- Written by Brendan Stasiewich Brendan Stasiewich
- Published: 07 March 2017 07 March 2017
In a split second, one sound – pop – changed everything about the next year of Maria Blanco Belver’s life.
An 18-year-old Mount Royal Cougars basketball recruit who moved from Spain to Canada three years ago, Blanco was trying to prove that although she stood at a mere five-foot-three, she deserved to start on head coach Nathan McKibbon’s university squad.
That all changed Oct. 7 in her third preseason game, facing off against the MacEwan Griffins.
As she had done time and time again, Blanco was defending the ball carrier up the court, sticking stride for stride with the Griffins’ guard. Blanco extended her right leg, planted it, and heard that awful sound.
“My knee went one way and my body went the other,” said Blanco, who immediately fell to the ground, rolling onto the side of the court.
“Don’t be an ACL,” was the first thing McKibbon thought as he watched helplessly from the opposite sideline. Tearing the anterior cruciate ligament is one of the most devastating injuries for an athlete, and is all too common for basketball players.
Pounding the ground in pain, Blanco would soon learn from the medical clinic at the University of Calgary that she did indeed tear her ACL. Having seen NBA players such as Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and her country-mate Ricky Rubio go through the same injury, Blanco knew she was facing a long road to recovery.
According to her surgeon, Dr. Greg Buchko, it would be a year until Blanco was ready to play again.
“In the past we would tell patients six months post-operation you should be ready to go, but studies indicate young people under the age of 25 have quite a high retear rate at six months,” said Buchko, who has been with Banff Sports Medicine for 21 years. “The retear rate goes down significantly at nine months, so it will be at least nine months until she’s ready to play sports, maybe a year.”
What was the 18-year-old’s response knowing she would miss the entire 2016/17 season?
“Can I still win rookie of the year?”
“That’s Maria in a nutshell,” said coach McKibbon. “This is a setback but [she’s thinking] what is the next plan, how can I get back and get healthy? I’ve never seen her feel sorry for herself and I’ve never seen her feel down.”
McKibbon was impressed from the minute he first saw Blanco play last winter at Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge. Blanco was at the school on an exchange program from Logrono, Spain, and McKibbon would eventually offer her a scholarship in March 2016.
“She’s a dynamic athlete, especially defensively, she was all over the place,” said McKibbon. “Her teammates and everyone around her just loved her and said great things about her so it was a fairly easy process.”
Going into the year, McKibbon knew she would have a role on the team, and an important one at that, until one wrong step derailed those plans.
Aware of the tight timeline, McKibbon and Blanco knew it was crucial to get the operation done as soon as possible. Benefiting from a surprise opening, Blanco was able to book the procedure for Dec. 29, a month earlier than initially scheduled.
Although the prognosis was good and Blanco knew she could work hard in rehab to get back on the court the following season, she had another hill to climb.
“I don’t have any family here. I’m by myself, they’re all in Spain.”
Who would take Blanco to her appointments? Who would make sure she got the proper care? With her entire family nearly 8,000 kilometres away, her second family, the team or “the tribe” as McKibbon calls it, stepped up.
“Whatever I need, they’re always there,” said Blanco, talking about her Cougar teammates and coaching staff. “My coach has driven me to the clinic whenever I have to go, and to Banff for my surgery and all my appointments, everyone has made everything easier.”
While coach McKibbon said he would do this for any of his players, he notes it is especially gratifying with an athlete like Blanco.
“It makes it easy knowing Maria is the first one to go out of her way to help a teammate or coach or volunteer or anything else. She’s the first one to help and that’s what makes it so easy to help someone like her,” said McKibbon.
“We have a group of young women who would go out of their way to help each other out. We have a coaching staff, two of them wanted to drive out to see her after surgery.”
Two and a half months after the injury, McKibbon and Blanco, accompanied by Blanco’s mother who made the trip from Spain, visited Buchko for the second time. This time, it was for the surgery.
Buchko reconstructed Blanco’s knee by using tendons from her hamstring, with Blanco watching everything on a screen next to her. He said the surgery went very well.
“The benefit was we got to it soon,” said Buchko. “So we prevented re-injuries while her knee was deficient, and if you prevent those re-injuries the long term prognosis is much better.”
While the surgery went well, so well in fact that Buchko didn’t set the follow up appointment until six months down the road, Blanco was about to endure the next stage of her journey: rehabilitation.
Now, she is rehabbing while still traveling with the team, watching every game from the sidelines, wishing she was out there.
But somehow throughout the whole process, Blanco, who just finished writing high school diploma exams eight months ago, has had the maturity and strength to keep her head up.
“The only way to work through it is to be positive and think about what you can control instead of thinking about what will happen,” said Blanco. “You can’t control that, so that has made the whole process easier.”
There’s also a silver lining for Blanco. Because the injury happened in the pre-season, she gets to redshirt for the team, meaning she can participate in all team activities (besides suiting up in uniform) and she doesn’t have to forfeit one of her five years of U Sports eligibility.
“I didn’t want to miss half the season and just come back for the end,” said Blanco. “I was kind of glad it was fully torn, I’d rather come back for a whole season.”
And just weeks after the surgery, Blanco’s already impressing coaches and trainers.
“I watch her on the sidelines sometimes during practice, she’s on a wobble board one-legged throwing basketballs against a wall,” said McKibbon. “I don’t think with the best of my athletic abilities I could do what she’s doing, just in rehab.”
As for Blanco, she’s been able to take something positive away from the journey.
“I learned that I have to be grateful for when I’m able to play and healthy,” Blanco said. “When you actually can’t play you just think about it everyday. You know one day out of nowhere, maybe you just can’t play basketball anymore.”
If you need more proof of Blanco’s glass-half-full view, just ask her what it’s like watching video of her injury.
“It was tough to watch at first, but I decided to laugh at it.”