By Josh Hui
Former NAIT Ooks volleyball player, Sarah Melenka, was in Lima, Peru for the ParaPanAm Games, helping the sitting volleyball Team Canada win a bronze medal this summer. The team finished one match short of their ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo, Japan, but they were proud of how they finished the tournament.
“Lima was absolutely amazing. You hear about the ParaPanAm Games and then the Paralympics coming the year after and you think that those people work for years for that competition and yeah, that’s literally what you do… It was my first game in a pressure situation that meant something like that,” said Melenka.
Melenka and the sitting volleyball team will shift their focus and begin training for the 2020 Paralympic Games Final Qualifier in March. Melenka is confident that Team Canada can make use of their last chance to secure a spot in Tokyo next year.
“I thought about it a few times while we were in Lima… I was thinking: ‘Holy man, I can almost say I’m a Paralympian. I can also say I’m a PanAm medalist.’ I’ve worked my butt off for it,” said Melenka.
Melenka played for the Ooks for two years, but started her career playing volleyball throughout junior high and high school along with some club volleyball close to her hometown of Vegreville.
“It kind of came out of the blue where I thought, ‘yeah, I could play this as a student athlete, go into post secondary and see what I can do with that,’” said Melenka.
Midway through high school, she feared she might not be able to play volleyball at all. Melenka shined on the court despite battling a constant pain in her legs, having to rest and ice them after every game. No doctor could figure out what she was dealing with.
Melenka spent a year going through tests and pain which left her unable to walk or even sit down at times. She was diagnosed with compartment syndrome in her legs, an uncommon condition where Melenka’s muscles and connective tissue work against each other, leading to poor blood flow, severe pain, feelings of tightness and weakness.
“There were days where I was crutching to school because I was in so much pain. My massage therapist would place two fingers on my leg and I would be white knuckled and in tears,” said Melenka
What was supposed to be a routine surgery to help alleviate the pressure in her legs turned into an infection that could have cost her leg. After 10 surgeries and a skin graft, her leg was saved by doctors despite the fact that she lost 30% of her muscle.
After a month in the hospital, Melenka couldn’t wait to return to her active lifestyle, building back some of the muscle she lost. She returned to volleyball and it was almost like she never left. She got an opportunity to attend a spring camp hosted by NAIT and the chance to be coached by the Ooks’ women’s volleyball players.
“I got a good word in from them, and then when I emailed [head coach, Benj Heinrichs], it was kind of fast,” said Melenka. “He invited me out to a training session and I got signed that night. I think he saw something in me that worked.”
Heinrichs said that Sarah showed a unique work ethic and gratefulness playing the game that separated her from other players. Melenka’s first year at NAIT didn’t go as she had planned. Melenka sat out her entire first year as an Ook, but she was still feeling motivated to stay active.
“Thank goodness for the NAIT athletic therapists. As much as I hated them at the time for not letting me play, I would go back and give them all hugs,” said Melenka. “I probably would have injured [my legs] more.”
She thought about trying sitting volleyball as a way to keep her skills sharp for when she could return to playing. Melenka found out that the team trains in Edmonton and went to a few practices.
“I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m meeting team Canada people, this life is amazing,’” said Melenka.
Melenka later discovered that everything she went through qualified her to play for the team. After trying out, just like at NAIT, she made the team very quickly.
She then helped Team Canada finish sixth at the 2018 ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships. Melenka was not only adjusting to a new sport, but a new position too. She played outside hitter for the Ooks but is now been tasked with an increasing role as a setter for Team Canada.
“It’s been a huge change… just being on the court versus being a more active role on the court and someone who has to speak every single rally,” said Melenka. “There’s a special vibe around the team, every cheer, we’re cheering for Canada because we’re playing with the maple leaf on our shirt every single day.”