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The Bionic Ilongga is back: Jovelyn Gonzaga returns from injury

It was nearly two years ago when Jovelyn Gonzaga, one of the country's top players, thought her volleyball career was over. It happened during the second set of Cignal's game against F2 Logistics on November 21, 2017 in the Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix. Gonzaga attacked the ball and felt her right leg buckle as she landed on the floor and rolled over to the other side of the net.

After hearing three consecutive pops in her knee, Gonzaga barely heard anything else. The worried voices of her teammates and the reaction of the stunned crowd seemed like distant sounds that were drowned by the dreadful thoughts in her head.

"The only thing running through my mind was 'it's the end of my career, it's the end of my career,'" recalled Gonzaga. "What's going to happen to my family that I'm supporting?"

Gonzaga grimaced in pain as she was stretchered off the court. She was immediately brought to a hospital where doctors ruled out a major injury. If it was just a muscle strain, as initially diagnosed, she only needed one to two weeks to recover. But when the swelling subsided a month later, an MRI scan confirmed her biggest fear. She had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

"It was really painful to hear the truth even though I suspected it from the start," said Gonzaga. "I cried and cried when I got home. I wanted to give myself one whole day of crying it out. Because when I wake up the next day, I want a new me and a new start."

Humble beginnings

Gonzaga's tale has that classic small-town-girl-makes-it-in-the-big-city vibe. She started playing volleyball in her home province of Guimaras before she brought her talents to Central Philippine University (CPU) in Iloilo on her third year in high school.

NCAA and UAAP coaches tried to recruit her after she burst into national consciousness playing for Western Visayas in the Palarong Pambansa, but she turned down all offers and decided to stay in CPU until she graduated from college.

Before representing the Philippines in indoor volleyball, Gonzaga made waves as one of the top beach volleyball players in the country. She used to invite Fiola Ceballos, her former teammate in CPU, to join as many beach volleyball tournaments as they can to earn money.

"Frankly speaking, my family was not well-off so I used beach volleyball as a means of livelihood," said Gonzaga, who won three straight championships in the Nestea beach volleyball competition from 2011 to 2013.

Gonzaga soon established herself as one of the benchmarks for opposite hitters in the Philippines. She reaped numerous titles and awards including four MVP trophies -- two in the PSL and two in the now-defunct Shakey's V-League.

Dubbed the "Bionic Ilongga" for her ability to multi-task while displaying exemplary work ethic, Gonzaga continued her steady rise in the sport while juggling her national team, club team, and military duties.

Serving the country

Gonzaga made her international debut on the sand court. She competed in the 2011 Southeast Asian Games with Aiza Maizo-Pontillas. At that time, Micmic Laborte and Nene Bautista were also part of the national beach volleyball team, which served as the jump-off point to Gonzaga's professional volleyball career.

"When I was young, it was really my dream to serve the country. I didn't know how because I wasn't playing volleyball yet, but I just knew that I wanted to serve the country," said Gonzaga. "Maybe that's also why I joined the army and became a soldier because I knew it was my calling."

"I told myself that I need to bounce back strong and recover fast because I need to play for my family and my team who are relying on me."

Gonzaga's most unforgettable international stints were the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore -- where she captained the indoor squad that featured current Philippine team mainstays like Alyssa Valdez, Aby Maraño, Jaja Santiago, and Denden Lazaro -- and the 2016 FIVB Women's Club World Championship in Manila.

"I felt like I already achieved my childhood dream," said Gonzaga. "It was a bonus that I competed in the world championship against Olympians. Just playing there and seeing them, that was enough for me."

Gonzaga missed the opportunity to fight for the flag last year because of her ACL injury. The national team led by Maraño and Valdez competed in two major tournaments: the Asian Games in Indonesia and the Asian Women's Volleyball Cup in Thailand.

"I didn't think of it that much because I was pre-occupied with my rehab and recovery," said Gonzaga. "I prayed for the national team but I did not feel as much frustration because I was focused on my own progress."

Road to recovery

Gonzaga's time away from volleyball was challenging. She avoided watching volleyball games in the first few months because the painful memory of her injury kept coming back to her. She diverted her attention to playing online games. She also leaned on the support of her family and friends.

"I told myself that I need to bounce back strong and recover fast because I need to play for my family and my team who are relying on me," said Gonzaga. "I'm thankful to all the people who supported me all the way and made the process of recovery easier."

After her knee surgery early last year, Gonzaga struggled with her daily therapy sessions at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center in Quezon City.

"The rehab was really boring," she said. "You will run out of motivation because you won't see progress right away. You go to rehab everyday and you'll get frustrated with the slow progress but that's just the way it is."

Gonzaga, a corporal in the Philippine Army, had to pause her rehabilitation program for a few months to attend military training. She thought it would derail her progress but it turned out to be helpful in strengthening her legs.

"My conditioning coach got amazed with how strong I got so it was a good sign," said Gonzaga. "After less than a month of returning to rehab, I received consistently good feedback from my coach and physical therapists."

After a year and a half of hard work and perseverance, Gonzaga cried for joy when she was finally cleared to play.

"It was a really great feeling when I was declared fit to play," she said. "I was relieved and excited about what will happen in the future."

Strong comeback

Gonzaga showcased the heart of a true soldier the moment she came back from a long layoff. She fulfilled her obligations to both Cignal and Army by playing in two different leagues simultaneously, even if it meant having no days off.

"I'm just human, I get tired, but I can't escape my responsibilities," said Gonzaga. "I'm part of the first six so I can't miss training or else my coaches' program will take a hit. I just need to motivate myself. And once I get to training, I get added motivation from my coaches and teammates."

Gonzaga said she also received an invitation from coach Paul Jan Doloiras to join the national beach volleyball team. She initially declined because she's not confident of her conditioning post-injury. But Doloiras' encouragement, coupled with her burning desire to serve the country, made her reconsider her decision.

"Coach Dolo's offer was a huge morale booster for me," an emotional Gonzaga said. "I really want to play [beach volleyball] since this is where I started. It's a great feeling when you play for your flag. I just want to serve while wearing the Philippines' jersey."

Nothing is set in stone yet regarding her national team comeback, but Gonzaga assured that she will give her full commitment if ever.

"I don't want to give just half and half. Even if my body is tired, when I commit, I want to be committed 100 percent," said Gonzaga. "My mentality right now is to play and perform well for the sake of my teams. That's my priority."

At 27, Gonzaga feels like she already achieved so much in the sport that she loves. But when faced with a choice if she wanted to continue playing, it was a no-brainer for her. Gonzaga remained patient amid her long recovery process because she knew that she could not turn her back from volleyball.

"I'm happy with volleyball. I can't take it out of my life because it's my passion," said Gonzaga. "If there's no volleyball, I don't know what will happen to my life. Volleyball is like the air that I breathe, it's like my oxygen, so I can't live without it."