Pro athletes recount journey to the top level


Via George Bridges | TNS

Ross Ohlendorf of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Houston Astros in the first inning of their game Thursday, July 8, 2010, at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

To the general public, the road to a career in professional sports can seem simple and glamorous. But for most athletes who actually make it to the top level, like former Pitt tennis player and 2017 graduate Audrey Ann Blakely, the journey is mentally arduous and financially uncertain.

“The hardest part is that you go out on your own. Tennis is an individual sport in the end … You pay your own way … and it’s a very big investment. Your coaching, your stringing, your equipment, your court time … all that is on your own,” Blakely said. “There’s nothing glamorous about the entry level of the [International Tennis Federation] tour.”

For Blakely, a career playing tennis didn’t seem realistic for a while. Few college coaches recognized her talent coming out of high school and she struggled to find a program that would take a chance on her.

“Growing up, the scouting report on me was that I wasn’t the quickest on the court, that I was a very aggressive player, but that I didn’t have very much to my game,” Blakely said. “I was told by college coaches, ‘You’re a great player with a lot of potential but not a lot of results to go on.’”

Suffice to say that Blakely disagreed with their analysis and so did Pitt head coach Alex Santos. Blakeley got her chance, and in her first-year season at Pitt she immediately stepped into the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, facing off against opponents’ best players in singles and doubles, for the Panthers, who were in their first season transitioning to the ACC.

“Playing No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC, you actually play against players who have already played professionally themselves,” Blakely said. “I played against and almost beat — or did beat — some women who were top 100 in the world, and it gave me a lot of confidence.”

Whenever she stepped onto the court for ACC play, Blakely routinely faced off against some of the world’s best. The ACC is often regarded as one of the nation’s strongest tennis conferences and has consistently produced top-ranked players.

Blakely improved from 11-25 in singles and 10-18 in doubles competition her sophomore year to 18-21 and 17-19, respectively, as a junior. The experience began to instill a confidence that she could hold her own at the professional level, as the rigor of an ACC tennis schedule is incredibly similar to what one would face playing on the world tour. Now competing in the ITF, Blakely participates around the world in singles and doubles competitions, looking to make it as far as possible in tournaments to earn larger cuts of the prize money.

Despite her newfound independence, Blakely doesn’t feel isolated. Her family boasts an impressive history of high-caliber athletes, including her sister, Martha, who played collegiate tennis at Virginia Tech before becoming a volunteer coach for Pitt’s tennis program while Audrey played. She still relies on the support of her experienced siblings to help guide her through the ups and downs of the world circuit.

Just like Blakely, the opportunity to play professionally never seemed like a real possibility for former NHL wing Ryan Mulhern. From the time he was a high schooler in Philadelphia, Mulhern knew he had the talent to play at hockey’s highest level. When he was 17 years old, he appeared on the Central Scouting List, which compiles the country’s best draft prospects for the coming year.

After his senior year of high school, Mulhern was drafted in the eighth round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft with the 174th overall pick. Professional sports drafts immediately conjure visions of theatrical ceremonies with cheering crowds applauding as the player greets the commissioner and poses for pictures, but Mulhern’s draft announcement was less glamorous.    

“I was at the Jersey Shore working at the boardwalks selling T-shirts,” Mulhern said. “Then my brother called me at work and said, ‘Hey you just got drafted by Calgary!’ I said, ‘That’s awesome. I’ll see you when I get home from work.’”

Mulhern declined to turn professional right after high school, opting instead to attend Brown University, where he enjoyed a successful collegiate career. It wasn’t until he graduated that Mulhern decided to test the professional waters. The next season, he found his way to the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League, the NHL’s development league.

Mulhern was eventually called up to the Washington Capitals, who were playing in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997. Upon joining the team, he was immediately in awe of the players who had instantly turned from role models into peers. Players like Mike Modano, Adam Oates and Dale Hunter turned from heroes to equals.

“I was constantly starstruck,” Mulhern said. “I never felt like I belonged. I never felt like I was good enough.”

Mulhern only played three games in the NHL before returning to the minors, exemplifying the nomadic and short-lived professional careers of minor-leaguers who rise up only to make brief sport starts. After a couple more years in the AHL, he realized it was time for him to think about making a living outside of hockey. So he played for two more seasons while working an internship that paid for his graduate school.

Mulhern had an Ivy League degree to fall back on and quickly found work in the Admissions Office at St. George’s School, a private boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island, where he also coaches hockey.

For Mulhern, a pro career was intriguing, but he never felt the same kind of pressure to perform that others did. Many teammates from his minor league stints were high school dropouts or immigrants for whom hockey was their future.

Those struggles cross into other sports as well. In baseball, about 10 percent of minor league baseball players ever see major league action, with many players also coming from overseas or high school. Ross Ohlendorf, a former MLB pitcher, traversed the peaks and valleys of a challenging career to beat those odds.

Ohlendorf, another Ivy League graduate and former pitcher for Princeton University, spent four years navigating the minors before he made his major league debut in 2007 for the New York Yankees.

Ohlendorf struggled in the early stages of his major league career. With a degree from Princeton in hand, he began to question whether he should pursue another path. For guidance, Ohlendorf turned to his mentors — Keith Moreland and Scott Bradley.

Ohlendorf credits Moreland, his high school coach, and Bradley, his college coach, with helping him survive the valleys of a long MLB career. Moreland would primarily help with the physical things, like arm mechanics or pitch selection. Bradley, on the other hand, provided more of an emotional lift.

“He was always very positive. Whatever was going on, if I was struggling, he was there to put a positive spin on it,” Ohlendorf said.

Ohlendorf was able to find steady improvement and established himself at the major league level, playing for six different teams — including the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2008 to 2011. From there Ohlendorf refocused, this time on how his play could better the team, a process he found more satisfying than personal gratification.

“[I appreciated] playing for the team over myself. If I’m trying to help the team, I can do my best to become a better player and to play well, but it’s more rewarding to do it for others,” Ohlendorf said.