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Basketball World Cup: Opal Sara Blicavs on the injury that changed … – Code

When Sara Blicavs was sidelined for a year, she was worried it would derail her career. Instead, time away from the game strengthened the Opal‘s resolve when faced with greater challenges, writes LINDA PEARCE.
Sandy Brondello’s tone was the first hint. Last year, ahead of the Olympics, the call from the Opals coach was to tell Sara Blicavs she’d been cut from the Tokyo squad.
There was no pain this time, though. Not last Monday, after a nervous, jittery weekend.
“Her tone was really upbeat and positive and I was like, ‘Oh, this one is sounding a little bit nicer’,’’ says Blicavs of last Monday’s conversation with Brondello confirming her selection for next month’s FIBA World Cup in Sydney.
“Then when she told me I was just over the moon. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time, just knowing that you’ve actually made the proper team of 12, and I guess you know your worth and you just know what you can provide.
“It’s like, ‘Yes, I just I’ve just accomplished something major in basketball’.’’
As her high-achieving parents Andris and Karen (nee Ogden) did before her, and as Blicavs’ footballer brother Mark chases a premiership in his 10th AFL season with Geelong. Then there’s elder sibling Kris, a former SEABL player and current national 3×3 representative.
Sarah Blicavs did make her Olympic debut in 2021, called up as the late replacement for the troubled Liz Cambage, who sensationally withdrew just 11 days before the opening game against Belgium.
Unsurprisingly, the Opals, regular big-event medallists, performed well-below expectations – barely squeezing into the quarter-finals, where they were crushed 79-55 by the mighty US team that would go on to claim a seventh-straight Olympic gold.
“You could see that a lot of us had gone into the tournament mentally zapped. There was a lot of energy that wasn’t there that should have been there and it was a lot tougher for us,’’ says Blicavs.
“But it was kind of a good tournament to be like, ‘All right, we need to refresh, we need to restart and we need to build on this’, and I think we really have. This year’s been great and the whole vibes in the team are way different, way better.
“I’m actually really excited. I think we can go really far in worlds and I think we’ve got a really good chance of medalling.’’
Of the Cambage saga, Blicavs admits with a laugh that she is grateful personally to the controversial centre, whose no-show was the reason the Southside Flyers forward was able to compete in Tokyo, just as her father had done with the Boomers in Montreal in 1976.
“So that all worked in my favour! But, honestly, the whole Liz Cambage situation, I could not care less [about]. It doesn’t bother me one bit. I mean, she’s neither here nor there to me and it’s her life choice … and I hope it works out for her, you know?’’
As for the Opals: “We’ve worked hard on getting to where we are now, and we’re just a bunch of wicked-arse humans!’’
The sunny-Sara vibe is slightly infectious. Asked how she sees her role in a group to which Lauren Jackson has — quite incredibly, at the age of 41 — returned from retirement for a fifth world championship campaign, Blicavs nominates her positive energy and “teaminess” [her word – quite like it], just as much as the trademark rebounding, running, and hard defence in whatever minutes she plays.
Blicavs has had many down times, though, and basketball’s almost-loss a decade ago was not too far from being netball’s gain.
Bereft of confidence after returning from a scholarship stint at the AIS, the talented young athlete was so close to quitting the sport that had what she calls a “general chat’’ with her former teacher Cathy Fellows, then the Melbourne Vixens’ assistant coach, now the defence specialist with Adelaide.
“Oh God, it’s so funny, isn’t it?’’ Blicavs says, when reminded of her potential sports switch. “I’ve always wondered what I’d be like at netball.’’
Position? Goaler or defender?
“In school netball I was a centre, which I loved. I was like a massive centre, so they’d just lob the ball up and I’d just jump and grab it and I loved running everywhere.
“So if I were to play [with] Vixens I would have brought something different, being 6’3” in the centre position!’’
Undoubtedly, the pivotal moment came as she waited for some issues to be sorted out with her first NBL1 deal with the Geelong Supercats – while brother Mark’s assertion that “netball’s crap” rang in her ears.
“I basically said, ‘Well, if they can’t do it I’ll go to netball’, and then a week later Geelong ended up coming through with a contract and I ended up signing with basketball.
“I’m super-rapt I stuck with it. I’ve had such great opportunities, and to get to go to an Olympic Games and now a world champs I feel like I’ve accomplished stuff in basketball now which is good. So mentally I’m happy and I can sleep well at night.’’
Earlier this year, when in Sydney for the Opals series against Japan, one of their Group C rivals, Blicavs and Fellows crossed paths again while the Thunderbirds were in the Sydney Olympic Park precinct to play the Giants.
It was a nice catch-up.
Netball wasn’t mentioned.
Late in 2017, on the eve of a World Cup and home Commonwealth Games year, Blicavs ruptured her ACL. Tore the meniscus root off the bone. Fractured her patella. All at once.
“It was really tough. I was 25 at that point and I just had so many ambitions of going somewhere with basketball the next year and I was really motivated, really keen, and then obviously doing that I was out for 13 months.
“It was hard because you see all the other girls taking off and getting places and doing things and it’s like, ‘Wow that coulda been me’. But I think it’s actually the best thing for me, I think it made me a better basketballer, a better trainer, it made me smarter, so [there’s] silver linings to it.
“I’m actually weirdly grateful for it.’’
That’s despite minor ongoing issues such as the swelling to which many basketballers are prone. The upside was that the “erratic, out-of-control” player Blicavs says she used to be could no longer rely on pure athleticism in the form of speed, run and rebounds. Knew she needed to get smarter.
Blicavs watched videos, migrated more towards a coaching mindset while stuck on the sidelines, and started to see the game in a different way. Mental toughness was another improvement that fermented over that period, married with the desire to come back stronger after a 13-month absence.
Yet if the five Blicavs have had around 24 knee surgeries between them – including Andris with a family-best/worst 13 ahead of Karen with eight – Sara does not blame her susceptible lineage so much as her reckless tempting of fate during a FOX Sports interview ahead of the 2018 WNBL season.
“They asked about knee problems, and I said, ‘Touch wood, I’m the only member of my family never to have knee surgery’,’’ she says. “And then two weeks later I went down on my knee so I think it was my fault!’’
Next on the dual championship winner’s bleak list was the stretch in 2021 when she was cut from a training camp with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and, while in hotel quarantine back in Oz, received the not-so-upbeat call from Brondello regarding Tokyo selection.
“That was a really hard time in my life,’’ Blicavs recalls. “Two weeks of Sara being ‘Sara Depressed’, I call it.
“But, again, everything happens for a reason and it did make me realise that there is more to life than just basketball and athletes always put absolutely everything into this one field and when it gets taken away it’s a very very difficult time, and I went through that, but I’ve come out of it better.’’
Not least through the realisation that there needs to be a career path beyond basketball, and hence the imminent birth of her own “sexy, comfortable” underwear line, which provides both a long-term project and a distraction from any dalliance with poor form.
“I can actually work on a business and learn new skills, and then you play a bad game in basketball and I haven’t even had time to think about it, because I’ve got to write back to a few emails and freak myself out starting a business that I know nothing about!’’
The Blicavs are a crazy-competitive gang. That much hasn’t changed.
But childhood games of “sting pong” [lose a point, turn around and prepare for a pelting] and costumed WWE bouts that were lucky not to end in serious injury have morphed into after-dinner board and card games when busy schedules permit.
Asked for a best-athlete-of-the-bunch update, Sara sticks with Kris, despite Mark having famously been an elite distance runner who sought steeplechase selection for the 2012 London Olympics.
“I’m still gonna say Kris,’’ she says. “Honestly, I’ll give this to him. He is such a freak athlete that doesn’t even train for anything and can pick up anything. Mark and I are skilful in athletics and skilful in basketball, and football, but other than that, no.’’
Dad Andris sent a long message of congratulations on her World Cup selection, and Sara admits her parents’ own sporting prowess — Karen competed at the 1973 world championships and also had a decorated WNBL career that included two league MVPs — makes this even more rewarding.
“They’ve both played for Australia, and it’s gonna be on Australia soil and they’re gonna both be there — I just think that it’s really cool that it’s honouring their legacy in a way,’’ Blicavs says.
“And just to represent the Blicavs name — Mum was obviously Ogden — is just super-nice and I’d never take this moment for granted. I don’t really feel pressure, I’m just so happy to be there and soak it all up.’’
The only issue might be if the minor premier Cats, as is looking possible on current form, reach the AFL Grand final on September 24. Which is day three of the World Cup.
“I am so over the moon I made this team, but a little part of me is a little bit flat, because if Mark makes the grand final I want to go so badly!’’ says Sara.
“By all means I’m gonna tell my parents they need to go to that first. Lucky for basketball we’ve got eight or nine games, so they can skip a few and still manage to watch me play, but Mark only has one game so they kinda have to go to that.
“And how good’s this for timing? Kris at the start of the year in the Summer Jam tournament in Melbourne their 3×3 team won, which means that they’re going to the world 3×3 street ball tournament in Egypt at the exact time that worlds is on as well.
“So that kind of sucks, but it’s kinda cool that in a week we’re all playing major tournaments, which I think is quite exciting and fun.’’
Sara Blicavs has played for Australia at 17/U and 19/U world titles, at Asia Cup and Oceania Championships, and an Olympic Games. The knee reconstruction might have wrecked her 2018 World Cup chances, but not her ambitions to arrive four years later.
And so, at 29, she has.
“So it’s a nice feeling to know I can do it, but it’s even better, the fact that it’s in Australia. I mean, everyone wanted to make this team, so it’s supercool, super-humbling.’’
With another famous basketball daughter Anneli Maley, plus Darcee Garbin and Kristy Wallace, Blicavs will be one of four Opals first-timers, while the super-veteran Jackson is back for her fifth, 12 years after No.4.
“Obviously her experience and her knowledge is just something that you can’t get anywhere else. But I think what’s going to be really good is her intimidation factor. “
“Just her massive-arse name and the fact that she’s still such a great player and she is the GOAT, that’s gonna scare a lot of other players away, and we need that little bit of fear factor.
“And I mean she can shoot the absolute piss out of it, so if anything we’ll just stick her on the three-point line and say, ‘Go to work, girl, you’ve got this’.’’
Sounds like a plan. Loving the raw enthusiasm, too.
Also sounds like a team in a far happier place than last year.
Sara Blicavs certainly is.
A finalist in the 2021 Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award, Linda Pearce is a Melbourne-based sportswriter with more than three decades experience across newspapers, magazines and digital media, including 23 years at The Age. One of the first women in Australia to cover VFL/AFL and cricket, she has won media awards across a range of sports – including internationally, as the recipient of the ATP’s 2015 Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award. A tennis specialist who has reported from over 50 major tournaments, including 13 Wimbledons, Linda has also covered two Olympic and two Commonwealth Games, plus multiple world championships in gymnastics and aquatics and five Netball World Cups.
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