BURNABY — Tessa May has struck a treaty with her aching shins, a peace accord of sorts that says she’ll do the hundreds of hours of physiotherapy as long as she gets to pull on her No. 21 game-day jersey with the Simon Fraser Clan volleyball team.
And as per the rules of engagement, once that first serve is made, and for the remainder of each match, her pain is no longer permitted to dictate the proceedings.
Instead, under the terms of her sacrifice, she gets to shout, encourage, cajole, lead and ultimately flash the kind of high-wattage smile that makes this trade-off all worthwhile.
“I think a lot of it is the feeling I get when I see people on a team succeed,” begins May, the Clan’s star 6-foot-3 junior middle blocker. “It’s the heartwarming feeling everyone gets on a huge block, a huge kill, a huge dig, or winning a huge game.
“To me, it’s contagious, and it’s overwhelming” she continues, referencing the feeling she and her teammates felt last Saturday when they beat visiting powerhouse Alaska Anchorage for the first-time ever on Burnaby Mountain to remain in the post-season battle. “We felt that on Saturday, all of us so overwhelmingly happy. It’s the feeling I look for, and even if it happens for only 15 seconds once in an entire season, it would still be worth it.”
THE MEASURE OF HER PAIN
Shin splints, with their concentrated lower leg pain, are the bane of volleyball players, who in such an explosive reaction sport, rely on their ability to constantly jump and re-jump on demand.
May has felt the pain since her Grade 10 year at Elphinstone Secondary in Gibsons.
In fact it’s been such a constant companion as she helped lift Clan volleyball to its greatest heights, that she has no hesitation in describing its tenets.
“The best way I can say it is, you know when you have a really, really bad toothache and you can’t eat a thing?,” she begins. “It’s that times 10 along my entire shin-bone. It’s constantly throbbing even when I am not doing anything. For me, the physiotherapy is pain management.”
For May, that is five sessions a week at Simon Fraser, additional outside sessions, and then hours of daily rehab work.
“She has never been healthy in her time here,” admits SFU head coach Gina Schmidt. “As the season goes on, she’ll have more bad days than good days. When she has to fly her legs don’t feel good. She trains once a week and then we roll her out for games.”
THE REAL TESSA
Spend any amount of time watching the Clan this season, and the May you’ll spot in those on-court team huddles is one who as a junior, is finally comfortable showing her true personality on the court.
“I have always been loud and outgoing, it’s my personality,” says May. “As I’ve gotten older and become more of a leader, I’ve just felt it easier to show that side of myself. I thought it could help the team stay loose but it was a little stressful at the start of the season because I never knew how much energy it was going to take to keep everyone engaged.”
Not only has she brought leadership presence, she has continued to build on her statistical resume, one which makes her one of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s leading lights.
Heading into Thursday’s key road game (7 p.m.) at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., May is second in the conference in hitting percentage at .378, and in its Top 20 in both kills- and points-per-set.
At a time when the program was just beginning to establish itself after many years of losses as a U Sports program, May proved to be a prime recruit as Schmidt ushered the program into the NCAA D2 ranks.
“I do remember the first time I saw her play,” remembers Schmidt, who on one of her first scouting missions as Clan coach was to go out and watch then-high school seniors Alison McKay and Devon May as they played for their BCO club volleyball team.
“Ali and Devon were playing for the Under-18 team, and on that day, they just happened to be scrimmaging against their Under-16 team,” said Schmidt who later brought the pair to SFU where they starred for four seasons before graduating last year.
“(McKay and Devon May) were really good and were interested in coming so I told them that they were welcome,” remembers Schmidt, “and that was without knowing that the tall middle on the Under-16s was Devon’s sister.”
With one sibling providing as good an endorsement as possible, Tessa May chose SFU.
MAY DAY DEFINED
Despite the daily challenges brought on by her shin splints, May is hopeful that Simon Fraser is not going to be the final destination on her volleyball journey.
And those same challenges have also shaped the future of what her professional life off the court might look like.
“I don’t want this to be the end,” says May, who still has one more season of collegiate eligibility remaining. “I would still love to play beach or indoor. There’s lot of pro leagues overseas and I want to look into that, but it’s hard to think about when you have to go day by day.”
May openly admits that she has reached out for guidance to help her best navigate through what has been a challenging few years.
And, not surprisingly, that journey has been impactful enough that it has caused her to change her original career path.
“When I first came, I was in Kinesiology and I wanted to be a physiotherapist,” says May, who later switched to health sciences. “This semester I changed again, to educational psychology with a human kinetics minor. I think I can work with athletes on dealing with the mental side of injuries.”
That is first-hand experiencing talking.
Simon Fraser, this season a very young team, is in a true battle to try to gain a post-season berth.
Sitting at 13-11 overall and 10-6 in the GNAC, they would do well to win all of their remaining four conference matches — including their regular-season ending home matches Nov. 16 & 18 against Central Washington and Northwest Nazarene — but even that would offer no guarantee.
Yet May has soldiered on through it all, and it’s a level of perseverance that hasn’t escaped the head coach’s notice.
“You can’t teach that level of passion or the game,” says Schmidt. “She has what you hope every player will have. Volleyball is a such a huge part of her life, and all of this has been tough. But she plays in spite of it.”
All for the promise of a feeling which might last for all of 15 seconds.
One day, Tessa May will arrive at a place where her full health returns.
But until then, her pain continues to cultivate her courage and reveal her character.
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