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I Speak Mamba: Kat Tolentino won’t let challenges hold her back

Waking up at dawn to work out. First in, last out. Playing through an injury. No excuses, no days off. Giving it everything you’ve got. And then giving some more. This is the language of Mamba Mentality. To celebrate Mamba Mentality Week, SLAM Philippines tells the stories of five athletes who have something in common: […]

Waking up at dawn to work out. First in, last out. Playing through an injury. No excuses, no days off. Giving it everything you’ve got. And then giving some more. This is the language of Mamba Mentality.

To celebrate Mamba Mentality Week, SLAM Philippines tells the stories of five athletes who have something in common: they all speak the same language as the legendary Kobe Bryant.

Photo from Kat Tolentino / Illustration by SLAM PH

Kat Tolentino doesn’t know Kobe’s career averages. She can’t tick off all of Kobe’s awards, nor can she recall when Matt Barnes played himself trying to punk Kobe.

But, Kat is a Kobe fan. She knows about the 4 a.m. workouts, coming in with no excuses, and doing everything to win. Such is Kobe’s legacy. You could have never watched a single Laker game, but you can live by Mamba Mentality. She also didn’t know it at the time, but Kat had gone down a very Kobe-esque arc.

Photo from Irene Tolentino

Kat didn’t understand why her mom kept pushing her to move to the Philippines. She was comfortable in Canada and had already decided to go to university there to continue playing volleyball. In 2012, she and her family visited her brother, future Ateneo Ben Mbala-stopper Vince Tolentino, and was all of a sudden invited to train with the Ateneo’s women’s volleyball team.

“I didn’t have any equipment. I had to borrow shoes from a cousin and knee pads from the men’s team,” she recalls of the afternoon she spent with the Lady Eagles.

Despite the interest from Ateneo and the stories of the growing Philippine volleyball scene, Kat was not convinced that moving half way around the world was the best idea for her at the time.

“I was in Grade 11 at that time and I just couldn’t imagine myself leaving home. I still really wanted to go to university in Canada. In fact, I was confused why my brother moved there.”

Kat made the roster of Trinity Western University and was ready to make her mark in Canada’s volleyball scene. But she never got to play for the school. She tore her ACL in her left knee in before suiting up for the team in 2013, and then again in 2014.

After her second serious injury, Kat wanted to start fresh. “Ateneo contacted me when they heard I got injured again. They were very generous in that they were still willing to help with my rehab and my surgery,” she shares. “That’s how I got there. I just decided I wanted to experience something different.”

Kat’s recruitment created a buzz in Ateneo. The Lady Eagles were coming off back-to-back UAAP championships in 2015 and adding a six-foot-two athletic wing spiker was the perfect follow-up to the Alyssa Valdez era.

All that excitement once again went up like a cloud of smoke. Kat only got to suit up for Ateneo once that year. It wasn’t even in the UAAP. She didn’t even get one play in.

The Lady Eagles were warming up for their first match of the Shakey’s V-League Collegiate Conference. In a routine warm-up drill at the net, Kat landed on her right knee and crumbled to the floor. She tore another ACL, this time on her right knee.

For those counting, that’s three potentially career-ending injuries in the span of three years.

Photo from Irene Tolentino

Around the same time Kat was going through her first ACL injury, Kobe also had his career totally altered. In April 2013, Kobe — already 34-years old, a five-time champion and an MVP — tore his achilles tendon.

That moment is remembered for the pure badassery of Kobe still trying to walk off the torn achilles, even attempting to pull it back into place. He then promptly swished two free throws before finally saying, “Yup, I should probably get someone to check on my ankle.”

What we’ve all forgotten was how that game versus Golden State was the last we saw of peak Mamba. After that, we had to grapple with the reality that Kobe will never be the same again. Kobe had to grapple with that same possibility.

“Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at 35? How in the world am I supposed to do that? I have NO CLUE,” Kobe posted on Facebook during rehab.

“Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing? Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me…Then again maybe not!”

Photo from Irene Tolentino

Kobe and Kat both attacked rehab fiercely. Kobe came back in December 2013, needing just eight months to recover when most athletes took around a year to recoup from the same injury. Kat finally made her Ateneo debut in UAAP Season 79, less than two years after her own career-threatening injury.

Everyone would have understood if she stopped playing volleyball altogether. In the span of three separate ACL rehab stints, Kat had doubted her body numerous times. How much more of this could she take?

“It was very hard for me to be optimistic. But, in that situation, I learned to look at things differently and celebrate the small things,” she explains. “In therapy, I had to go through different stages of being able to jump again, to run again, do weights, and get to be on the court again. That’s where the optimism really came. It’s was never about thinking about I’ll be fine in six months. It was about trusting the work then trusting my body.”

Both Kobe and Kat struggled in their returns. Kobe had the occasional throwback performance, but no amount of tinkering with his jumper or finding new angles allowed him to dominate like he used to. Kat consistently started from Season 79 to 80, to mixed results and zero championships.

Photo from Kat Tolentino

Optimism isn’t just about positivity. It asks us to defy established truths or ignore our circumstances. It asks us to ignore the fact that athletes above 30 years-old never recover well from an Achilles tear. It asks to look past the miniscule chances of incurring three ACL injuries and the misery of rehabbing three times. It asks us to look forward and shield ourselves from the odds. Optimism is finding hope where there seemingly is none.

Had Kobe succumbed to the odds and called it a career after his achilles tear, we never would have experienced the magic of his final game. Fans had gotten used to Kobe living up to the moment. It would have been fine for 37-year old Vino to give us just a taste of his former self. But, Kobe really went out scoring 60 on the Jazz.

Had Kat not stayed optimistic, she would have never become a champion.

She returned in Season 81 a different beast, leading Ateneo in scoring and taking over as the best opposite spiker in college volleyball. In the Finals, facing a UST side riding a historic hot streak, Kat played her best volleyball ever and led Ateneo to their third title.

“I’m just thankful to God for making not just the journey hard, but it was something that was memorable. Without those three ACL injuries I wouldn’t have had as much passion and I think I wouldn’t be here.”

Kat was never intense on the court like Kobe. She didn’t grind her teeth after a big point. She never played mind games with her opponents. But she still exudes Mamba Mentality. She took on all the challenges, kept moving forward, and came out a champion.

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