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Tara Trainer: Lead by example



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Senior pitcher Tara Trainer throws the opening pitch March 16 . IU will play Rutgers from April 26-28. Sarah Zygmuntowski Buy Photos

The aroma of freshly cracked eggs and stray protein powder swirls among kitchen fragrances, soon permeating beyond closed doors in an apartment complex. Dancing atop the taste buds of slumbering student athletes is the familiar scent of breakfast, one that acts as a makeshift alarm clock.

When the smell hits, it’s time to wake up.

Every day, long before the sun has a chance to rise above the Bloomington horizon, IU senior Tara Trainer crawls out of bed and begins her morning routine. Turn the stove on, throw some eggs in a pan, concoct a protein shake, get ready for practice.

Just as the the eggs begin to sizzle, a bedroom door flies open and out steps Trainer’s roommate and teammate, IU junior Gabbi Jenkins. Jenkins glances toward the bustling kitchen, but makes no fuss as she’s used to the early wake up calls by now.

Within minutes, the roommates scarf down their breakfasts, change into their practice uniforms and make their way to Mellencamp Pavilion, where indoor practice takes place. By the time the sun has fully risen, the apartment has fallen silent, readying itself to redo the hectic routine again the next morning, and the morning after that and so on.

Whereas some student athletes see 6 a.m. practice as tedious or a burden, Trainer embraces it, making sure her body is prepared to endure the long hours and inevitable stress.

It’s with this level of preparation that the graduating senior has molded herself into an IU softball legend and one of the most heralded females in IU athletics history.

"Just being able to see Tara’s mindset and her mentality, it’s one that is unique,” Jenkins said. “It’s one that’s dominant.”

But Trainer’s journey from high school phenom to Hoosier great hasn’t always been just shattering records and collecting accolades. At one point, it wasn’t even a sure thing that Trainer would live, much less live out her dream on a collegiate softball diamond.

On a mild mid-August day in Trainer’s hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, the then-high school sophomore hopped into a friend's car headed to watch whichever summer flick was dominating the box office. The group never made it to the movie theater that day.

“I don’t remember much of the accident,” Trainer said. “I remember waking up in the hospital and asking what happened and where everyone was. I was pretty out of it.”

As her friend waited to make a left turn in the middle of a busy intersection, a car slammed into them, sending their vehicle into a tailspin and crushing it on impact.

Both Trainer’s friends were able to escape largely unscathed before EMTs arrived, but as the minutes ticked by, Trainer showed no signs of movement.

After being airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital, emergency room personnel rushed to save the aspiring softball player’s life. They discovered Trainer had suffered a skull fracture, a collapsed lung, a ruptured spleen and multiple fractures to different parts of her body.

Nearly a week went by, three of those days being spent in ICU, where Trainer was rendered immobile and bed-ridden in the hospital. Doctors told her that she may never play sports again, much less have a fully-functioning body.

For the next four months, Trainer traded in her mitt and cleats for a neck brace and a wheelchair.

“I was really weak and lost about 20 pounds after the accident,” Trainer said.

The prognosis was crushing for a teenage girl that had yet to experience the world and who had also just begun making national waves throughout the softball recruiting landscape.

Even after posting some of the most eye-catching statistics in Ohio high school softball history, more and more teams became less interested in the young pitcher as injury concerns mounted.

“I had a lot of schools looking at me and showing interest,” Trainer said. “But once the car accident happened, a lot of them dropped off.”

Among those schools, a handful from high-major conferences such as the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 began backing out of Trainer’s recruitment. One of the programs that remained persistent in the pursuit of her talent, though, was IU and former Head Coach Michelle Gardner.

That feeling, Trainer said, of being wanted, even through the trials and tribulations, is what separated Bloomington from the rest of the pack.

She would soon sign her letter of intent to play at IU, but not before tending to some unfinished business in her high school career.

In Trainer’s senior season, she racked up six no-hitters and three perfect games on her way to compiling a 0.32 ERA with 274 strikeouts. Trainer eventually finished her prep career as a two-time All-American on the heels of a 58-5 record and 748 strikeouts.

It wasn’t always about softball, though. Far from it, actually.

As the time from Trainer’s injury grew, she also began to show a much broader understanding of her purpose in life away from the field. In what little free time she had, Trainer was an active member of the National Honor Society, volunteered at the Dayton Children’s Hospital and served as a youth softball coach.

“I get to live with Tara, so I get to see a little more inside Tara’s life,” Jenkins said. “And let me just tell you, it’s a cool life she lives and just the way she carries herself.”

Anyone who personally knows Trainer can be overheard using words such as demeanor, poise or leadership when describing her. It’s ironic, however, given Trainer’s soft-spoken nature and reserved personality.

“She’s a young woman that’s so remarkable with the way she goes about her business,” IU Coach Shonda Stanton said. “She’s never going to be the loudest person out there, but she’s someone who leads by example and by what she does.”

The minute Trainer stepped foot in Bloomington, all eyes were on her as the prodigal phenom that was supposed to turn around IU’s lack of success. The incoming freshman was stepping into a program that hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 and hadn’t won a Big Ten title since 1994.

There was no shortage of pressure, but if anyone could carry the load, it was Trainer. Her stoic nature allowed for success from day one as she quietly demanded respect and exuded a breadth of confidence.

Usually with underclassmen, no matter how good they are, there’s a learning curve in the transition from high school to college. Trainer was the exception to that rule.

Playing under Gardner in her first two seasons, Trainer immediately established herself as the Hoosiers' pitching ace of the future. Three freshman of the week honors and 356 strikeouts later, the right-hander began cementing her place as one of the most feared pitchers in the Big Ten.

  Pitcher Tara Trainer strikes out all three Ohio State batters March 23, 2018. IDS file photo Buy Photos

But it still wasn’t enough to resurrect IU from conference mediocrity, as the team went just 52-56 in Trainer’s freshman and sophomore campaigns. This prompted Gardner’s resignation amid the lackluster results and gave way to Stanton’s eventual hiring prior to the 2018 season.

“When we first inherited this program, our RPI sat as low as 126, and we’ve since gotten it as high as 26, and you don’t do that without a Tara Trainer on your team,” Stanton said. “We knew we could be successful because we had a Tara Trainer.”

Every coach’s dream of taking over a roster ripe with talent is often just that, a dream, but Stanton is one of the lucky few who saw it become a reality. With a brand-new softball stadium and a cache of burgeoning young players, the foundation was there for her. Now all that was left to find was a leader and face of the program.

It was Trainer who stepped up and took the reigns.

“It’s unique what Tara brings to the table,” Jenkins said. “I’ve gotten to just see her heart pour out on this field. It’s taught me so much, and it’s something I’ll walk with the rest of my days at IU and beyond.”

In the last four seasons, the Hoosiers have undergone significant improvements in both its win totals and on-field product, and Trainer has been at the forefront of it all.

IU has advanced past the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in three of the past four years, with Trainer starting all four of the first-round matchups. The right-hander single-handedly led IU to its first Big Ten Tournament victory in 10 years when she threw a complete game shutout against Wisconsin in 2016.

Now, following Trainer’s final game wearing the cream and crimson, she has forever etched her name in IU softball lore. Her 803 career strikeouts, 170 appearances and 130 starts are all second-most in program history, while her 68 career wins rank third all-time.

“We are so proud of her, and she’s really brought recognition and pride to Indiana softball,” Stanton said. “She helped put us on the map again as a place that wins and is respected.”

Trainer said she doesn’t know what she wants to do post-graduation yet. Most recently she was selected 21st overall in the 2019 National Pro Fastpitch College Draft by the Aussie Peppers. But she has also expressed interest in becoming a graduate assistant coach at a university.

“She’s ambitious, she’s driven and she’s really been a joy to coach,” Stanton said. “I just can’t wait to see what she does in the future, she’s going to shine bright.”

Regardless of what opportunities Trainer decides to pursue in her next chapter, it’s almost assured that she will succeed.

It's why she has flourished at every level of softball she has competed at.

It's why she wakes up every morning long before the sun rises.

It's why she found the will to survive while laying motionless in the backseat of a crushed car.

“I never thought this would happen,” Trainer said. “I just feel really lucky to live out my dream here.”

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