MIYAZAKI, Japan – Vanessa Riopel only wants the ball when the game is on the line.
Performing to her potential in pressure-packed situations, the Canadian Women’s National Team right-hander will pitch in any inning at any time, but Riopel does her best when the stakes are highest. With the IBAF Women’s Baseball World Cup quickly approaching, taking place from September 1 to 7, the hurler is excited to once again take the hill against the world’s best.
“I’m thinking less when I’m really stressed,” Riopel said. “When I have a lot of pressure, that’s where I always pitch well. I’ve pitched against USA and Japan and I’ve been really stressed, and I did well. I realized after I pitched in a game that wasn’t stressful and I didn’t do well that I perform better [under] pressure and I think that’s my role on this team.”
A member of Team Canada over the last seven years, the 24-year-old has continued to develop her game and become a mainstay in the squad’s rotation.
“She’s an ace,” manager Andre Lachance said. “She can pitch against any team. I have full confidence in her getting on the mound against anyone and she’ll get the ball in key games, no doubt.”
Added Riopel: “I like to pitch against USA and Japan because they’re the best teams. Japan is more defensive and they bunt more and everything, and USA is strong, but I want to pitch every game.”
Putting in plenty of time on and off the diamond leading up to the World Cup tournament, Riopel is most looking forward to just finally getting out there.
“I am totally ready and I’m so excited,” she said. “I worked out a lot during the off-season, I worked really hard, and I play with men’s teams at a high level during the summer to be ready. They’re better than me so I think it’s good, and I get to throw a lot.”
Playing in a men’s league in Quebec helped prepare Riopel for the calibre of competition and high-pressure situations she might face throughout the event in Miyazaki.
“I try to do the same routine everywhere,” Riopel said. “I want it to be the same as here [at the World Cup] so I always simulate that. When I play with men it’s more stressful because they’re really good, but I try to [control] my stress so I’m ready to have that pressure here. I only pitch well when I’m stressed so I need that.”
The native of Repentigny, QC often has added familiarity out on the mound during her time with the women’s team, since she has thrown to battery mate Stephanie Savoie (La Pocatiere, QC) for almost a decade in their home province.
“We have played together since 2005 in Quebec,” Riopel said. “It’s good. We have a really good relationship so it helps make me feel secure. And she feels that too – she knows my pitches, she knows how I feel, she knows what to tell me when I’m not good and what to tell me when I am.”
It doesn’t hurt that Riopel and Savoie also speak the same language, both as Francophone players, though they’ve made a big effort to speak English with the rest of their teammates. Riopel went from knowing less than a handful of English words when she joined the roster in 2007 to now having everyday fluent conversations with the rest of the team.
“It was not strong,” Riopel said of her English before baseball. “Then I went to Australia [to play] for eight months. It was the worst. The first two months I was crying because it was hard. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I had to start again. They don’t talk like [Canadians]. After three months, I started getting better. Now I try to watch a lot of English movies to keep my English [strong] during the year.”
Riopel is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, and adding another language to her repertoire is far from the most impressive. Born with a foot abnormality categorized as clubfoot, the pitcher could qualify to compete at events as a Paralympic athlete, but the only reason she stands out on the mound is for her high level of competition and talent.
“They had to break it [in multiple places] and reset it,” Riopel said of her left foot. “The first year I had a cast and every week they were pushing my foot, every Sunday they would cut and push for one year. After that they realized it wasn’t okay so they broke [the top of my foot] and all the toes and they opened it. From [age] zero to one it didn’t grow – when you grow a lot – and it was in a cast.”
The right-handed hurler doesn’t remember the procedures she had to go through when she was just an infant, but she has been left with some repercussions, including her left foot being almost two full sizes smaller than her right and not being able to complete the same actions.
“I was one year old so I don’t remember any [pain],” Riopel said. “It was more painful for my parents to do it. My mom was crying, but it was fine. I’m not strong [in my left foot] now, I can’t jump; there’s no flexibility.”
The righty experiences no discomfort while on the hill, though the affected foot does tend to get fatigued more quickly and some pain lingers occasionally through the night after high-impact activities.
“It gets tired if I run a lot,” Riopel said. “Spikes are not comfy, and when we have a long day [at the field], during the night it’s painful…I tried to make it stronger but it didn’t do anything and I tried to make it more flexible but nothing changed.”
Riopel’s impressive drive, attitude and work ethic are just a few of the many attributes the team’s skipper has been impressed by since he first met the young pitcher.
“I’m really proud of her,” Lachance said. “Not only because of her handicap, but because she took it hard the first time she was cut in 2008. She didn’t make the team when we came here to Japan in 2008 but I told her, ‘You can make a decision – you can say, I’m not good, or you can become better,’ and that’s when she went to Australia…
“She came back stronger, she made the team after, and she’s been with us since then. She learned through it. We tell the girls sometimes through failure you learn how to become better. That’s part of our job as coaches, to not only teach them baseball but also life skills. We’re big on that, using baseball as a vehicle to teach them life lessons.”
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