LANGLEY — Avery Heppell loves being the model middle.
On the volleyball court, it’s become the place where she can be her very best self.
And in a symbolic way, it’s also the best way to portray the balance that Trinity Western’s star second-year middle blocker has brought back to her life after a brief but precarious journey down the runways of the modelling industry.
From walking away for almost two full seasons from the sport she loved most, to dealing with the mental toll of body-image issues, to fighting to recapture her former self by hitting the comeback trail and becoming that model middle on one of the best university teams in the nation?
“My coaches were not expecting it and I was not expecting it, so I think I surprised everyone,” says Heppell, 20, who against a ton of odds took her game out of moth balls to become the model middle blocker for a powerhouse Spartans’ team coming off a perfect 9-0 preseason, and set to open Canada West conference play Friday (6 p.m.) at the Langley Events Centre with the first of a two-match weekend series against the Regina Cougars.
“For young women with body-image issues, Avery’s story is a such a beautiful one,” says Trinity Western head coach Ryan Hofer, “because it’s a story about falling back in love with who you are as a person and not having your identity wrapped up in body image.”
AN IDENTITY, AND A PASSION, RESTORED
The Heppells are a first family of B.C. university volleyball.
Avery’s older brother Carson played at Douglas College, while her younger brother Max is entering his second season with the UBC Okanagan Heat.
As well, two of her older cousins — brothers Tyler and Braden Heppell — played for Trinity Western.
“Her family is from this community and I had coached one of her brothers (Max) for five years,” said Hofer, “so I had always watched this 6-foot-4 girl. It was hard not to notice her.”
Trinity Western was among several schools recruiting Heppell as she starred for the Langley Fundamental Titans’ senior girls teams through her Grade 11 year (2014-15).
“But in her Grade 12 year, she decided not to play club volleyball,” Hofer remembers. “That’s a clear sign and something that will likely affect your development. She indicated that she was going off in the direction of modelling, so I backed off.”
For Heppell, the decision to choose modelling over volleyball was not an easy one.
“I loved both worlds when I was in each of them,” she begins. “But they are both so different. So how do you choose?
“My decision came down to modelling because it was so unique and offered such a big platform to influence people,” continued Heppell who had signed with a major local agency. “So I gave it a shot but it did not work out, thank goodness. Growing up, I loved it, but mostly because it wasn’t the one thing that I was focused on. When it became that one thing, it started to become unhealthy and I knew I needed more balance in my life.”
Some of the things that started to throw her equilibrium off kilter?
“My body-type just naturally was more athletic, so I struggled to get as skinny as they wanted me,” she begins.
“I did look quite thin, but the struggle then became not about the weight but the mental state. When it became the only thing I could focus on, it took a mental toll. Not loving my body… I didn’t like that. It was a destructive mindset.”
Yet she had given up volleyball to pursue modelling, and although it’s easy for her to see now, she admits that back then, she wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
“I didn’t want to recognize it,” Heppell says. “(Modelling) had been my choice for a year and my mom likes to say that I am an all-or-nothing person. So I tried to give it my all, but I realized that this isn’t how I used to think before.”
So despite the fact that she had missed a full high school season book-ended by two full club seasons, and that the 2016-17 Canada West university season was just a few weeks away from beginning, she re-connected with Hofer with the hopes that she might be able join the team.
“I just decided to e-mail Ryan and see if it was a possibility,” she remembers of reaching out in September of 2016. “If he told me ‘No’, that part of it would have been all over for me.”
Hofer kept things real.
He didn’t tell Heppell ‘No’, but he didn’t exactly say ‘Yes’ either.
Instead, with no promises offered, he invited her to the team’s rep sessions, a series of small, informal workouts scheduled during the week where she could build skill and later condition herself further in the weight room.
“She was not in volleyball shape,” admitted Hofer, “and I wanted to see how hard she was willing to work. I remember our first session and even her trying to hit a ball. I thought she had a long ways to go.”
Heppell never back down from the workload. In fact, with near Rudy-like fervour, she embraced it, putting herself through four-to-five workouts per week.
She had also enrolled in classes at Trinity Western, and as she continued to put polish on the rust of nearly two seasons away from the game, she once again entertained the notion of potentially securing a spot on the team for the 2017-18 season.
Yet when she broached the subject with Hofer a second time, this time in January of 2017, the query was once again answered with rejection.
“At that time I already had a pretty full recruiting class and I wanted to be honest,” says Hofer. “I told her it didn’t look like there were going to be a spot for her. There were tears. That was in January. By February, I started to realize that she could be a huge asset to our team.”
On Friday, Heppell assumes a new mantle of responsibility for a Spartans’ team following the graduation of star middle Katie Devaney, who last season set the Canada West single-season record for blocks in a season with 145.
The transition, however, is expected to be a smooth one.
After her rough, almost comical initial workouts in rep session under Hofer some two years ago, Heppell blossomed, creating a star-in-the-making vibe by showing incredible efficiency as a freshman last season.
She appeared in 72 of the Spartans 95 sets last season, and her 1.38 blocks-per-set (99 total) were second in the conference to only Devaney (1.56). She capped her season with selection to the Canada West’s All-Rookie team as a middle blocker.
As much as Hofer prides himself of seeing the potential in the student-athletes he recruits, the TWU boss admits he never fully saw any of this coming.
“The biggest surprise to me is how athletic she is,” begins Hofer, “because back when she was in Grade 11, I wasn’t sure how I would use her. At that stage she was a tall girl who didn’t move especially well. She was okay at everything. They say a goose can fly, walk and swim, but can’t do any of them particularly well. She was like that a bit.”
“Oh my goodness,” Hofer gushes. “For me, this is one that will go down in history. I can’t believe I almost said ‘No’ to her. I am a fool.”
She’s just happy Hofer had a change of heart.
Having had to work so hard to get back the thing that she herself decided to give back all those years ago has made her climb back all the more fulfilling.
“Losing it, and then having to work so dang hard to get it back has made me love it, made me appreciate it and strive to do better,” she explains.
Ask Hofer to describe her these days, and he says “Avery just seems to be more free.”
That’s what happens when, against all pressure and expectation to be someone you aren’t, you fight to remain every bit your own authentic self.
And if she has any advice for young girls facing similar questions, Heppell doesn’t hesitate.
“As far as body images goes, you have to learn to love your body for where it’s at,” she says, “and that is something that took me a long time to learn.
“My legs are powerful, my arms are strong, and they’re the reason that I can play volleyball to my ability,” she continues with understated pride. “I shouldn’t dislike them because maybe they’re thicker than I want. They’ve gotten me to where I am.”
And that’s to a pretty special place.
Avery Heppell is the model middle who wouldn’t stop until she found a balance in her life.
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