Katerina Garcia sat in Whalen Gymnasium, barefoot in sweatpants and a black shirt, seemingly as comfortable as can be.
The comfortable attire, donned after another practice in a very, very long line of practices, had little to do with it.
Instead, the comfort was written on her face. The look written across it was one of knowing – knowing she’s where she was meant to be, playing the game she’s loved for as long as she can remember for her hometown program in front of people she loves even more than the game to which she’s devoted most of her 22 years.
And tonight, she’ll get one final chance to step out in front of those same people and play that same game, all the while moving with such speed and vision so well that it’s easy to forget she’s running on legs that once failed her and looking through eyes damaged by ulcers.
The Fort Lewis College point guard and Durango High School athletic hall of famer has had a great run, and it’s not over yet.
“Coming back was great, and winning games is fun,” Garcia said. “And, you know, basketball’s not going to be there for the rest of my life, and I’m glad I got to experience it here. I’m glad I got to experience it in front of friends and family, and I’m glad they got to watch me grow up.”
Garcia is living proof that plans change rather abruptly because the path she is on wasn’t the one she chose at first, although she admitted she has no regrets. Originally, she signed with Division I Southern Illinois-Carbondale out of high school and appeared in 28 games, starting 18, while averaging more than three assists per game.
But with the move to Carbondale came a ridiculous run of bad luck. Garcia sprained her ankle in the preseason. Then she suffered through Compartment Syndrome – a compression of nerves and blood vessels within an enclosed space – which forced surgery. And the complications that came with it. Then, after the season, it was revealed she had a stress fracture in her left leg, which required another surgery.
And, to top it all off, doctors found an ulcer in her cornea.
After the ulcer, Garcia decided she’d had just about enough.
She missed her family, friends and even the familiar faces she sees regularly on Main Avenue. And she said she never gave any thought to playing anywhere else other than FLC. But the injuries and the pain didn’t leave just because Garcia came home. The senior has spent plenty of time in the training room the last three years, constantly getting her calves stretched out to avoid sometimes debilitating cramps and taking an ice bath before every contest. She’s worn a walking boot at times after games. And she admitted that her vision still isn’t 100 percent in her right eye after the ulcer issue flared up again before the season, causing her to miss three weeks of practice.
Why persist? Why fight through the pain just for the long bus rides and endless practices? Because playing basketball is what she does. The game is a part of her she won’t let bothersome pain extricate so easily, as evidenced by the fact she’s missed just one game in three years.
“When you love this game, you’re going to do whatever it takes to keep playing,” Garcia said. “Honestly, how many other people play five surgeries later? Not many. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, I’m just saying I love this game enough to keep pushing forward.”
It’s what Garcia’s done since she was little, spending nearly every Sunday with members of her family – dad Alfonso, mom Yvette and brother Easton – in the gym at Escalante Middle School. And the game has brought her here, to her last game in Durango, after having helped shepherd the Skyhawks to fourth place in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and into the South Central Region rankings.
“The team has confidence when she’s out there, and obviously that’s always a good thing, and when she’s playing well and has command of the floor, I think it gives a comfort zone to everyone else that’s on the floor,” FLC head coach Jason Flores said.
The Skyhawks are rolling now. Back in December, it would’ve been easy to write them off after a 1-5 start. But they’ve won 16 of their last 19 to go from afterthought to NCAA Tournament hopeful, and winning brings about a satisfying feeling.
“Alex (Easterbrook) did a great job of keeping everybody up, Ashley (Kuchar), it was a group effort. ... Everybody said this was going to be a rebuilding year,” Garcia said. “People we thought had our backs said this was going to be a rebuilding year. To come out and basically be able to not necessarily throw it in their face but just smile and be like, ‘Yes, this is what we’re doing,’ and it wasn’t easy. And we’re proud of it.”
FLC couldn’t have done it without Garcia. She leads the RMAC with 127 assists and is 27th nationally with 4.9 assists per game. She averages 11.2 points and nearly four rebounds a game.
It took some time and some adjusting to new styles, but Garcia’s skills once again are on full display. And despite the ups and downs, the injuries and homesickness, the wins and losses, she wouldn’t trade her career for anything.
She just needed to find her love for the game again, in the place where it all began.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything, but I am glad that I went the first year,” Garcia said. “I needed to get away because now I appreciate this town and the people in this town so much more than I did before.”