Stanford women's volleyball player Inky Ajanaku was well on her way to becoming an Olympian when she suffered a devastating knee injury during a game with the United States national team in Lima, Peru during the summer of 2015.
While it appeared to be only a minor injury at the time, it left her on the sidelines of collegiate volleyball for an entire season and halted her dreams of playing in the 2016 Olympics.
Ajanaku, an All-American middle blocker for the Cardinal, arrived at Stanford in 2012 as a confident freshman ready to try her hand at college athletics. While many of her fellow freshmen were nervous about entering the world of college athletics, Ajanaku decided to try her best and not worry about whether they would play her or not.
"They wanted me to play volleyball so I came to play volleyball, it was that easy for me," Ajanaku said.
Ajanaku will be front and center Friday night when Stanford (7-4, 13-6) hosts Washington State (7-3, 17-5) at 6 p.m. in an important Pac-12 contest.
Two years into her college career, Ajanaku received her first invite to play with the national team during the summer. Training alongside some of the nation's best volleyball players, she worked hard to keep up with the rigorous program while staying true to her comedic, easy-going personality.
"I was definitely a girl among women when I first started training with the U.S. national team," Ajanaku said. "Everyone was so serious, whereas I like to keep things light with everything I do and I like to have a good time. With that comes a lack of maturity which was very evident there."
When the summer training came to an end, Ajanaku returned to Stanford for her third season, which she said was the favorite of her volleyball career. The team, coached by John Dunning, was one of the top four teams in the nation.
The summer following her very successful junior year, Ajanaku was invited to return and train with the national team.
Ajanaku finished school two weeks early and left ready to make her mark on USA volleyball. After completing the first week of training, she joined the squad to compete internationally in Lima.
During one game, an American middle blocker dislocated her finger, forcing Ajanaku to play the entire game. While blocking a hit in the game, she landed on her right knee and tore her ACL and meniscus. Having never had a serious injury before, she texted Stanford to let the team know she was injured and might miss a few weeks, but would be back for the preseason.
After being flown back to California to meet with her coaches and get a diagnosis from the team doctor, she discovered it was more serious than she had thought and she would not be able to play with her classmates for her senior year.
"I felt like I had disappointed a lot of people," she said, adding that it had been her own decision to play with the USA team. "I felt like I let a lot of people on my team down, but every time I talked to my teammates they were more concerned with how I was physically and mentally. That reassured me that teams are just like small families."
To make the best of her time off, Ajanaku set a goal to improve at the game of volleyball even if she would not get to play. Since she could not physically work on her game until this fall, she decided to get better from a mental standpoint.
Through watching her teammates play and being a mentor to younger members of the team, she was able to improve her skills and understanding of the game.
"When you begin the process of climbing back up the ladder to being really extraordinary at something, it's not easy and you need people's help," Dunning said. "The way we tried to help was to tell her to make plans and to plan on playing the next year even if that didn't seem like it would be possible at the time. Even though she could not play volleyball for that period of time, her goal was to be better at volleyball when she started playing, which means she had to improve (mentally)."
Ajanaku returned this season amid concerns regarding her injury. She continues to work hard and push herself physically and mentally.
Now a fifth year senior, Ajanaku is a key part of the team's leadership group and is working hard to be a good mentor to this year's young team.
"She has to fill a leadership role for us and she is," Dunning said. "She's very supportive of the younger players and appreciative of their talents and what they bring to the team. She's helped a lot by bringing everybody together, she wants the team to feel like a family and she works hard to make that happen."
Though she is glad to be back, Ajanaku stressed how important the learning process has been throughout her recovery.
"I think I expected playing again to be like riding a bike, that I could just hop back on and know exactly what to do. The instinctual reactions you develop over time do not just come back. It takes a lot of thought, and I'm still working on getting back to where I was before my injury," Ajanaku said. "If I only enjoyed the parts of the game that give (me) the applause and awards, I don't think I would enjoy this season. I do enjoy the learning process, and I'm really enjoying the season, which is great."