If you have ever watched an award ceremony at the end of the season, you know it is not the champions that stir up the most emotion of the night. The Most Valuable Player might get the most applause, but it’s always another title that bring fans to their feet.
The Tracey Macleod Award was established to recognize a university athlete displaying ‘courage overcoming adversity.’ For the first time since 2008, and the second time in the award’s history, that honour was given to a Marauder: Vanessa Pickard.
Pickard actually began her career in 2011 at the St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Originally hailing from Riverview N.B., Pickard had played two years on Canada’s U16/17 national team before signing on to play under head coach Matt Skinn.
“Things looked really promising for me” said Pickard. “I was really excited”
In her first season Pickard came out firing, putting up 17.2 points a game and claiming Canadian Interuniversity Sports Rookie of the Year. But in her final game of the season Pickard sustained a concussion, the first in what would be a series of head injuries to plague her career.
In her first game at Burridge Gym, Pickard tore her ACL, enduring one surgery to replace it and two additional procedures to correct complications in the coming months.
“[At the time] I don’t think I really understood the ramifications of a concussion,” said Pickard. “So I didn’t really take care of it and it lingered for a few months… but we were done basketball so I thought I could get over it.”
In the fall of 2012 during her second year at St. F.X., another serious concussion would sideline Pickard for five more months. Pickard was also rehabbing under new leadership, as head coach Matt Skinn departed to coach the men’s team in Cape Breton and was replaced by Augy Jones.
“I was stuck in a position of trying to come back from my concussion, maybe [I] came back too early,” said Pickard. “It was hard playing under a new coach, it was difficult to establish myself… and a concussion is a really difficult injury. It’s not just the physical part of it there is an emotional toll as well.”
Pickard returned in the second semester of her second year, but the challenges of extensive rehab meant it would take time before she could make her presence felt on the court. By the time next season rolled around year Pickard was hit again, suffering her third concussion in as many years.
“It took a big toll on me” said Pickard. “I decided that that environment wasn’t the best for me so I took off my fourth year and thought I was going to hang up the shoes forever.”
While finishing her undergraduate degree, the coaching staff at McMaster caught wind that the sharp shooter they had recruited out of high school had a few years of eligibility remaining and decided to extend an offer.
“I knew [at that point] if I was going to play basketball again, it would be at Mac,” said Pickard. “And that’s strictly because of the people here. The coaches are phenomenal… I knew they would treat me as a person. It wasn’t just about basketball… I knew I would have a good experience.”
“I’ll defend my thesis in July, finish up at Mac, and head off to med school. It’s a nice little cherry on the top I think.”
McMaster women’s basketball
After some deliberation and a year of training, Pickard travelled to Hamilton in 2015 to pursue a Master’s degree in kinesiology. Academically driven, Pickard took up shop in the laboratory of Maureen MacDonald, conducting exercise physiology research and going on to receive an Ontario Graduate Scholarship.
But she picked up where she left off on the court too, committing to the basketball season and opening her year with four straight wins. After securing an all-star nod in the pre-season Ryerson tournament and a number one national ranking for her new team, tragedy would strike yet again.
“It’s kind of funny, anytime everything is going super well I seem to have a setback. It’s like its too good to be true,” said Pickard. “The second I went down I knew it was my ACL.”
In her first game at Burridge Gym, Pickard tore her ACL, enduring one surgery to replace it and two additional procedures to correct complications in the coming months. In her first practice back from rehab she sustained another concussion, followed by a sprained MCL and a battle with the flu. She questioned if she would ever play again. But still, she endured.
By March of 2017 Pickard had returned to the court and was one of Mac’s leading scorers in their Ontario University Athletics playoff run. While her team did not end up receiving an elusive U Sports championship berth, Pickard travelled to the University of Victoria where she was recognized with the national Tracey Macleod award.
“It was a difficult two years, emotionally and physically, to say the least” said Pickard. “I would have liked to be there for the tournament with my team… but it was a nice consolation prize. To be recognized for that and going through that battle… it meant a lot to me.”
It appears that this season will be the last for Pickard, who will be pursuing a degree in medicine in the fall. It seems fitting that someone who has endured so much will go on to support patients as they brave their own journeys, armed with her own experiences and a perseverance unique to so few.
“I’ll defend my thesis in July, finish up at Mac, and head off to med school,” said Pickard. “It’s a nice little cherry on top I think.”
Cue the standing ovation.