By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Back in her native France, she’d never had an injury more serious than a sprained ankle. And so the torn anterior cruciate ligament Amandine Toi suffered in her left knee on the eve of the 2017-18 season devastated her.
“I’m not going to lie,” Toi said recently at John Paul Jones Arena. “I wanted to go home [for good that] December. My plan was, ‘I’m staying here for rehab, and then I’m going home in December.’ “
Joanne Boyle, then her head coach on the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, urged Toi to remain part of the program. So did assistant coach Tim Taylor, then one of the Cavaliers’ assistant coaches. Their support persuaded Toi to stay.
“For me, it was important to see that if I’m injured, they still care about me,” she said. “I wanted to go home, but at the same time I needed to finish something here, and they made me feel that way, that I could still accomplish what I wanted to.”
Her injury required reconstructive surgery, after which Toi rehabbed diligently. Then, as the 2018-19 season approached, came a second major setback: another torn ACL, this time in her right knee. Her season was over before it began. Again.
“I wanted to leave the next day,” Toi recalled. “After I tore my ACL, I was like, ‘Get me a flight home.’ “
Craig Oates, then the athletic trainer for UVA women’s basketball, and Morgan Foster, then the team’s strength and conditioning coach, encouraged Toi to stay and take advantage of resources available to her on Grounds. Likewise, Toi’s mother urged her daughter to remain in school.
Even so, Toi admits, she was tempted to return to France. A 5-10 guard, she’s from Tremblay-en-France, a suburb of Paris, and when she’d go home in the summer friends and former teammates “would be like, ‘You could come back. You can play here. You don’t have to go back [to the U.S.],’ ” Toi said.
“I questioned myself about basketball at this time, just because I’d never been injured, and I was like, ‘I can’t even walk normally.’ It was maybe a sign for me that I should stop playing basketball or something. But I love basketball so much that it was not an option.”
And so here she is back on Grounds, preparing for her long-awaited UVA debut. The Wahoos, who are in their second season under head coach Tina Thompson, open Nov. 5 against Bucknell at JPJ.
Toi, who wears a brace on her right knee when she plays, has been cleared to practice, though she’s still held out of some drills.
“She’s very professional and very mentally tough, and that has helped her in recovering from both these injuries,” assistant coach Monica Wright said. “I’d say we have to do a lot to reel her back, because she’s so tenacious and she wants to attack this. Coming back from injury isn’t really about that. It’s about a gradual climb to full recovery.”
Wright, UVA’s all-time leading scorer, speaks from experience. She played seven seasons in the WNBA, but knee injuries shortened her professional career.
“Your heart just breaks when that happens to a player, and anybody that’s been injured knows that it’s terrible,” said Wright, who’s in her first season on Thompson’s staff. “But it also can be a blessing in disguise when you look at the silver lining, because it forces you to appreciate how precious it is being able to play and having a body that allows you to play the game you love, functioning at 100 percent.
“[Toi is] extremely mentally tough, and that has probably helped her during this time where she hasn’t been able to be on the court, and she does have long-term vision for herself. That is, I think, key as well, that you know what you’re working toward and you do that every day.”
Toi, who has represented France at the U16, U17, U18 and U19 levels, has been working regularly for months with Wright and associate head coach Karleen Thompson outside of practice.
After her second torn ACL, Toi said, she made it clear that she wanted to hone her skills. “So even though I couldn’t jump, I was working on my shot, my dribble. So after every practice that I couldn’t [take part in], I was working extra with them.
“It was Coach Moni at first, and now I’m working with Coach Kar and Coach Moni after each practice. That’s how I am, so I need to put the work in to get back. They’re really helping me in every aspect of the game.”
Toi’s support group at UVA also includes Khyasia Caldwell and Mamadi Diakite. Caldwell, who lives with Toi, competed in both basketball and track & field at Virginia in 2017-18 and 2018-19. She’s focusing on track & field this school year.
“It’s hard not having her on the team,” Toi said.
Diakite, a native of Guinea, is a fifth-year senior on the Virginia men’s basketball team. Like Toi, he’s a French major, and that’s their language of choice when they converse.
“That annoys people a lot, too, because we’re always speaking French,” Toi said, smiling.
Diakite said Toi is “like a little sister for me,” and he’s tried to lift her spirits during her long rehabs. He’s also reassured Toi’s mother about the opportunities available to students at UVA.
“I’m always here to help whoever I can,” Diakite said. “That’s been passed down from generation to generation to generation on the basketball team, and that’s who I’m trying to be, my identity.”
After Toi’s first ACL injury, Diakite said, “she was very depressed. She wanted to go home. She didn’t want to be here anymore. I was one of the guys she would come to. Sometimes I would see her not feeling good, and she wouldn’t want to talk. But I forced my way through it and made her laugh. I’m more comfortable in French doing that. So I come up with some jokes, she smiles, and then we talk about her pain, and I try to be as understanding as I can be as a brother.”
After Toi’s second torn ACL, he urged her to “trust the process” and to remember that the education she receives at UVA will help her “beyond basketball,” Diakite said. “So just keep fighting and trying to find your way back. Don’t ever give up.”
Toi is an excellent athlete who’s “very quick-twitchy,” Wright said. It may be a while before that athleticism is on full display, however, so “right now we’re working on her outside shot, so that that is always there,” Wright said.
The ability to catch and shoot from the perimeter “is going to be something that she can always rely on,” Wright said. “It’s just something you want to have. So as she’s getting better and gradually perfecting how she wants her body to move when she’s got the ball and she’s doing all these different things inside the paint, she can still be an outside threat. She can do that now. You can be an outside threat now even though you’re not completely 100 percent. You can always be an outside threat.”
For Toi, her experience as a college basketball player has frustrated and discouraged her at times. But she’s confident her time is coming as a Cavalier.
“I feel like I’m still the same,” she said. “Still motivated, still ambitious, still competitive.”