It was not an ideal start of the year for Kathy Bersola.
UP’s bid for a Final Four slot was finally gaining ground halfway through the first round of the 77th UAAP women’s volleyball tournament until it was halted on January 7, the day Bersola went down with a torn ACL on her left knee.
Looking back to the gruelling journey she had to endure, the middle blocker says, “Start of the year, nagsimula ng masaya. Pero mula January 7 down na.”
The future looked bright, indeed, for the Lady Maroons when they returned from the Christmas break and battled and lost to defending champion Ateneo in five sets; a feat the team hasn’t done in recent memory.
“Nag start ‘yung year five sets kami sa Ateneo. Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Next game namin Adamson. Kukunin na talaga namin,’” recalled Bersola.
“Tapos ayun ang ganda ng game. Lamang kami tapos kukunin na namin sa fourth set tapos na-injure ako,” she added as the smile on her face vanished at the thought of the unfortunate incident. “Parang tsansa na namin mag Final Four tapos wala.”
Bersola’s heavily-bandaged left knee days after the unfortunate injury.
Though players like Marian Buitre stepped up in her stead, Bersola’s absence remained to be a big blow to the Diliman squad’s chances of breaking an 11-year drought of making it to the upper half of the rankings.
But as in all sports, UP moved forward and kept fighting, eventually placing sixth as the 5-foot-11 spiker went on to the physically painful and mentally challenging route of gaining her old form back.
“February nag start na ako ng therapy. Lahat ng tao dun motivating lang. They just let me keep improving,” she said on her recovery program at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center in Ateneo.
“Hanggang unti-unti nakakalakad na ulit ako. Nakatalon, then nakatakbo then nag start na ng volleyball drills,” she added. “Umangat ulit ‘yung feeling ko simula nung nakapalo na ako at nag receive na ako. Sobrang kumpyansa ko na ulit.”
But if you think the road to getting better was that easy, you are wrong.
Aside from doubts of full-recovery inside her head that is usual to injured athletes, Bersola, being the determined and goal-oriented person that she is, got impatient in her hopes to return as soon as possible to the court that has been her second home since she started playing the sport.
“Bandang August medyo na-down ulit ako kasi parang bakit ang tagal? Kasi diba eight months na ‘yun,” shared the Makati Science High School alumna. “‘Yung mga kasabay ko lahat sila tapos na. Mga kasabay ko mga basketball players and basta other people na nasa therapy. Na-down ako na bakit ako hindi pa tapos?”
With the constant prodding and encouragement she got from her physical therapists and teammates, however, Bersola trusted the program which led her to be cleared by her doctors to make a return by September.
Physical therapists Raymond Pili and Jerick Rueca has become a constant in Bersola’s daily life fore more than eight months of her recovery.
“Nag start na ako mag training September 16. January 7 hanggang September 15, akyat-baba ang emotions. Tapos kasabay pa ng sem na madaming ginagawa,” she said almost in disbelief of the roller coaster of emotions.
The mental torture didn’t stop there.
Imagine having to re-learn every volleyball skill which you’ve already mastered in the past as you transition back to being part of a team that has become the new home of talented rookies with ‘fresher legs’ than yours.
“Nung nag training na ako ulit, nahirapan ako mag transition sa buhay na ‘yun ulit kasi nasanay na ako na after class punta na ako ng therapy,” said the Lady Maroon.
“Sa simula sobrang down talaga kasi hindi ako makasabay sa takbo nila. Hindi ako makasabay sa palo nila though tina-try ko,” she recollected. “Parang lahat ng teammates ko mino-motivate ako na okay lang ‘yan dahil simula pa lang naman.”
“Nanonood lang ako sa kanila sa V-League. Hindi ako kasali.”
True enough, despite not being in the lineup, the UAAP Season 76 best blocker was with UP in its stint at the 12th Shakey’s V-League Collegiate Conference, watching every game and giving instructions to the young guns from the sidelines.
For someone who loves the sport and the team that much, it must have hurt to be there but be relegated to being a weapon who is not ready for use.
And then, just like in the movies, Bersola’s anticipated return was set in stone when head coach Jerry Yee decided to field in his wards to another round of V-League action.
On her first hurrah after the injury, she recalls, “Nung sinabi ni coach na baka mag V-League daw ulit kami, sabi niya sa akin, ‘Kaya mo na ba?’ Sabi ko, ‘Opo, kaya ko na.’ Sabi niya ila-lineup na pero may chance na hindi pa first six.”
“Two weeks before nun sobrang gumanda ‘yung feeling ko sa loob ng court. Nakakasabay na ako sa mga middle blockers,” she added. “Binalik na ako sa first six ni coach hanggang sa naglaro na kami sa V-League, it was all uphill from there.”
And uphill it was.
Bersola’s first day back in training with the Lady Maroons after getting doctor’s clearance.
Like an old song etched in her memory, Bersola returned for UP moving with the same intensity and bravado in guarding the net as if nothing happened to her knee.
She and the rest of the Lady Maroons went on to make history for the team, copping their first third place finish in the tournament’s 12-year run.
“Ito sobrang saya na ulit. Normal na. Parang walang nangyari,” an ecstatic Bersola said. “May times na natatalo kami pero ako, nakikita ko na bumabalik na ‘yung dating laro ko. Nakakatalon na ako ulit at bumibilis na ulit ako.”
As if winning the bronze was not enough reward for her hard work, she was also recognized as the league’s first best middle blocker, proving to herself and the rest of the UP faithful that the ‘monster blocker’ is definitely back.
“Alam mo ‘yung parang hazy? Parang nasa panaginip lang. Kasi ‘yun nga, hindi ko talaga ine-expect. Hindi ko nga in-expect na ma-first six ako dito kasi kakabalik ko lang,” the humbled spiker said.
“Sobrang surreal nung feeling. ‘Yung past nine months na nagte-therapy ako nabura lang lahat. Parang walang nangyari. Hindi ko na-feel na hindi ako nag training ng nine months,” she stated further on the high she felt.
Asked about the biggest lesson she has learned in the past 12 months, Bersola was quick to say the magic word: patience.
“Dun sa therapy hindi mo alam ano ‘yung mangyayari. Laging sinasabi sa akin na, ‘Kalma ka lang. Kahit sa UAAP ka na bumalik,’” she said.
With 90 % of her old form back, Bersola says she is bent on forgetting the tough days that almost brought her to her breaking point as she plans to only look back to 2015 and see the beauty of bouncing back.
“Ayaw ko na bumalik dun,” she exclaimed cringing. “Binura ko na ‘yung nine months pero ang binaon ko lang is ‘yung lessons na tinuro niya sa akin.”
Seeing the glass half-full, she adds, “Ang 2015 patience, hard work, resilience na kahit sobrang dami ng setbacks, go lang ng go. Walang bibitaw ganon. Tsaka trust sa program at sa mga tao na nasa paligid ko na nagtitiwala sa akin.”
The past 12 months alone of Bersola’s ups and downs already deserve to be one of the most inspiring stories the fans have seen this year in the local sports scene.
But the fight does not end here for the Lady Maroon as she aims to lead UP back to the promised land via a strong finish in Season 78.
“Yes (ready na), I think so. Sa two months na natitira, palakasin ko pa lalo. Then sa February, ready na,” declared Bersola.
Yes, it was not the best of starts for the UP star but as the old adage goes, it’s not how you start but how you finish.
More than being cautious and careful, Bersola’s 2015 journey is a lesson of faith.
Much like the number at the back of her jersey, no matter how you write it on paper, the number ‘8’ tells each and everyone of us that everything that comes down will eventually find its way up.
It was a Cinderella moment for Bersola when she ended 2015 with a best blocker award from the V-League.