Mary Thomson continues to prove that nothing — not a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, or a mirroring right ACL tear, or maxing out her university eligibility — will keep her away from volleyball.
Thomson came back stronger than before her injuries each time. She went down in the quarterfinals of AAAA junior varsity high school provincials in Grade 9, and returned to help the Crocus Plainsmen to the AAAA varsity girls’ provincial title in 2009, then joined her hometown Brandon University Bobcats and enjoyed a long career, setting from 2012 to 2018.
Now she’s going pro. Thomson signed her first contract with Austria’s SG Prinz Brunnenbau in Perg.
"It’s a little bit surreal," Thomson said. "I’ve always aspired to play overseas for volleyball.
"Watching the Bobcats and seeing those players go overseas, to know that I have the opportunity how that it’s officially happening it’s a little bit scary but also really exciting."
Thomson accomplished a lot during her time at BU, and her name is etched in the Canada West record books, currently 13th all-time with 2,790 assists. She led the Bobcats to a playoff berth in 2014-15, when she finished fourth in the conference with 904 assists.
The five-foot-10 setter was poised to build on that season in her fourth year with the team. The Bobcats were hosting nationals and looking to be more than just gracious hosts.
Then Thomson tore her right ACL and saw another promising season cut short. That quickly became one more motivator.
"It’s like any setback in life, mine just happened to be one that was on the court, but there’s many off the court that can set you back as well," Thomson said. "Focusing on getting as healthy as I can and back playing a sport I love, but more so with people I love. Finishing my five years was my goal, being healthy and happy.
"I had an amazing last year as a Bobcat, which really motivated me to pursue another goal outside of university."
Since she was injured early enough in the season, she got her fourth year back and rebounded to be a second-team Canada West all-star the following season. Thomson finished her BU career nearly leading a young group back to the post-season, taking it right down to the final weekend and coming up just shy.
Through it all, she said it was important to focus on the smaller goals that collectively lead to the ultimate one. As a rookie, it was about battling for court time and proving herself. Then she started to grow in a leadership role. The rehab was a great example of the baby steps — strengthening her knee day by day with the hopes of returning to the elite level she was at.
Of course, it takes a whole lot more than one person’s will to make that happen.
"I’m very thankful for the people who have gotten me here. Anyone who accomplishes something like this or something bigger in sport, we forget about the people who motivate us and surround us. There were a lot of times in my career I could have closed my door and moved on," Thomson said.
"As much as I’ve accomplished, getting this opportunity to play overseas says a lot about the people who have supported me, motivated me and have got me to this place today to get me through those tough times and challenges."
Her parents and all her coaches top a long list of names that come to mind, and she had great support from her teammates as well.
Thomson took last year off from competitive volleyball — as a player at least — after exhausting her eligibility. She stayed in town, however, to finish her education degree.
It was far from a light year. She joined the Assiniboine Community College Cougars women’s team as an assistant coach, and coached the 15-and-under Club West girls’ squad. She played senior men’s volleyball on a team with ACC men’s coach Joel Small before moving to Winnipeg in March to get her foot in the door with school divisions in the city.
"Senior men’s really prepared me with Joel yelling at me," she said with a laugh. "I’ve been busier than I was when I was playing, which I didn’t think was possible.
"(ACC) was huge for me. It was an amazing program, amazing group of girls and I’m really thankful for doing that this year because they really prepared me for this contract. If it wasnt for them over the year, the training and growing my knowledge of the game, I don’t think I would have this opportunity."
Thomson heads to Austria one month from today for training camp, and her season begins in late September. It’s safe to say the idea of being a professional athlete is now quite real.
"Even at university I tried to commit to it like it was a job. I was committed to it as if I was getting paid to do it," she said. "When I looked through he contract at the requirements and responsibilities you have just like you would with an actual job, it’s really interesting. It’s all the same process like an interview, your resumé is highlight videos, game footage.
"It definitely can be a little scary but it’s exciting knowing it’s based on something you love."
Having spent her entire volleyball career in the Wheat City, she admits it’s somewhat daunting to travel across the world. It helps that former Bobcats Liam Matheson and Brady Nault are starting their pro careers in Amstetten, about a 30-minute drive away.
"To open this new door, it’s really exciting. Looking back, there’s so many people who have put me here and are going to support me. Even though I’m kind of alone in a sense over here, I’m not truly alone," she said. "I know that the Bobcat Nation and the Westman area and connections in Winnipeg, those people won’t always be there but will support me."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen