May 11, 2010
Amber Flores is a success story.
While that may be stating the obvious, the reasons for that success only partly include her achievements on the softball field. Some people thought Amber Flores would never make it to college, much less become an All-American softball player. But she did. And every time she steps on the field, she is living proof of defying the odds.
“I come from a very tight-knit family,” Flores, who grew in Calexico, Calif., a border town across from Mexicali, Mexíco, said. “I never thought about college. I never thought about playing college softball. It was something I thought couldn’t happen. I didn’t know how my family would afford to send me to school. I just thought I’d stay at home and go to the local junior college and somehow figure it out.”
The daughter of a teacher and a school district courier, Flores grew up playing baseball. She first stepped on to a softball field at age 12 and never looked back. Her talent made her stand out. As a result, Flores was recruited by several Division I programs out of high school. She chose the University of Oklahoma.
The chance to attend college was an opportunity she never thought she would have. Flores was excited about the future, only she did not quite know what to expect.
“At the time, it seemed a bit unrealistic for me to leave home to come all the way to Oklahoma,” Flores added. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into by coming out here and neither did my family. When I first got here, the expectations I had for myself were really low.”
When her freshman year started, so did the snowball that was life. A typical day included morning workouts, class, practice, study hall and maybe a tutoring session. At some point, she had to fit in meals, homework, errands and sleep. It was a lot to undertake and Flores almost gave up. She almost packed it up and went home without looking in the rearview mirror.
She calls it the toughest year of her life because of how she approached the new structure that was life as a college student-athlete. Little did she know then it would ultimately change her life for the better.
“It was a hard year because I made it that way. I wasn’t prepared mentally or physically,” Flores said. “I didn’t know I had to wake up at 6 a.m. and do workouts. I didn’t even know that you had to do workouts. I just thought you did a little bit of weights and practiced a couple hours a day and went home. I didn’t understand the commitment or what it took.”
Flores was frustrated by the adjustments necessary to play at such a high level and more so frustrated at the amount of time it took to, well, manage her time. More than 19 hours from home, surrounded by unfamiliar places and faces, Flores was homesick and struggling. She missed the Mexican cooking, her friends and most of all, her parents.
The only person in Norman she had was older brother Eric, who made the move to OU with her. It was Eric on several occasions that pointed out to his younger sister that she was the one limiting her success.
“When Amber first came here, I don’t think she had any kind of system and as a coach, you just continue to work to get a player like that to buy into what you’re doing,” said Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso. “Structure, discipline, time management, priorities, organizing and being punctual are qualities needed to be successful, and she really struggled with that. I think the demands as a student-athlete overwhelmed her. Learning to manage her life, get up on time and being self-motivated and self-disciplined was a new world to her.”
So why did she stay when the easiest thing for her to do was to pack up, bid farewell and say, “I tried?”
“There were a few moments where I kept telling myself there was no way I was going to make it here and I didn’t fit in,” Flores said. “Every time I had one of those moments, something happened to keep me here. It always seemed to work out. I started to come around and realize the mistakes I was making. I think the thought of letting my parents down was a big factor. To call them and say ‘I give up’ would be the ultimate disappointment. They wouldn’t even be mad at me if I had said, ‘I’m coming home’. They would have been disappointed beyond what you can imagine. I couldn’t do that to them after all they had done for me.”
She learned that her dreams were still within arms’ reach, but making her goals reality was going to take serious transformations. Listening and following directions, having self-discipline and learning to take criticism offered with her best interest at heart were things Flores had to accept. And once she did, the rest is history.
“I think putting myself through that has made me the person I am today,” Flores added. “I look back on it, and I’m thankful it happened. I never thought I’d say that, but I am. It knocked me down to my feet and made me fight back to the top. It’s taught me so many life lessons that I value and cherish. It’s changed my outlook on so many things.”
Understanding the values of being a team player and the discipline required to be an elite athlete still didn’t guarantee overnight success. That came with setbacks, with doubt, and every time Flores was faced with another challenge, her freshman year experience was in the back of her mind. But with a new mindset and understanding, she set out to do the impossible.
“When Amber started trusting this program and myself and the coaching staff, it changed her world,” Gasso said. “She started to believe in what we were doing, which was helping her become the best she can be. Her freshman year may have been the toughest year of her life but it was also the most pivotal year for her. It turned her from a girl into a woman in every aspect of her life.”
Even after earning first team All-Big 12 and All-Region honors as a freshman, Flores improved on those numbers as a sophomore. She hit .381, more than half a point better than her freshman year average. She almost doubled her home run total and increased her slugging percentage from .536 as a freshman to .710 as a sophomore. She got better in every aspect of the game. And it was all because she took the time to change her frame of mind.
It did not stop there. Her junior year was her best as a Sooner to date and, because of her on-the-field dominance, she was named the Big 12 Player of the Year. She hit .416, produced an absolutely astonishing .872 slugging percentage and set an Oklahoma single season record with 49 walks drawn.
Now in her senior season, the three-time All-Big 12 and All-Region honoree holds school career records in walks, home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. She ranks in the top five in almost every other offensive category including batting average, runs scored, runs batted in, extra-base hits and total bases.
Flores does not worry about her numbers. Her goal is to contribute to the juggernaut that is Oklahoma’s lineup. Because of her success at OU, Flores will continue her career professionally this summer in Florida with the USSSA Pride. Her biggest accomplishment of all will come later this month when she receives her degree in sociology. Her academic aspirations do not stop there. She has plans to attend graduate school at Oklahoma.
Having accomplished so much on and off the field, Flores also realizes that her dream is one little girls from her hometown know can come true for them. She knows that her own experience means those young girls can reach their full potential if they are willing to work for it.
“Being able to play on television and play out in Palm Springs (Calif.) allows young girls from my hometown to see me play. They get to see that I play at a competitive level and that I play every day,” Flores said. “Just them being able to see me wear the Oklahoma uniform means a lot to me and people in Calexico. It represents how far I’ve come as a person. It’s one of the best compliments I get is about my outgoing personality. I want to be a good softball player but more than that, I want to be a good person and set a good example for kids from my hometown.”
There are days when Flores still gets homesick. Days when she wishes she could sit down for breakfast with her parents. Now she has the confidence to handle anything thrown at her whether it is pitches or a run of bad luck. But most of all, she has expectations, goals and more dreams to fulfill.
“I realize how much being a college student-athlete has impacted my life and how it’s taught me to hold myself to a standard that no one else can. I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned,” Flores added. “People around me can have certain expectations for me but the expectations I have for myself are the most important. I want to accomplish my goals. Those expectations are something I didn’t have my freshman year and I have them now. No one can put as much pressure on me as me.”