Written by John Short
This story is a tribute to courage and self-belief and the fact that incredible obstacles can be overcome.
About four years ago, when she was 15, Sarah Melenka developed a serious condition in her right lower leg, severe enough that her future as a competitive athlete was endangered.
Now, after a brave and seemingly-endless string of surgeries and other medical procedures, the 19-year-old volleyball player contends to battle a serious condition as she plays on two high-level teams: the NAIT Ooks of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference and Canada's national representatives in little-known Sitting Volleyball in which most competitors have lost a leg or an arm.
Sarah contends with "30- to 40-percent muscle deficiency" around her calf, qualifying for sitting volleyball – and official Paralympic competition – under a provision that permits two participants on each team to have impairment serious enough to prevent active involvement in the non-disabled version of the sport.
Sarah's difficulty first appeared in her Grade 11 year. Pain and weakness initially prompted visits to the doctor and countless examinations – "absolutely the most painful thing I have ever had to do" – led to discovery of a condition which she described as "compartment syndrome,' which prevents the movement of blood and oxygen to nerve and muscle cells.
Some temporary relief was obtained and she continued to play volleyball and also competed in long jump at the zone level in high school. "I crutched myself to the long jump in the last meet of our year," she said. "I tried four of the six jumps we were allowed but I couldn't finish."
Even so, she recalls feeling fairly well during the summer. "I went to quite a few invitational volleyball camps." One was conducted by NAIT women's head coach Benj Heinrichs, with aid from many of his players.
"A couple of the girls told me about this small-town player who worked hard and looked pretty good," he said. "Character players are good on any team so we kind of kept an eye on her" after she returned to St. Mary's Catholic High school in Vegreville.
But more medical attention was needed would be needed before she could become an ACAC athlete. Her condition deteriorated so seriously that nine surgeries were required, sometimes only a day or two apart. There was serious discussion about the likelihood her leg would have to be amputated.
Fortunately, one industrious and innovative medical expert discovered enough living tissue to allow Sarah to keep her leg.
"Every day, I'm grateful to have both of them," she said. "I think about it quite a bit."
Through the worst of this harrowing experience, Melenka kept planning – or hoping – for a return to volleyball. After a year-long layoff, she attended the NAIT camp again and coach Heinrichs saw the same energy and enthusiasm that were present before.
Now, standing a solid 5-foot-8, she is part of an Ooks team that shares second place in ACAC North Division women's play.
"I get some short shifts," she said. "I'm happy whenever the coach puts me on the floor."
Said Heinrichs: "Because she missed a year of play, she is inexperienced for this level but she has good ability. The other players welcome her and really value what she brings to the team with her willingness and positive attitude. Really, I think she inspires all of them.
"Sarah never complains and she never misses practice but sometimes she tells me she'll have to concentrate on the back row where jumping isn't so important. We know that some of the longer bus trips after games can be hard.
"The team members know her story and they appreciate the fact that she plays for Canada. It's a great accomplishment for anybody to wear the Canadian jersey."
Already, Melenka has competed for her country. "We were at Montreal in a sitting tournament with Brazil and the United States. Sitting volleyball is incredibly hard. The net is lower and the playing area is smaller. Every player must keep the backside or the torso on the floor at all times.
"We didn't win a game but we played well. The Americans are number one in the world in this sport and Brazil is ranked third. Right now, Canada is ninth but we're convinced we can move up."
Her next scheduled international appearance will be the 2018 world championships. followed, she hopes, by participation in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. "The sitting team has to qualify, but we believe we can do that."