In her first at-bat of her first game for the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ) softball team in 1995, Tricia Charbonneau smacked a home run against the University of Maine in a game played in Orlando, Florida.
Charbonneau went on to an illustrious, record-settingmostly on offensecareer for the Flames … except for one game against Cleveland State University during her junior season, when she set the NCAA record for most strikeouts ( seven ) in a game.
"Reflecting on my career, one thing that really stands out is, the improvement that I felt I made over my career. I wasn't very big or very fast as a high school athlete, but was a hard worker," said Charbonneau, who played softball and competed on the golf team in high school in her native Moline, Illinois. "I wasn't a natural athlete by any means, but felt that, through the quality of coaching and the breakdown of technique and the reinforcement of fundamentals, it was something that I really latched on to."
She was a scholarship athlete who "really blossomed in that environment, in that opportunity.
"I'm proud of the career that I had."
In conjunction with the 50th anniversary since the inception of Circle Campus, UIC Athletics recently named the top 50 male and female athletes within the past 50 years. The decorated group, including Charbonneau, was recognized during halftime of a men's basketball game this season.
The 50 male and 51 female selections ( there was a tie for 50th spot ) were decided solely by fans through an online voting campaign, with more than 3,500 participants over the 50 days of voting. Athletes who competed prior to 1965 at the Navy Pier campus were not included in the voting.
Curtis Granderson ( baseball ) and Joanne McCarthy ( women's basketball ) topped the list for male and female honorees, respectively.
"Looking back, the thing that I'm most proud of is, the success of the program over the course of time and the expectation of excellence every single season," Charbonneau said. "It was our motivation and our expected goal that we would win the regular-season conference championship, and then the conference tournament, and then win the regional … that's what we were always working toward.
"I liked our standard of excellence and the opportunity to play a lot of ball ... Those were the highlights for me.
"It was quite an honor just to be nominated [for the top 50 list], especially since there were so many other great softball players at UIC, before and after me. I felt like I was just one cog in a very successful softball program.
"I'm very proud to recognize the university and the athletic department."
Now 38, Charbonneau lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood with her wife of four years, Amanda Malsch. Charbonneau is a designer and project manager for deGiulio Design in Wilmette and has lived in Chicago for about 20 years.
She was at UIC during 1994-98, playing third base and batting leadoff. She was a four-time All-Conference award-winner and an All-American candidate. When she graduated, she left UIC with eight of the school's 11 career offensive records.
She even was the NCAA leader for games played and at-bats.
She simply laughs at the seven-strikeout game.
"Heyeveryone is human," she said. "That game was a great preparation for life, when it just is not your day."
Charbonneau has played softball, badminton and indoor volleyball for the predominately gay Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) and spent 10 years, including the national championship season of 2013, on the Chicago Force. She played left guard as a Force rookie and later was a backup receiver, running back and linebacker. But her legacy will be as the Force's left-footed kicker.
"The athleticism gained during college definitely was re-captured as a player for the Force," Charbonneau said. "The whole reason that I started playing football was because I missed the collegiate experience."
Charbonneau was in the closet as a UIC freshman, but came out as a sophomore.
"The culture at the time was a little different [than in 2015]," said Charbonneau, who admitted that she was leery how being openly gay would be received on the team and throughout the athletic department. "I can feel for those who have a hard time coming-out, especially those in their late teens and early 20s; it's a hard [decision].
"For me, sports gave me something else to think about, and through sports I was able to meet a lot of other lesbians."
In the mid-1990s, there definitely was a stigma about being gay in the sport, Charbonneau said.
"I think [my] acceptance as a lesbian had to do, to a certain amount, with the product that I was producing on the field," she said.
By the time she graduated, there were other teammates who also came out, she said.
"So, to a certain extent, do I feel like a trailblazer? Maybe a little bit," Charbonneau said.
Charbonneau admitted that her freshman season was "kind of a challenge" playing while in the closet.
When she told an assistant coach at the start of the sophomore season that she was gay, Charbonneau said she wasn't treated any differently.
There was, though, one issue, Charbonneau saidwith an older teammate who had taken Charbonneau under her wing during Charbonneau's freshman season. "When she found out that I had come out, it did really change her opinion of me, and I think there was a while there that she didn't really like meand that was unfortunate because she and I had been very close [friends]," Charbonneau said. "I think her attitude might have also been felt by some of the other players [on the team], but they did not make it as apparent."
Flash-forward about 15 years. Actually, two or three years ago at the school's softball alumni game, the former teammate spoke with Charbonneau and met Malsch for the first time, Charbonneau said.
The next day, she reached out to Charbonneau and told Charbonneau that she didn't handle her coming-out very well. She said that she "acted in a poor way," Charbonneau recalled her former teammate saying.
The teammate also apologized.
Charbonneau and her former teammate are back friends. "I'm glad that situation [developed as it it]," Charbonneau said. "She's a big person for having come forward and saying what she did. I definitely appreciated that."