Ansley Gilstrap's College Softball Return Years In The Making
As college softball teams around the country begin play this week, perhaps there is one player who is more prepared to step out onto the field than all the rest.
That's Ansley Gilstrap, who played her last college softball game on May 12, 2018. The Clemson redshirt senior transferred in the summer of 2018 from USC Upstate, where she was an ASUN All-Conference selection twice and the 2017 Conference Tournament MVP.
After that 2018 season, she transferred to Clemson in preparation for the program's inaugural campaign in 2020. Gilstrap knew she would have to redshirt for a year, but was excited for the opportunity to start something so special and new.
In 2019, Gilstrap played the entire fall slate at shortstop after transferring, but in October, she noticed that something was wrong.
“I was starting to have migraines a lot more than normal, and what really got me was the balance and vertigo issues,” Gilstrap said. “That’s when I started to really think that something was wrong.”
She then went to her athletic trainer, who scheduled her an MRI. That’s when she found out that she was born with a brain malformation called Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into your spinal canal.
After the MRI, the neurologist and neurosurgeon then suggested that she have surgery since the herniation on Gilstrap’s brain stem was severe. Before the surgery in mid-December, the doctors mentioned that she should be able to be on the field for the inaugural season, which gave Gilstrap a beacon of hope that she was ecstatic about.
“The surgery went really well,” Gilstrap said. “I was even able to walk for graduation because I graduated last December.”
Everything changed, though, on Christmas Eve when Gilstrap started to have headaches again.
“I came back in January and started rehab, and I had this swollen lump on my neck,” Gilstrap described. “They actually found that I had a cerebral spinal fluid leak, so I went back to the neurosurgeon and had another surgery to fix that leak.”
After that surgery, she then went back to Clemson and attended the team's first fan day complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony. From then on, Gilstrap started having another bout of intense headaches.
The doctors then confirmed that she had another cerebral spinal fluid leak and had to cease all physical activity.
“Me being active was making it worse, so I was pretty much bedridden for the next couple of months,” Gilstrap said. “I couldn’t really move. I had to let it settle down because they didn’t want to go in and open my head up a third time.”
That meant that Gilstrap would have to sit out the season that she worked so hard for.
“Obviously, my whole first year at Clemson was spent building up to this excitement to play and start the very first Clemson team,” Gilstrap said. “And after my first surgery, I had a lot of optimism because the doctors said that I would be good to play.”
So, instead of traveling to Florida for the program's very first game, Gilstrap had to sit at home watching her team beat St. John’s, 6-2.
“That was a real bummer,” Gilstrap said. “Especially since, at that point, there was no timeline (for my return). I had no idea when I was going to be able to be back.”
Gilstrap was able to be checked out of the hospital at the end of February and was in the Tigers’ dugout in March when the patch they put in to seal the cerebral spinal fluid leak finally sealed.
When she was finally feeling like herself again and able to cheer on her teammates, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing the entire world to a halt along with the Tigers’ inaugural season.
“That was a real roller coaster of emotions,” Gilstrap added. “But honestly, throughout the process, it didn’t take me much to come to peace with it.”
Through the ups and the downs, Gilstrap knows that she can turn to her teammates and her parents to support her every step of the way.
“I’ve got a bunch of teammates who are really encouraging me on my path, and that’s what’s great about having the team,” Gilstrap said. “My parents have also been there since day one, so I’ve had a lot of support.”
Gilstrap was officially cleared to play softball in August and is overjoyed to be back playing the game she loves.
“I’m just ready to get started,” she said. “There are no words, honestly. Even though it’s another modified season, I’ll take what I can get.”