June 15th, 2021
By Carter Cromwell
[NOTE: Alyson Spinas-Valainis is non-binary, meaning they do not specifically identify with either gender. Therefore, the following article employs the pronouns “they” and “them” in reference to Spinas-Valainis.]
That Alyson Spinas-Valainis lives in a small studio flat in London might seem pretty ordinary to a lot of folks. But it’s not to them.
“I actually have a place to live now,” they said. “It’s great to be in one spot after so much moving around – being a nomad.”
Indeed, while the majority of people undergo periods of movement, change and self-discovery, they have experienced more than the norm.
An American who has played the role of softball vagabond for several years, Spinas-Valainis was named Fastpitch Development Manager for BaseballSoftballUK and the British Softball Federation in October 2019. In their current role, Spinas-Valainis has responsibilities aimed at promoting the growth and development of fast-pitch softball in the UK.
Despite the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, this has amounted to a period of unexpected stability for someone who had spent the previous several years going back and forth between continents and hemispheres to play and coach.
“I got a ‘regular job’ that enabled me to get a three-year visa,” they said with a laugh. “I have this flat now – since before the lockdown started early last year – with room for me and my plants. Even better is that I’m just a half-hour flight away from my team in the Netherlands (Olympia Haarlem), so it’s easy to go play there every weekend.”
So just how did things get to this point? Well, that’s a longer story.
Alyson celebrating the 2018 Dutch Championship with Olympia Haarlem teammates
The oldest of four siblings, Spinas-Valainis was born in Eureka, Calif. Following a parental split, Spinas-Valainis shuttled between California and Iowa until their early teens before trading the rain and fog of the Northern California coast for the Mississippi River town of Davenport, Iowa.
They played softball and basketball in high school – receiving first-team all-state honors in each sport and a McDonald’s All-America nomination in basketball – and earned a Division I full-ride basketball scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. After four seasons, Spinas-Valainis had eligibility remaining, so they exchanged sneakers and shorts for cleats and a glove and played a season-and-a-half of softball before graduating.
Well, that’s really a longer story, too.
Let’s start with the time Bradley women’s softball coach Amy Hayes first heard of Spinas-Valainis.
“A junior college coach I know saw them pitching in the Iowa state tournament in 2010,” Hayes said. “The coach called and asked me about this kid that was throwing gas and was coming to Bradley. I didn’t have any players from Iowa, so he asked around and found out Alyson was coming to Bradley to play basketball.
“I immediately called our basketball coach and yelled at her for not telling me there was a 6-3 pitcher coming here,” Hayes added with a chuckle.
It took several years, but Spinas-Valanis eventually came out for softball, and there was no hesitation when the time came. In fact, the day after their last basketball game in March 2014, they got on the softball team bus to Springfield, Mo., for the beginning of conference play.
Alyson pitching for Bradley
“It was amazing,” they said. “I didn’t imagine as a freshman that I’d get the chance to pitch again. I loved pitching, but a full-ride is a full-ride, so I chose basketball. However, I’d gotten burned out on basketball toward the end of my eligibility. We’d changed to a full-court transition team instead of half-court, and, as a center, it was a difficult fit for my body type.
“In October 2014, Coach Hayes approached me and told me they were in a tough spot and needed someone to throw batting practice in the spring. I said I would be happy to after basketball was over. I then tried out, and it went well enough that they asked me to join the team.”
Hayes recalls, “Alyson was really popping it in that tryout. One of our players said the pitches were really moving. It was clear that they could be a difference-maker.
“The mindset they brought as far as competitiveness and grit was interesting,” Hayes added. “That was something our team needed. Once before a game, Alyson spoke up and said we needed to stop whining, and that really opened our team’s eyes, especially since it was the perspective of a person coming from another sport.”
Spinas-Valainis relieved in nine games that first season (2014) and then transitioned to the starting rotation as a fifth-year senior (2015), making a team-high 41 appearances and pitching 64 percent of the team’s innings in conference play. They were once voted Missouri Valley Conference pitcher of the week and earned the team’s co-Most Valuable Player award.
After that came graduation, playing all over the world, coaching overseas, and the current job in the UK.
But it’s a longer story than that – a lot longer, actually.
By the spring of their senior year, Spinas-Valainis didn’t have a direction. That is, until Hayes pointed toward New Zealand.
“At the time, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do,” they said. “It seemed that all my classmates and teammates knew, but I didn’t. With me being a fine-art major in drawing and painting, I probably would have had to go to a big city to get work. But Coach Hayes had played in New Zealand, and she mentioned the possibility of playing overseas for a season. That sounded awesome.”
Alyson taking in the beauty of New Zealand
Hayes added, “I’ve always tried to get players to go overseas. A lot of kids don’t want to go, but when I mentioned it to Al, they were all over it. They wanted to see the world and immediately realized this was a great way to do it. I love how Al took it even further than I did. The journey hasn’t always been bright and cheery, but they’ve worked through it all.
“They’re basically living my dream life now.”
They’ve had an extensive international playing career in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, with much success:
- MVP awards in 2016 and 2017 with Hutt Valley in New Zealand
- Top Pitcher honors in 2018 and 2019 while playing for Howick in Auckland
- As a member of Jourds Praha in the Czech Republic, they were named League Playoff MVP as the team won the national title in 2016
- Helped lead the Tubingen Hawks to their first final-four appearance in the German Bundesliga and led the country in strikeouts
- Helped lead Olympia Haarlem in The Netherlands to a national title in 2018 and the runner-up spot in the Dutch Golden League in 2019
- Additionally, both Jourds Praha and Olympia Haarlem have medaled in the European Premier Cup in Italy, accounting for one second-place and two third-place finishes.
But times were not always easy. Despite the international playing career and successes, there were tough times of personal growth and discovery.
“I am thankful I was focused so much on sport – partly because during my school and university days, I started realizing that I wasn’t quite straight,” they said. “I didn’t have a name for it, but I didn’t feel ‘normal.’ I had never been interested in dating or intimacy, just focused on my passions, such as sport and art. It was difficult, especially when family and friends would often ask me about a boyfriend or if I was dating anyone. I used to hate those questions without even knowing why. It was very confusing.
“I vividly remember encountering a same-sex couple that was married and playing softball together during my first season in New Zealand, and it wasn’t a big deal to anyone. It was completely normal. It was just two people, happy and whole together. It was beautiful.
“It took years of education and un-learning behaviors and notions I’d had after growing up in a conservative, Catholic environment. But I finally got the chance to grow into myself and was able to put names to things I once thought made me ‘different’ or ‘wrong.’ Living in cultures and countries where LGBTQIA+ people are present, open and respected has been key in helping me figure myself out.
Alyson in London, England
“I eventually realized that I was asexual – not experiencing sexual attraction towards anyone – which is still an outlier, even within the LGBTQ community. I had never been interested in dating or intimacy, and being able to place a name to my identity was hugely validating. I quickly realized I was panromantic (pansexual for non-asexuals), because gender never factored into my preferences or who I liked. I just like people, and learning that was eye-opening and validating. I’m also non-binary, meaning that I don’t identify with any particular gender – I am just Alyson, and not held to any gender or expectation.
“I am very thankful that I’ve been able learn so much about myself and to now be out as an asexual, non-binary person. It’s a euphoric feeling after a lifetime of not understanding who I was or why I felt – or didn’t feel – certain ways.”
There are, of course, those who take issue with the lifestyle, or simply don’t understand it. Even people close to them. Luckily, they’ve been able to find support.
Annie Link, a close friend from college, said, “The sexuality thing was a lot to work through for them. It was definitely hard – the ‘norm’ vs. what they were feeling. They had a friend in college, though, who was non-binary, and that helped give Alyson the courage to explore it on their own.”
Spinas-Valainis added, “There are some people I’ve known all my life who either don’t accept this or love ‘conditionally.’ But though I lack support from some, I’ve had incredible support from many people – old friends, people I have met while playing, and some through my work here in the UK. Coming out is always scary. While I was out as romantically queer since 2016, I came out to my mom as non-binary in September 2020 and shared that I wanted to pursue top surgery the next year. I was a little flustered when I told her, and she asked me why I was upset and crying. She said I looked so happy and relieved after telling her. My fears had been based on other peoples’ reactions, not how I saw myself.
“It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m privileged to be in a place where I can be open and true. I’ve been incredibly lucky to meet the people I have – so many of them have changed my life forever.
While living in New Zealand in 2017, they developed a relationship with Brad Croawell, the son of the president and secretary of the Howick club, who had been diagnosed as a child with a degenerative muscular disease, Friederichs Ataxia.
“Brad and I hit it off right away and had an incredible relationship. We became best friends upon meeting in 2017, and we naturally progressed from there,” they said, “I have never met anyone like him. He was an incredible person.
Brad and Alyson
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to share myself and my heart with someone who understood every aspect of me and loved me for it, not despite it. Brad was special, and he touched everyone who knew him with his kindness, wicked sense of humor and unwavering love.”
Croawell’s health declined in the early part of 2018, and he passed away that August.
“I am so thankful I was with the Croawells then. I truly don’t think I would have made it through without them,” they said. “That was the most difficult year I’ve experienced. I was not able to secure a work visa, so I had to leave New Zealand seven months after Brad passed away.”
They returned to Europe in May 2019 to play in Germany and The Netherlands. Later that year, they learned about the job in London from Brad’s mother, who remains a close friend – “She saw the job opening online and encouraged me to apply. It was one of the few times Barb used tough love on me. She said this was a great opportunity and that I should get myself together and apply for it . . . and that Brad would have wanted me to.”
They got the job in August and moved to London in October 2019 after the Dutch softball season ended.
Despite the difficult times and long journey, Spinas-Valainis has always had passion for softball and now is in position to make an impact on the game.
Link said, “They’re just a giant person – so full of energy. They’re very open, and that helps them connect with people.”
Sarah Pauly, an opposing player in New Zealand and the Netherlands, added, “They’re one of those people that you feel is a friend as soon as you meet them.”
Lisa Maulden, Spinas-Valainis’ teammate and friend (met in Australia, 2016), said, “Simply put, they’re amazing. They’re like a spark – an energy starter. They’ll go the extra mile to make their teammates laugh and enjoy the game. They’ve gone through a lot trying to find a home overseas, and I’m proud of them.”
“Alyson has been through a lot,” said Sarah Edwards, who played against Spinas-Valainis in New Zealand and was a teammate in The Netherlands. “They have a lot of compassion for others and is a great teammate.
“They have a huge personality. They’re fiery – loud and expressive in the dugout and well-known for their colorful makeup. But it doesn’t get in the way of how they play. They have a lot of fun and can get everyone laughing – even the umpires and opposing players. We were playing once in the New Zealand club nationals championship game when the Baby Shark song came over the loudspeaker. They started doing the dance on the mound between warm-up pitches. She really leads a team.”
Alyson unleashes a pitch in Czech Extraliga action
And just where Spinas-Valainis’ path leads from here is unclear. Probably not back to the U.S. anytime soon, since they’re still playing in The Netherlands and have the role with the UK softball organizations.
As Link put it: “When Alyson first went to New Zealand, they said ‘I can see myself living here.’ At that point, I knew they weren’t coming back for a good while.”
Or, as Hayes put it: “They’re an adventurous spirit and will go wherever the wind takes them. They love what they’re doing now. I don’t know when or if they might come home, but I think they’ll stay in the world of sport.”
Or, as Spinas-Valainis put it: “All my siblings are homebodies, but I was restless. I may not have known what I wanted to do after graduating, but I found it when I began this journey.”
When asked about a possible finish to their playing career: “In women’s sports especially, it seems that there is sometimes an expectation that you have to sacrifice your playing career if you want to ‘settle down.’
“Here, I have a ‘regular job’ that is very fulfilling; I live in a London flat with plants and books; and I’m still playing professionally. I want to show that athletes, especially women, can do this without sacrificing the playing experience or travel. I don’t want to be in a situation in which it’s a ‘requirement’ or ‘expectation’ to give up those things. One can live free and vibrantly, without limitations.”