LANGLEY — At his lowest ebb, Jesse Elser remembers waking up one morning and resigning himself to the fact that he had become a shadow of his former self.
“I can remember not being able to get out of bed,” Trinity Western’s second-year outside hitter says of a particularly tough day following the 2017-18 U Sports volleyball season.
“I especially remember that I couldn’t put my socks on by myself,” added the Calgary native and graduate of Dr. E.P. Scarlett Secondary. “I couldn’t sit, so I would have to stand at the back of my classes. It was one of the toughest hardships I have had to go through in my life.”
Growing up in a volleyball family, including his dad who played for the Canadian national team, and brother, Mattias, who now plays alongside of him on the nation’s most decorated university men’s program, Elser’s grand plan seemed to be unfolding on cue with perhaps the exception of losing to the crosstown rival UBC Thunderbirds in the 2018 national championship match.
Yet around that time, leg pain due to disc problems in his back became so severe that to have any hope of not only resuming his volleyball career, but being able to comfortably walk again, surgery was his only real option.
Fast-forward to this past Saturday on Centre Court at the Langley Events Centre, and there was Jesse Elser, at 6-foot-8 and 195 pounds, the picture of dynamic athleticism, effortlessly rising in his attack to the tune of eight kills in a series-cliniching victory over the Brandon Bobcats, one which not only gave the Spartans home-court advantage for this Saturday’s one-match Canada West championship final against the visiting Alberta Golden Bears back at the LEC, but as well an 11th consecutive trip back to the U Sports nationals the following week as its defending champion.
Oh, and we forget to mention, he doesn’t need any help when it comes time to putting on his socks.
A TIME FOR SOBERING THOUGHTS
“They told me right from the start that there was always the chance that something could go wrong,” recollects Jesse Elser of the requisite pre-surgery discussions he had with his doctors. “They told me I was young and that I was strong and so there was a better chance for success, but that I still might have some nerve damage.
“I prayed and I hoped for the best, but I was still freaking out on the inside.”
Elser himself will not deny the fate genetics can play in growing into a physique which gives you a chance to chase a career in the international volleyball world.
Yet at the same time, he is also aware of the paradox at play.
“It was a combination of growing really fast and not being overly strong in the core,” admits Elser of his steady growth, a pattern which actually didn’t stop until just this past season and directly contributed to his back issues.
“Combine that with years and years of jumping and landing with maybe not the best form, and the compression on my disc was too much to handle,” he adds.
And so after that 2017-18 season, a surgery was scheduled where a small incision was made along Elser’s spine to suck away part of the disc which had ruptured onto his nerves and was causing so much leg pain that he had actually begun to lose muscle mass.
“We’re talking about a 19-year-old kid who would be looking at a long road to recovery,” begins Spartans’ head coach Ben Josephson, Wednesday named the Canada West’s Coach of the Year. “They said that he should return to full strength but you don’t know, and that was scary for all of us.
“This is one of Canada’s bright young talents, he had been playing for the junior national team and was coming off of a beautiful freshman season,” Josephson continued. “To think that maybe that was his peak? It was a sobering thought and I know that we all thought it.”
WHAT IT MEANS TO JUMP WITH JOY
One year ago, at the 2019 U Sports national championships in Laval, early on the same day in which the Spartans would win their third national title in the past four years, a moment took place that Elser, Josephson and the rest of the TWU squad might say was just as memorable as hoisting the program’s sixth Tantramar Trophy, emblematic of Canadian men’s university volleyball supremacy.
After a redshirt year of rehabilitation back alongside his healthy teammates in Langley, a painstaking process which defined the meaning of baby steps, a non-active Elser was in Laval with his Spartans’ brothers to watch their championship-day walk-through, when he asked TWU’s head athletic therapist Natalie Ghobrial if he could maybe go for a little jump-and-hit.
He’d earlier been cleared for some passing, but after a full year of gravity-bound recovery, the excruciating wait to return to his realm of rare air was seemingly at hand.
Gohbrial gave the go-ahead, and yet when a ball was set for Elser’s attack, his over-zealous nature combined with his shelf-life rust brought the team to its knees… with laughter.
“In my head, I remember being able to jump really high, but that time, my feet hit the ground a lot faster than I remember. I fell over and collapsed, and everyone was cheering.”
Most importantly, however, he felt no pain.
Gohbrial gave the green light for one more try, and that’s all Elser needed to register the practice kill which has brought him right back into the fold this season along a Spartans’ front line boasting the likes of Canada West Player of the Year Eric Loeppky, Jacob Kern and Brodie Hofer.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES WITH NEW APPRECIATION
What did Jesse Elser miss most over the 2018-19 season in which he brought himself back to health while spending an entire campaign on the sidelines?
Despite being in the gym at practices with his teammates, doing his own rehab work on the sidelines, a sense of isolation set in… a feeling that his injury had robbed him of full membership on the team.
That and the constant daily battle to focus on the now with the faith that he was strengthening his body, despite the slow return on results, would take an understandable toll.
“I started to see a counsellor,” Elser says. “I was sad because nothing seemed to be working for me. But the big thing my counsellor talked to me about was small victories.
“The day I was able to put my socks on by myself, the day I could go for a 10-minute walk, and then making that first jump in Laval the day of the national finals.”
Quite incredibly, that rehab process went so smoothly that Elser, who’s always had great receiving skills, tried out over this past summer and made the junior national team, this time as a 6-foot-8 libero.
And during the Canada West campaign, when Hofer went down for an extended stretch with a thumb injury, Elser met the need for extended live reps and shone for the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
His recovery, and now his return to his rightful place within the Spartans’ line-up is significant stuff… life-changing even.
“Before I was injured I was studying in communications because I love people, I love talking and building relationships,” begins Elser.
“But I was talking to a counsellor after my surgery and I was asked why I love volleyball. It’s because of the work, the goal-setting and the relationship building, and what better setting is there for that than in a classroom?”
And thus his new career goal to be an educator has begun in earnest.
“Now, I want to be a teacher in a hospital for kids with long-term illnesses or injuries,” Elser says.
Staying the course.
Elser wasn’t immune to life’s bumps and potholes, yet he persevered, asked for help when he needed it, and got confirmation of what the essence of a true teammate is over his entire journey of recovery.
“It has been all over the place this year, comparing myself to my first year, wanting to touch the same (jumping) heights, and carrying around all of this internal conflict,” he says as his team prepares to face Alberta coming off its dramatic three-match series win last Saturday against visiting Brandon.
“This team and this coaching staff, they stuck with me,” he adds. “And as the season has gone along, things molded together and now I feel like a part of the team again. We make each other better, and we’re peaking at the right time.”
Can anything be more satisfying than being given the chance to continue our journey with a heightened sense of appreciation for every step?
That is the path Jesse Elser is happy to walk each day, right after he gets up, gets out bed, and puts on his socks.
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