By ASHLEY ANDERSON
Since age 15, Francisco â€œFrankieâ€ Valdez has traveled the world playing professional volleyball. But, it wasnâ€™t until a few weeks ago the 31-year-old Dominican Republic native experienced his first taste of the Bluegrass State during the USA Volleyball Open National Championships. â€œI had no idea what to expect (of the city),â€ said Valdez, a member of team Jaairo, who placed first in their AA bracket at the championship games held at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. â€œIt was great for me because not only I got to see another part of the United States thatâ€™s very different from L.A. or New York, where Iâ€™ve lived, (but also) the people were amazing. Everybody was so unbelievably friendly and intrigued to know what we do. Not to mention, itâ€™s always great to win.â€
While in town for the tournament, Valdez quickly became acquainted with the city, visiting some of the top restaurants in town, going for a run in Cherokee Park, and even experiencing a bit of beginnerâ€™s luck and Louisvilleâ€™s famous Southern hospitality at historic Churchill Downs. â€œLouisville was an amazing city to host this yearâ€™s nationals,â€ Valdez said. â€œI had no idea that there was so much to offer. I grew up in the Caribbean, and when I thought of Kentucky, I would think of the Derby and fried chicken. Of course, I had to see Churchill Downs, especially after a Dominican won the Derby this year, and actually went twice. I must admit it is much more fun when you win.â€
Following Valdezâ€™s successful run in the USA Volleyball Open National Championships and first-time trip to Louisville, heâ€™s looking at the next step in his prosperous volleyball career. Since age 16, the 6â€™6â€ athlete has been playing volleyball year-round, competing with the national volleyball team in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and on Long Beach Stateâ€™s top-ranked volleyball team in California. â€œI had no breaks,â€ he laughed, â€œno stops for years,â€ which is why, after his tournament in Louisville, Valdez decided it may be time to hang up the jersey for awhile.
â€œAfter this nationals, I owe it to myself to take the summer off and (will) cool down a little bit,â€ he said. â€œI just think I needed a little break for myself and (to) consider what I want in my life and my options. But, Iâ€™m not retiring, Iâ€™m just taking (some time) off to think through where I want to go in my career.â€
In his downtime, Valdez is hoping to visit his homeland, the same country where friend and former University of Louisville basketball star Francisco Garcia was raised. Valdez is also looking to return to Louisville over the summer and promises to attend the Kentucky Derby next May. â€œ(Louisvillians) are so kind and positive,â€ he said. â€œThey have Southern charm. Thereâ€™s people that meet you today, and you could move into their house tomorrow if you needed to.â€
As heâ€™s weighing his next career move in volleyball, Valdez has kept in close touch with several of his new friends in Louisville and even mentioned the possibility of coaching in the city one day. But, regardless of which path he chooses, he can look back with a feeling of pride and fulfillment at his recent championship and all heâ€™s done with the sport from a very early age.
â€œI know eventually itâ€™s going to be my time to step down and give the opportunity to the up-and-coming kids, so mentally I am prepared, but Iâ€™m not ready,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve loved my career. Iâ€™ve milked it until the very last end. Iâ€™ve done a world championship, world cups, Iâ€™ve done North American, Central American games, Iâ€™ve done the American games, I played college in the United States, Division I on one of the top teams in the nation. Iâ€™ve played pro overseas. … I think Iâ€™ve covered a lot of ground, so Iâ€™m very, very pleased and very happy with what Iâ€™ve accomplished.Â Who knows, maybe Iâ€™ll come back to Louisville and coach.Â Thereâ€™s a very big volleyball community there.â€