pair of brown saddle oxfords. I wore them to school, to church, and to play. Life was less about things, and more about what we could do.

Me (in front with the brown dress shoes) during my elementary school’s field day races.
Me (in front with the brown dress shoes) during my elementary school’s field day races.

As my interests in sports grew, my father realized that my dress shoes weren’t going to cut it. After some penny-pinching, he brought home two pairs of tennis shoes, one for my sister, and one for me. We giggled as we walked around the house in our matching lavender Nikes, with a terry cloth heel and toe, and dark purple swooshes on either side. The same year I started playing sports was the year “we went to town,” so to speak. We had to travel 13 miles to town to play on the little league basketball teams. My parents were so supportive of us—my mother even coached many of our teams in grades school including basketball, softball, and football. We were undefeated in every sport.

Tick Ridge didn’t have a school building for any of the upper grades, so we had to enroll at the public school in Jackson, Ohio. To anyone else, Jackson is just another small town, but to us, we saw it as uncharted territory, flooded with new faces. I had gone to school with the same 25 kids my whole life until that point. The first days of seventh grade were so overwhelming, but eventually, my siblings and I settled in. At the beginning of that year, we played volleyball in gym class. I must have impressed my teacher, because he called me over to ask why I wasn’t on the school’s team. I promptly explained that I loved playing sports, but I transferred in too late to join a team. Turns out, my teacher was the volleyball coach, and made a spot for me. I didn’t know it then, but my life would never be the same.

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I had worked tirelessly to keep my grades up and work my hardest on the volleyball team, so I would get noticed. I won many awards while playing in high school including player of the year in every sport I played. I wanted the Cooper name to appear in the headlines of the local newspaper. The success I had with volleyball made me think I could make it outside my community. Tick Ridge was my home, but my dreams had grown bigger than the property lines. I had my mind set on attending The Air Force Academy to become a pilot. I knew I could try out for the Olympic Volleyball team through them, and I wanted to see how far I could go.

To be able to apply to the Air Force academy, you must get nominated by your state representative. Only one boy and one girl are picked in each Congressional district per state. I was one of them. I knew going to the academy, I would have been in a little fish in a huge pond, but I was up for the challenge.

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During my last year of high school, months after my acceptance, my parents began having health issues and needed surgery. My brother was going to be getting married and leaving soon, and I didn’t feel like I could leave at a such a crucial, chaotic time. I hadn’t told a soul I was even thinking about giving up my spot in the AFA, but one day after school, I picked up the telephone and called the academy to apologize and decline their offer. Everyone was shocked. I had no college lined up and wasn’t sure what I would do after high school. Local colleges scrambled to contact me once they found out that the Cooper girl turned down her scholarship.

A few days later, I was called to the principal’s office. I was a good student, with an immaculate record, so I thought I was getting some sort of certificate. Turns out, I had a lunch date with the head volleyball coach from the University of Rio Grande. Rio Grande was a very small university, only about 35 minutes away, so the coach suggested that I could still stay at home and go there. She asked me what it would take to get me to come play volleyball for them. With an honest face I said, “ma’am, it would take a full ride because my parents don’t have the money.”

She looked at me and said, “done.”

She wasn’t bluffing. I didn’t have to pay for so much as a pencil. Though it wasn’t the academy, I still got to play volleyball, and while the chance was slim, I could still work toward my Olympic dreams. All I needed to do was to obtain an All-American title, though this is hefty feat for an athlete at such a small school. But I was determined. You could even say that I double-majored in special education and in volleyball, as I treated both like a degree.

Me (left) with a friend, 1991.
Me (left) with a friend, 1991.
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I was rookie of the year my freshman year and honorable mention All-American by the time I was a junior. My senior year, I did obtain the All-American title, which gave me an invite to try out for the US Olympic volleyball team. I couldn’t believe it! I was finally getting a chance to pursue my dream.

Most colleges fall under the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) umbrella that represents about 1200 schools, but the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes) where Rio Grande fell under only represents about 300 schools. I was the only NAIA athlete trying out.

During tryouts, I was often overlooked because at 5’11”, I was shorter than a lot of the other girls, and because I wasn’t wearing any gear with the branding of a well-known college. I had worked hard to get to these tryouts, and I was going to give it my all because I knew I deserved to be there.

I did well at these tryouts, but many of my opponents did well, too. Though I made it far, I was not chosen to be a part of the 1996 Olympic volleyball team. It was disappointing, but I was still thankful for the opportunity. I had done it. I tried out for the Olympics. The fact alone made me feel fulfilled. The story of me trying out for the Olympics has helped me get every job ever since then.