Three ACL tears after, Kat Tolentino takes it one step at a time

Tearing an ACL is one of the worst nightmares for any athlete wishing to make a dent in his or her chosen sport.

The initial shock after a bad landing, the actual pain of tearing a ligament, the first realization of having to sit out tournaments for 6-8 months, and all the different kinds of fear that come with it are just some of the roadblocks that can tear down the spirit of even the most determined and passionate sports personalities in the world.

Now imagine having to go through the whole ordeal three times.

Such was the unfortunate scenario in the embattled volleyball career of spiker Kat Tolentino.

While regular kids would have graduation as the most memorable moment they have in their senior year in high school, Tolentino’s was that—and her first encounter with an ACL tear on her left knee which happened back in her hometown in Vancouver, Canada.

Young, fearless, and full of dreams, the Fil-Canadian spent the succeeding nine months recovering and aiming to suit up for Trinity Western University.

On January of 2013, Tolentino felt ready both mentally and physically to give volleyball another try. Her doctors thought so hence the medical clearance given to her after careful observation and a stringent hop test.

Everything was a ‘go’ for Tolentino. Unfortunately, fate had different plans.

Just three days into her return, she heard an all too familiar snap on her left knee, signalling yet another ACL tear and the return of a nightmare.

Yet she remained upbeat.

It might have something to do with her Filipino upbringing or the fact that the place she grew up in always figures high in UN’s happiest countries in the world list but whatever it is, it pushed Tolentino to remain steadfast and to keep looking at the glass half-full.

Not exactly thrilled at the thought of returning to her old team, Tolentino searched far and wide for a place where she can startover: 6,550 miles to be exact.

Striking a deal with Ateneo’s Ricky Palou, Tolentino packed her bags, took a leap of faith, and flew to Manila, a path earlier taken by her brother, Vince, who plays for Katipunan’s men’s basketball team.

Armed with hope brought about by a new environment, the 6-footer continued her rehab and inched her way into officially joining the then back-to-back UAAP champions Lady Eagles.

And just when she was about to debut for Ateneo in the 12th Shakey’s V-League Collegiate Conference, she lands badly—on her right knee this time around—during the warmup of the team’s opening salvo in the tournament.

Even Tolentino had no better word to describe her situation other than ‘frustrating.’

“Everyone gets injured. It’s a very common injury for athletes. But for me, it was consecutively happening,” she told FOX Sports shaking her head.

“I would get healthy, I would go back to training and maybe in a few weeks, I’d get injured again.”

“For me that’s just frustrating because you work so hard to get back. You don’t even get to play in a league that you’re hoping to (participate in) so I think that was the most frustrating part,” she added. “Just because it’s consecutive injuries, I never really experienced my hard work paying off yet.”

In 2015, La Salle’s prized recruit from Season 74, Camille Cruz, was facing the same predicament (a third ACL tear) when she took it as a sign pointing her to bid volleyball goodbye temporarily and spend time with family abroad.

Looking at the debacle as if it’s an unbreakable curse, Tolentino, just like any human being would, came close to just throwing in the towel.

Maybe volleyball just wasn’t for her. Maybe her body can’t take it anymore. Maybe she’ll just let the fear of it happening again get the best of her.

“At the time I was really affected by it that’s why I didn’t want to go back,” she admitted.

On the psychological aspect of the injury being a bigger speed bump to overcome, she add: “The fear of it happening again was part of it. It was my third ACL (tear) so I was very paranoid. I guess the fear of injury is always gonna be with me.”

Drawing inspiration from her strong support system made up of family, friends, teammates and most importantly, people from the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center, who supervised her road to recovery, Tolentino took things one day at a time, shoving the thought of one day donning the crisp blue and white jerseys of Ateneo to the far back of her mind.

“The injury was still fresh at the time. I, of course, wasn’t focusing on volleyball. I was focusing on my health first. At the time I was more concerned about getting strong again and not really just going back right away,” recalled the Business Management student.

“I think I’m definitely stronger now. But for me, my knees aren’t really the same as they were before. I will have the pain I feel. It’s gonna be there forever now,” she added. “I wouldn’t say I’m the same as I was before but I’m stronger because I’ve done a lot of strengthening and conditioning on top of therapy.”

The hunger to hammer the ball and kick start her collegiate volleyball career remains burning at the pit of Tolentino’s stomach.

This, though, is now being paced by the lessons she has learned over the last four years of going back and forth to the operating room to fix her knees that just keep giving up on her and her dreams.

“The biggest lesson is not to take things for granted.”

“Before, when I played volleyball, I took my body for granted. As an athlete, it’s not only about playing the sport. It’s also about getting in condition. I think I took that for granted,” she said with a smile that hints on a little regret.

So what’s it gonna be? Will she sink or swim?

Tolentino, like the mysterious magic 8 ball that she is, says ask again later.

“If I’m mentally 100% like I can do everything without the fear of injury, then of course I’ll go back. But now I’m not at that stage,” she said honestly. “I just have to see in the next few months how things turn out. I don’t wanna say anything about coming back because I don’t know where I’m gonna be in the next few months.”

Now would be a good time for her to pledge her return as the Lady Eagles are still on their way to filling the void left by starters Alyssa Valdez and Amy Ahomiro.

But if there is one thing Tolentino wants to do right this time, it is not putting unnecessary pressure on herself. Admittedly, the spiker thinks she is not the impact player everyone believes her to be—at least not yet.

“I don’t see myself as an immediate impact player. I don’t need to take their spot. I’m new so I don’t want to be putting that much pressure on me. I’m just looking to contribute the best that I can whether it’s playing or not,” she shared.

For now, it’s the little victories that Tolentino want to celebrate.

She is inching closer to another hop test. She has never felt more fit in years. And she’s back in training with the Lady Eagles on their morning sessions which include running and conditioning.

To some, these baby steps she’s taking may not seem enough. But for someone like her who has had the wind knocked out of her the multiple times she heard her knees give in, it’s nothing short of being heroic to have the courage to even look at and be near a volleyball and a court.

Tearing an ACL for the third time could be the universe’s way of telling an athlete like Tolentino to shift gears and redirect priorities.

But maybe, just maybe, her third time to recover is the charm she’s been waiting for. —By Mac Dionisio