VICTORIA, B.C. – Fifth-year Camosun Chargers guard, Tessa Lannon-Paakspuu, was playing the best basketball of her life before suffering a devastating knee injury just six games shy of this season’s 2020 PACWEST playoffs.
While a torn ACL would alter both the course of her final season with the Chargers and her potential to play professionally abroad, the 5’5” fireball made a courageous fight to finish her post-secondary athletic career as one of the country’s top college basketball players and a role model for aspiring local athletes.
Despite what would be a season-ending injury for most athletes, the Penticton-raised athlete closed her year leading the conference in steals and fluctuating between first and second in scoring. Tenacious on both ends of the court, Tessa proved to be an unstoppable scorer and unbeatable defender, and was named PACWEST Player of the Year, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Tessa later earned top athletic honours as a Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) All-Canadian, and was headed to the CCAA National Women’s Basketball Championship to receive the award when the event was abruptly cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We recently caught up with Tessa to talk about how she overcame her injuries and obstacles this year and what she’s looking forward to in her life and career after the pandemic.
Chargers Athletics:Things were really looking up for you during the first half of the season. You were at the top of your game, you had attracted the attention of pro leagues abroad and then your injury happened. What went through your mind at that moment and what was behind your miraculous return to playing?
Tessa: The first thing I thought when the injury happened was – how much tape can I put on this to get back in the game? It was probably not the smartest mindset, but I have always been the type of person to push through my injuries and I had never sat out a game before. I was definitely in denial.
Initially, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to play sports for a year, which made me pretty sad because I didn’t want to go out like that. Luckily, my knee had minimal swelling when the accident happened, so I was able to start exercising. After a while, my knee started feeling better and I started progressing quickly. Eventually I managed to get my strength and range of motion back to a place where I could return to the court, but in a limited capacity.
Chargers Athletics: How did you feel once you returned to competition?
Tessa: Thankfully we had a bye weekend right after my injury, so there were only two games that I actually sat out. With proper taping and a brace, my knee didn’t hurt at all, but every other part of my body was compensating. My quads, glutes and calves were all cramping the entire game. It was definitely not comfortable, so I could only play around 10-15 minutes per game to start, but at least I got to play. I was also hesitating a lot because I was afraid of getting blocked or pushed, and I’d end up missing or making a really ugly lay-up. It was definitely frustrating because I didn’t feel like the same athlete that I was.
Chargers Athletics: Despite not being able to playing to your full potential, you still finished the year as the conference’s top player and one of the nation’s best. Do you ever wonder how far you could have gone had you not been injured?
Tessa: The injury definitely set me back. I try not to think about it because it makes me feel a little sad about what I could’ve done if I hadn’t injured myself. I was also hoping to maybe play pro next year in the Ukraine and that’s off the table now until after I have surgery. I have no idea when that will be – even more so now, since the pandemic.
Chargers Athletics: As one of the most highly decorated athletes to come out of the Chargers Women’s Basketball program, 2020 was a banner year for you in many respects. With the cancellation of events like the National Championship Awards Banquet, the Chargers Annual Awards Ceremony and Camosun Grad, has it been disappointing for you not be able to celebrate your accomplishments with your family, friends and teammates?
Tessa: I’m honored to have been recognized with the awards I was given this year. I felt like I was having a good season at the start of the year, but I didn’t think that I would be up for any major awards. Receiving them was so unexpected, especially after the injury.
I am disappointed about not being able to celebrate with friends and family at my last Chargers awards ceremony and my graduation, but I realize we are in a time of adapting and understanding, so I’m just taking things in stride and feel very comfortable with accepting the changes.
Chargers Athletics: Beating the odds seems to be a passion of yours. It’s hard to believe that you didn’t score a single point in your first two years of playing with the Chargers. Three years later, and with an injury that would have ended most players’ careers, you are one of the top players in Canada. As someone who has developed a solid fan base of fans and followers, what advice do you have for aspiring players who may be wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Tessa: It all comes down to hard work. Over the past few summers, I turned my off-season training a full-time job. I followed my trainer, Kate McMullan’s, strength and conditioning program to a tee, and on top of that, I was on the court diligently.
My advice to anyone who is looking to improve their game is to get out of their comfort zone and train harder than they are used to. It may not be possible right now, but when physical distancing measures are not an issue, I’d recommend finding new workout buddies and shooting partners, and scrimmage whenever there’s an opportunity. It’s the off-season that really sculpts the player for the upcoming season, so athletes should take advantage of that.
Chargers Athletics: Your five years with the Chargers has been quite a roller coaster. What’s your takeaway from all this?
Tessa: As horrible as tearing my ACL in my fifth year was, it’s also been an easier way to wean myself off basketball. If I had ended my fifth year playing full-out and playing really well, and playing 30 minutes plus a game, it would be really hard to end the season and just be done. But with the injury and only being able to play two or three games with limited minutes, I feel like I’ve been slowly easing my way out as the season ended.
And I have some really great memories. Finishing as medalists two years in a row was really great. Winning bronze last year was awesome and so was winning silver the year before. This year, we had an amazing team dynamic. The whole team has been full of great people, personalities and lifelong friends.
Chargers Athletics: What are your plans for the near future?
Tessa: I am graduating this spring with a Bachelor in Sport and Fitness Leadership and I plan to stay in Victoria until after my surgery. The wait time is longer now with the pandemic, but on the flip side, it will give me more time to rehab my knee. I’m working out most days, I go for hikes and do stairs. It’s nothing special, but it keeps me occupied. I’ve been in contact with some of my teammates and we’ve been texting.
I’m just waiting for life to get back to normal – then I’ll celebrate with family and friends, and hopefully spend some time on a beach once they’re open.
If I end up staying in Victoria longer, I’d really like to start a women’s basketball rec league. I’m also interested in coaching. Who knows – maybe I’ll be back to help coach the Chargers in a few years!