Nearly 15 years ago, 7-year-old Valeria León and her older sister, Karina, were on their way to volleyball practice in their hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. León’s grandfather took them to practice, as he did every day. León started to develop a passion for the sport of volleyball, and she began to sleep with her volleyball at night. She had no idea she’d be holding a place in Ohio State history just a handful of years later.
Last week, senior libero León grabbed the title for most career digs in the women’s volleyball program during a match against Michigan State, but her journey to the top hasn’t always been easy. In fact, it’s been her against the world in many cases.
León’s love for volleyball continued into high school at Colegio Sagrado Corazón De Jesús, where she was recruited by OSU coach Geoff Carlston. He said she stood out to him for a lot of reasons, but it was her determination that won him over.
“She made hard stuff look easy and easy stuff look easy, but really I gravitated to her competitive aura and how she played the game,” he said.
Coming to the United States for college wasn’t León’s first choice, but she said her mother wholeheartedly believed in her talent as a player and encouraged her to give it a try.
“My mom used to tell me, ‘Just try it and if you don’t like it, I’ll be the first one to buy you a ticket to come back,’” León said.
On her official visit to OSU, she immediately committed. She said she was blown away by the campus’ atmosphere.
“I had other options, but I felt like Ohio State – it was the perfect one for me,” she said.
At the time, León spoke little English, being a native Spanish speaker back in her Puerto Rican home. Everything was different in this new environment – communicating, learning and even some aspects of the game she had come to love were different.
“I was dealing with so many outside things, like the language,” she said. “I had to go to tutoring for like eight hours every day because I couldn’t do the homework by myself.”
Her team remembers it well. Being homesick while at college is one thing, but being homesick when your home is in another country is another.
“She missed her family a lot. She missed home a lot. We all did, but it was different – she was in a completely new environment,” said senior middle blocker Kylie Randall.
The team tried to support León in any way it could. Teammates walked her to classes, ordered food for her and took care of her like a sister, even though she had only been part of the OSU volleyball family for a short time.
León could have given up and went back home where things were more familiar and comfortable, but she said when she finally decided to stick with it, she was thinking about more than just herself.
“I had people behind me. They were excited and believed in me every single day, so I thought not giving up would make them proud,” she said. “People like my parents and my grandpa – he would go and drive me every single day to practice, and he never asked me for anything in return.”
León also had her Buckeye family to rely on. Senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe said she, Randall and fellow freshman Maggie Heim spent nearly every weekend with León during that first year, and they were able to bond outside of St. John Arena.
Through the constant support of those close to her, León stayed with the program, and with time, she developed into one of the team’s strongest assets and a powerful leader.
“She made it a point to make sure her voice was heard, even if she couldn’t say what she wanted to say,” Sandbothe said.
Carlston said that, from a coach’s perspective, León is what holds the rest of his team together.
“She does the maintenance. (She’s) the glue,” he said. “She does a lot of things for us.”
León’s journey soared to a new level on Oct. 22 of this year when she broke the 12-year-standing record for most career digs in OSU women’s volleyball history with 1,586, a record set by National Player of Year Stacey Gordon. She said to see herself come this far is something she would never have dreamed of.
“When you sign here and come here, you never think about stuff like that (breaking records),” she said. “Those are maybe goals or dreams someone has, but it won’t actually happen.”
Grabbing the title was even more sweet for León because her family in Puerto Rico was able to see her do it.
“What really hits me the most is that in that game (against Michigan State), my family was together back home watching. Bringing my family together is something really special for me,” she said.
León’s mom and dad are able to come to the U.S. three or four times a year to watch her play. When they can’t, they watch her games online along with the rest of her extended family – which, she said, could be up to 25 people at one time.
León isn’t the only Buckeye receiving international support. Freshman outside hitter Bia Franklin hails from Rio de Janeiro. León said she shares a special connection with Franklin because when she looks at her, she is able to see herself three years ago.
“I love talking to her and telling her my story because, for me, it’s really important that she stays here and doesn’t give up,” León said.
León’s team said that she is an inspiration to everyone she touches, and her journey has transformed her into not only a stronger volleyball player, but a stronger individual.
Sandbothe said, “Seeing her accomplish these kinds of things … makes me trust in the journey and trust in the process and know that if you have people in your corner, you really can do anything.”
León said she wants to see other players learn from her story. Carlston attributes that quality to her selfless and humble personality.
“For me, it’s really important once I leave, I want (the underclassmen) to know how Buckeye volleyball does it,” León said.
When her days donning the Buckeyes’ libero jersey are over, León hopes to keep playing the game she loves – but closer to those who inspired her to push through tough times.
“One of the reasons why I want to play professional is my other family members who haven’t gotten the opportunity to watch me play,” she said. “They can watch me play (in Ponce), especially like my grandpa, he means the world to me.”
There’s one thing Sandbothe said she has taken away from knowing León, and it’s the belief in achieving the seemingly impossible.
“Someone who can have so many things against them and just being in really low points where you didn’t know if you could see the light or when it was going to get better, and she never gave up,” she said.