By her own admission, Marisa Low probably shouldn’t be here. Nobody would’ve blamed the senior from San Diego if she called it a career. The first grueling knee rehabilitation almost broke her. That was enough, Low said. She swore she’d quit volleyball before she relived that pain.
Six months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee for the second straight spring, Low jogged onto the court midway through a tense match with Virginia Sept. 7 and recorded two digs in a VCU victory.
“I went down to the end of the bench and asked her if she was ready,” recalls VCU Head Coach James Finley. “She said, ‘I guess we’ll find out.’”
While the dark, three inch brown scar is a conspicuous reminder of the toll she’s paid, the early returns say Low was ready. In 11 matches since returning to the lineup, the 5-foot-5 defensive specialist is averaging 2.41 digs per set, second most on the team. It’s a major feat that Low is playing at all, let alone at a high level.
A Colonial Athletic Association All-Rookie Team selection as a freshman in 2009, Low tore the ACL in her left knee for the first time during spring practices in 2011. But she returned to the VCU lineup early that fall and averaged 2.23 digs in 20 matches.
On the outside she may have looked like the same player, but on the inside, Low says she was hurting. She says she played in constant pain, the result, Low now believes, of re-tearing her ACL in her first match back from injury.
In March, Low heard a pop in her knee during her first spring practice. When she couldn’t straighten her leg, she knew it was serious, but an MRI was inconclusive. The pop she heard was her meniscus tearing and flipping up into her joint. It covered the ACL, so she didn’t learn the extent of her injuries until after surgery on March 7.
“When I woke up, I saw the brace they were putting my leg into, so I kind of knew,” Low said. “They said [my ACL] had been gone for a long time.”
Low’s says her doctors told her that her body likely rejected the ligament grafted from her hamstring. This time, they transplanted a ligament from a cadaver. The news was sobering for the typically upbeat Low, but not for long.
“I cried. When I came out of anesthesia my best friend on the team, Anett Farkas, was there and I pretty much cried in her arms for a while,” Low said. “That was the last time I cried, because I wasn’t going to do it again.”
In place of self-pity, Low substituted resolve. Instead of doubt, she showed determination. Despite her original vow that she’d quit volleyball before trying to return from another ACL injury, Low dove into rehab.
“She’s amazing. She’s super tough,” Farkas said. “She always she’s that she’s strong and she was really strong about going through it…a second time and handling it well. I respect her for it so much.”
Instead of rushing back, Low applied a more measured approach this time. Low believes she returned to the court too quickly after her first ACL tear and wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. When she checked into the match against Virginia, it had been six months to the day of her surgery.
Although Low says she knew what to expect physically from rehab and performed well, she wondered if she’d be able to help her team.
“That’s the toughest part is the frustration,” said Low. “You know what you want to do, you know what you’re capable of or were once capable of, and you just have to come to terms with that you’re never going to be the same player you once were.”
Even if she’s not the player she was two years ago, Finley says Low is a difference-maker.
“What she brings to the team is immeasurable,” he said. “Obviously she’s talented, and that helps a lot, but our team just plays well with her. There’s just a degree of trust and you know you’re going to get Mo’s best every day.”
So far, Low’s best has been pretty darn good. VCU is 9-2 when she plays this season.
After this year, Low says she’ll probably return to California to attend dental school. But not before she has the last say about her volleyball career.
“I think I couldn’t just let go of the game yet,” she said. “No athlete wants to go out on an injury, like I just wussed out or just gave up. I wanted to make my parents proud. They’ve watched me all these years.”