ABBOTSFORD — Last April, in the moments after surgeons operated on her battle-scarred left knee for the third time in just under four years, Amanda Thompson cleared her head and braced herself for the news.
In terminology of her sport, she was preparing herself for sudden impact, the kind that comes on the basketball court when you beat a driving offensive player to the spot, square your body for collision and take the full impact of a charge head-on.
“After the surgery, the doctor told me that the rest of my medial (meniscus) had been torn,” explained Thompson earlier this week. “My radial (meniscus) had already been torn through.”
Her thoughts on receiving that sobering bit of post-op news?
“You know,” she begins, “I was literally thinking to myself ‘This is the first little bit of luck that I have had.’”
Well, when you’ve already torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in that same left knee on two previous occasions and missed some of your sport’s most essential years of formative development, you start to measure fortune on a completely different scale.
On Friday (6 p.m.), as a new U Sports basketball season officially gets underway in Abbotsford, Thompson, a 5-foot-10 third-year guard, gets to hear her named called in the starting line-up as her Fraser Valley Cascades host the Thompson Rivers WolfPack of Kamloops at the Envision Financial Athletic Centre.
If you had seen the way she played, say, six years ago, as a junior varsity sensation at neighbouring W.J. Mouat Secondary, then heard nothing of her subsequent journey until this week, then everything about her current station in the university basketball world would seem to be unfolding as if on cue.
Yet this is a story about the impact of those intervening years, a time where random, cold-blooded misfortune picks you, stops you in your tracks and makes you decide what it is that truly matters most.
THE PAIN DRAIN
March 9, 2013.
On that Saturday, at the Langley Events Centre, on the occasion of the 2013 B.C. junior girls championship final, a Grade 10 Amanda Thompson announced herself, jitter-free, on the biggest stage of her basketball like to that point.
Out of the tunnel and onto the floor she came, knocking down four three-pointers in the first half as the W.J. Mouat Hawks, coached by her mom Paula, beat Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Knights 41-29.
“We all decided before the game that we wanted it more,” Thompson told me that day in the post-game celebration with the kind of naive innocence that only a 16-year-old could deliver.
Of course, apply those words to herself and what she would face over the next few years, and maybe it wasn’t so innocent and naive after all.
Thompson went on to enjoy an injury-free 2013-14 Grade 11 season, building her stock as one of the province’s top guards.
UFV head coach Al Tuchscherer, in fact, would soon make an offer to bring Thompson into the Cascades’ fold for the start of the 2015-16 U Sports’ campaign.
Yet in July of 2014, playing club basketball for the Junior Cascades program, she took a bump going in for a layup and tore her ACL for the first time.
The injury forced her to miss virtually all of her 2014-15 senior season at Mouat, but that didn’t slow any aspect of her diligent rehab process.
“I wanted to be back in six months, and be ready for the start of provincials because we had such a good team,” Thompson remembers.
For that first knee operation, however, surgeons had used a piece of her hamstring, and the graft actually ended up feeling a little tight.
“So I can just remember sitting there for hours with weights on my knee, with tears in my eyes, trying to push it down. I wanted it to be straight so I could walk properly.”
The hard work paid off.
Thompson actually made it back to the Hawks’ roster late in the season, appearing in a handful of games in the lead-up to the provincial championships.
But in late February, a week before the provincials were set to begin, she tore the same ACL again.
“That was super hard to watch,” Thompson was remembering earlier this week of the 2015 B.C. tournament. “We had such a good team, and although I felt like a part of the team, you’re on the sidelines thinking ‘Am I really a part of this team?’”
Mouat advanced all the way to the B.C. AAA final but lost to Brookswood 60-48 in a game that was jam-packed with talent, from the Bobcats’ Aislinn Konig, Louise Forsythe and Tayla Jackson, to the Hawks’ twin towers Cierra and Alicia Roufosse. All five of those players would go on to play NCAA Div. 1 basketball.
“The second time it happened, it was just kind of like I knew,” admits Thomspon. “After I got an MRI to confirm the second tear, I can remember being in the car with Al, my mom and (physical trainer and injury therapist) Yosh (Burton), and my mom turned to me and she said ‘You’re a tough kid, you can do it twice.’”
A BASKETBALL BOXER
Depending on your path in the game, your most formative years will occur at differing stages.
If you’re a university-bound talent like Thompson, returning after missing Grade 12 and then your first year of post-secondary play is, in a lot of ways, like trying to play the game for the first time.
That is clearly how Thompson felt when her bruised and battered knee finally gave her permission to begin playing again in 20126-17 as a UFV redshirt freshman.
“My first game that season, I remember thinking that this was just different, unlike what I had ever played and I knew it was going to be a very hard challenge,” Thompson says. “But I also knew that I had so many people behind me and I feel like that gave me so much more confidence.”
The one thing that never seemed to desert her?
“I have defence, and I feel like that is the one part of my game that has helped me stick around,” says Thompson, whose will has always been more than enough to get her left knee to co-operate when a lock-down stop is required.
The new Amanda Thompson, by the way, is feeling better than ever.
In fact in the days leading up to her third surgery last spring, the one where she happily discovered her ACL had remained in tact, she was no longer the nervous young girl whose entire world was defined by her place in the game.
“Everyone told me that it was torn again,” she remembers. “The doctors said they were positive it was. I just said that I was willing to get the procedure done, to see whether it was torn or not. I was sure that this was a sign, like ‘Maybe I am not supposed to be playing’ but I felt like I would just make my decision after the surgery.”
In fact when doctors told her that her ACL was OK, and that her re-hab process would be much less intense, she got another bit of good news.
A tangle of scar tissue was also removed, and within a few weeks of the surgery, Thompson felt as good as she had in years.
“Oh man, there have been so many times where she could have just called it a career,” says Tuchscherer, who has seen Thompson radiate confidence on the offensive end, especially with that three-point shot, the one which caught everyone’s attention back when she was in 10th grade.
“She dug deep for this,” he continued. “She has had a long haul to get back to this level and I think she is just now starting to get there. And she’s a leader, too. Funny to say, but that’s what she was back on her Grade 10 team. But it’s hard to do that from the sidelines. Now, she’s starting to feel comfortable again with that voice.”
And coincidentally, the rest of Thompson’s body is not immune to injury.
In casual workouts over the summer, Thompson wound up breaking a bone in her non-shooting left hand.
“I crunched it the wrong way and I broke it,” she says of a collision in practice with a teammate that also resulted in a dislocated knuckle.
“They had to freeze it,” she says of her hand. “Then the doctor told me it was called a boxer’s break, and asked me if I had punched someone or maybe punched a wall.”
Neither, she replied.
Yet over the last four years, Amanda Thompson has not only gone 15 rounds with adversity, she’s turned injury rehab into her own version of the sweet science.
“I feel like this is just who I am,” says Thompson, who has changed her major and is now aiming to enter the teaching profession upon graduation. “I just always felt like I belonged here, and that I deserved to get back.
“I feel like what has pushed me is just saying ‘I am going to do it, and I am going to finish it,’” she adds. “I didn’t want to give up on my own expectations.”
(UFV’s women’s basketball team wraps up its two-game home weekend series with the WolfPack on Saturday at 5 p.m. The Cascades men play TRU at 8 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday)
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