Hamilton, ON- When her senior’s night moment finally came, Paige Vrolyk tried to soak it all in.
The McMaster Marauders fourth-year middle was surrounded by friends and family. She was honoured pre-game with a framed photo, surrounded by her family and head coach Tim Louks before she started the game against RMC. She and her fellow seniors were then honoured in the locker room after the game.
“I just want to have the best time with my friends, my teammates,” she said. “They’re so supportive of me and so I just wanted to really experience and live in the moment with them, with every point.”
Her mother, Helen Van Sligtenhorst, and her father, John Vrolyk, watched from the stands as did her older sister Sydney. Afterwards, they met up and shared the moment together.
For Vrolyk, while the seniors night game marks the end of her McMaster career, it also symbolizes the person she is and the impact she’s had.
To understand who Vrolyk is as a person, you can talk to her teammates and coaches. Teammate, close friend and fellow graduating senior Ana Strbac thinks about her energy. She thinks about the difference’s she’s made from the bench with her energy and voice. Boundless energy, teammate Emma McKinnon said. It’s perfect, McKinnon said, since her last name means happy in Dutch.
You’ll often hear her cheering, as the loudest player on the team, according to her coach. The one supporting her teammates from the bench. The one blessed with the vocal cords to do so, according to Vrolyk.
Even as she didn’t play much over her four years, her support didn’t waver. Even in the games she knows she isn’t playing, she’s always ready, always at practice, the head coach said.
“Reliability, vulnerability, sense of humour, resilience,” Louks said. “Paige as a person is the same person she is as a player. She’s determined to be [there] for her teammates.”
For Vrolyk, it’s simply her role to provide love and support for them. “They are the reason why I still play,” she added. “I still love the sport and I come to the gym every day with a smile on my face.”
To truly understand who Vrolyk is as a person, you have to go back to her childhood. Growing up in Sarnia, her supportive nature comes from her family, according to Helen.
Growing up with Sydney, who has down syndrome, has molded her into the person she is today. With it came awareness.
“Looking around: Is everybody ok? What do we need? How can we help? How can we incorporate,” Helen recalls. “She’s grown up with inclusion. She’s grown up with advocacy. She’s grown up with everybody matters. That’s transferred onto this team.”
As Paige and her family spent seniors night together, Helen recalls at least six people coming up and telling her how much they’re going to miss her. How included and special she’s made them feel.
How she’s made Sydney feel. Vrolyk is Sydney’s support worker and her best friend. She challenges her because she knows she matters. She includes her in lots of activities and makes connections with Sydney’s friends.
There are challenges but Helen, Paige and the family have focused on making the experiences into a plus, something that’s great. “Everybody can,” Helen said. “[Paige] can with her supports and her team and her education and Sydney can with her skill set.”
Helen taught her daughters that everyone has a skill set and something they bring to the table. “Paige looks at you and this is you. This is who you are and this is how we’re going to make us work,” she added.
Her support and compassion extended into the community as well. Paige, Sydney and their younger sister Abby created a “Snacks for Summer” program back when Paige was in high school.
They realized the need for students during the summer months when there were no breakfast and lunch programs. “It’s not fair to kids if they start depending on the program to have it taken away” Paige said in a story on the McMaster website.
So they set out on a campaign to raise money for snacks and later hygiene products as well. They would promote the cause, working with local food banks and packing the snacks and hygiene products to those in need. “They could be our peers” Paige said. “They are our peers.”
Through all their time together, Sydney has also changed Paige’s life as well. She calls Sydney her “rock” and said she wouldn’t be the person she is today without her. “She has taught me so many things about finding joy in whatever situation you’re in,” she said. “She lives in the moment and she’s helped me do that.”
When Paige is going through experiences and moments, she remembers not to take it for granted.
Back at the Burridge Gym, Vrolyk was experiencing one of those moments. She came on against RMC on Feb. 3 – the game before her seniors night – and got a career-high four kills and seven digs. This time, it was her teammates cheering her on with every play she made.
Vrolyk remembers smiling, being happy and feeling as free as she could be on the court that evening. When she subbed into the game, she locked eyes with teammate Ellie Hatashita, whose face was so supportive.
“I was like, ‘oh yeah, this is happening, this is going to be great’,” Vrolyk recalls. “Whatever happens happens because it’s my shot.”
Emma McKinnon remembers the first time she met Vrolyk. She has just committed to McMaster and one summer day came to take pictures and meet with the coaching staff at practice. Then, she saw Vrolyk, who came running over to introduce herself. After moving into McMaster, Vrolyk was the first person to reach out to her, asking if she wanted to hang out.
It marked the start of a close friendship. Vrolyk is the best friend you can ask for, according to McKinnon. The two of them enjoy playing “pepper” together – a game where they bump the ball back-and-forth. They listen to Def Leopard together when getting groceries, watch rom coms together and do so much more together.
McKinnon has been working on her serve but wasn’t confident last season. McKinnon confided in Vrolyk about this. Vrolyk would be the first one to say “nice serve” or “good job” to boost McKinnon’s confidence.
As a pretty shy person, McKinnon remembers coming into McMaster and suppressing some elements of herself because she thought people would think she’s weird.
“Paige would always encourage me to embrace those parts of myself and be 100 per cent myself so I learned a lot from her in that way,” McKinnon said. She became more confident in herself because of Vrolyk.
So, it only seems fitting that McKinnon would be the one giving Paige’s seniors night speech in the locker room. She had been writing parts of the speech over the past couple of weeks.
Then, one evening at one o’clock, she couldn’t fall asleep, her mind full of ideas of what to say about Paige. She would try to sleep but find herself waking up time and again and writing more and more. “It was really easy coming up with what to say,” she noted. “There was just too much. The hard part was narrowing it down.”
When the moment came and she delivered the speech, she talked about what a supportive, selfless and amazing teammate she was. She called her the big sister she never had and how she looks up to her as a person and player. How she looks to her to bring a smile to her face when she’s feeling down.“That was a big part of it…how much she inspires me as a person and how much of an amazing person she is,” McKinnon said.
“Someone who taught me to live life to its fullest,” McKinnon concluded her speech. “My best friend. The two to my one.”
Upon hearing the speech, Vrolyk was soon in tears. She thought of the closeness of the team, inside the locker room, how they could share stories and inside jokes. Practical jokes as well. That evening, they were all sitting on the floor together, curled around one chair.
“She really talked about me as a person and she was really proud to be a friend of mine,” Vrolyk said of McKinnon. “I think that is a compliment like no other.”
Her parents are also proud of her. They’ve proud of the person she’s become. They’re proud of how she’s pushed through adversity in different forms. Proud of how she’s followed her passions in volleyball and in life.
“That’s all a mother could want is that your child is happy, enjoying what she’s doing and following her passions,” Helen said.
For Helen and John, it’s nearing the end of their journey of watching her play volleyball – which they’ve done since she was 14.
Vrolyk will graduate with a Kinesiology degree, as an Academic All-Canadian. She’ll leave McMaster with the support and impact she’s made on people – and the impact she will have in the future.
But she’ll miss those moments with teammates. Moments like seniors night on the court and in the team room amid the smiles, cheers and tears.
Featured Image: McMaster Athletics