Here’s the short version of Samantha Middleborn’s extraordinary story.
She started playing volleyball her sophomore year in high school and eventually earned a scholarship to Cal State San Bernardino. The 6-foot-1 middle blocker went on to be named AVCA Division II Player of the Year not once, but twice, before launching a professional career.
First, she played in France, then Switzerland and then landed a six-figure deal in Korea. But just a couple months into her contract, Middleborn found out she was pregnant.
She walked away from her dream job and returned to the States, where she found out she was expecting twins(!). On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017, Middleborn gave birth to two healthy girls.
Determined to continue the professional volleyball career she loved so much, while juggling the responsibilities of single motherhood, Middleborn returned to training four weeks after giving birth. It took almost a full year before she landed her next contract, but in late February 2018, Middleborn signed with Chieri, a team in the Italian A2 league.
Middleborn helped Chieri win the league and earn a promotion to A1, and as a reward, Chieri re-signed her, this time for the full season, and the kiddos got to come along, too.
Keep reading to hear more about Middleborn’s unusual, fascinating and inspiring story, and watch the Italian league live right here on FloVolleyball.
FloVolleyball: You had a lot of success in college — did you ever consider transferring and playing Division I?
Samantha Middleborn: I started playing volleyball my sophomore year of high school, so the thought of even getting a scholarship seemed crazy for me. Although DI perks would have been fun, I went to one of the best DII and I never wanted to transfer. I had an amazing career at CSUSB, and I couldn't have asked for a better coach, team and experience. I would do it all over again.
Flo: Did you know through college that you wanted to play professionally? Did you ever doubt that it would be possible for you?
SM: I definitely knew I wanted to play pro, it became my passion and my obsession. But I was never fully confident until my junior year after my first AVCA Player of the Year award. I was so shocked, and it wasn't until then that I realized my skill or confidence in the sport. I was my own worst critic up until that point.
Flo: When you signed the big contract in Korea, how were you feeling?
SM: Korea was something I had only dreamed of as a college athlete, making serious money playing the sport I loved, and I had finally transitioned from a middle to an opposite, which I always wanted. I had it all. It was a blessing to have been chosen for that, and I worked really hard to get to that point.
Flo: Then you find out you’re pregnant. What’s your initial reaction?
SM: It was a mixed bag. It was not the plan at all. But I’d be lying if I didn't say I felt instant love when I knew. That decision to leave still wasn't easy. I literally had my dream career sitting in my lap, and I had to choose to walk away from it all, sacrifice what I wanted and choose a totally different life. I had regret for a time, being so emotional and pregnant, but it was the right choice.
Flo: Did you have anyone there in Korea that you could talk to?
SM: No, not really. I had a translator but that wasn't the same. I knew more than anything I felt guilty for what I had done to the club. I was the first draft pick. They could've chose anyone, and it was me, and I let them down. That hurt.
Flo: Did you want to be a mom? Had you even thought that far ahead yet?
SM: I did not at that time. I was at my peak of my career. I was on the pill, it was not planned. I was in a relationship at the time, and we both agreed to separate about a year later. So single motherhood was not in my cards to say the least.
Flo: What made you so confident that you could return to pro volleyball after your daughters were born?
SM: I just knew. I wanted to prove to others and to myself that just because I'm a mom, that doesn't define me. I can still be a professional athlete and take care of my family. I don't have to choose and be just one or the other.
Flo: What was the comeback like?
SM: Not easy, but I knew it wouldn't be. I played four weeks after they were born, and I had a pulled ab and a bum shoulder really fast. So I worked hard for a full year training slowly to get my body back where it needed to.
Flo: What was a low point in that process?
SM: Not getting a contract. I was trying hard to play again the first year after they were born. They were born on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, so that new season I was trying to play. I had offers, but I wouldn't play without the girls for a full season, and teams really didn't want to take on both and didn't have enough confidence in me.
Flo: How about a high point?
SM: In February the following year I had an offer to play for the end of a season for a team in Italy A2. it was only two months, so I took it! I went alone, because the time was short. My mother and father watched the girls. And in those two months we won the championship! It felt amazing!
Flo: What kinds of things do you have to consider in looking for a pro team that other athletes who aren’t moms don’t have to think about it?
SM: Well, now salary plays a big part. I have to think about food and childcare. Housing is another, at least two bedrooms, one for me and one for them. Otherwise not much else. I try not to be too high demands because I already know I'm a big package for a team to take on.
Flo: What kind of a support system do you have with you while you’re abroad?
SM: Right now, I have my mom, She's staying with me this season to help watch the girls. And the team is amazing here. Everyone helps anyway they can and donates tons of toys and clothes.
Flo: How has the team’s first season in the top division been?
SM: Rough! We have some amazing girls on the team and the recipe for a strong one. But with a few hiccups in our choice of coach and a lack of motivation, it’s been an uphill battle the entire way. I just look at this as a really great opportunity to prove I can play and take care of my family, so future teams won't have to feel that burden.
Flo: How do you feel about how you’ve been playing?
SM: I've been playing well, but I know it can be better. I've got my vertical back, and I've gone from 0-100 coming from childbirth to playing in one of the best leagues in the world. It’s very fast volleyball and I’m keeping up. But I can always be better.
Flo: What are your plans for the future?
SM: This one is a tough one. I would love to keep playing, but because of the girls, now my decision has to be based on financial circumstances. I am solely responsible for them, so if the money is good, then I will continue. Otherwise, I will look at hanging up the Mizunos and commit full time to coaching. I want to collegiate coach long-term, so I can get started on that if I decide to finish pro.