HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — On the evening of May 7, 2022, someone at the Coconut Beach bar asked if Savvy Simo might want a few shots.
None at all.
Here was a 23-year-old competing in the second event of her rookie season on the AVP Tour, one that was filled with all the hype and hope and promise one might expect from an All-American out of UCLA partnered with Toni Rodriguez, a 25-year-old who had never known a losing season in her lengthy tenure at LSU. It was a lengthy tenure for all the wrong reasons: two knee surgeries and another on her shoulder. She likes to joke that her knee is hardly hers at this point; a mixture of Rodriguez’s own DNA and cadaver and bolts and screws and whatever else doctors are putting in ligaments and bones after surgeries these days.
With all that experience under the knife, and the events that led her there, Rodriguez knew, before anyone else, that something had gone terribly wrong with her knee that May 7 night. Knew it the second she went to plant and something just … gave out. It wasn’t the excruciating pain she had felt the previous two times her ACL went pop, but there had been a pop, and the motion that caused it was a twist, and Rodriguez knew that a pop followed by a twist is far from an ideal combination for a knee.
“No one knew what was going on. I think in my mind when I sat on the bench, I was basically having a panic attack,” Rodriguez said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “After going through two ACL reconstructions, you never want to go through one, much less two, potentially three. I never want to do that again. It’s a lot of things that are going on in your head after getting injured. I was just freaking out on the inside.”
On the outside, she was surprisingly cool, to the point that Simo was, really, just confused, when Rodriguez mentioned, in the technical timeout, that something wasn’t quite right. What did she mean something was wrong? She was fine. They were fine. Losing, sure. But fine.
On the ensuing play, Rodriguez served and attempted to run up to the net to block. She only made it about halfway there. Her knee was done. She was done. The tears began flowing in a contagious stream: Rodriguez, then her mother, which made Simo cry, and when she delivered the news to their opponents, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, Rodriguez’s former teammates at LSU, they, too, began crying.
“It was so emotional,” Simo said. “Then we brought her into the tent and she’s still crying, and Evan [Cory, Simo’s boyfriend] loses his game and he just came over and he didn’t even care about his loss, he was just worried about us. It was weird. Time stopped and nothing else mattered.”
The people of Louisiana are an exceedingly welcoming crowd. Drinks were offered. Drinks were accepted. Raising Cane’s was ordered, good friends stopped by the hotel room, and games were played. The mood was lightened, but a question lingered over both Simo and Rodriguez and all who are close with them: What now?
Rodriguez is as healthy as she has ever been, which is to say she is as healthy as she was when she began her senior year at St. Amant High School, averaging 22 kills, 15 digs, and six blocks per match before suffering her first knee injury. Now Simo, after a year in which she scrambled, playing with eight total partners — seven more than initially intended — has alas taken a deep breath and recouped, mentally and physically, from a rookie year that went a thousand different directions.
“I try to be super flexible,” Simo said. “Playing with different partners and traveling with different people, it ended up working out great and I’m so lucky to have had the season I ended up having, but there was just a lot of phone calls. I learned a lot about how to travel, how to play with different people, trusting my gut, that’s been a big thing if this feels wrong or maybe should I be doing this. I took a lot of leaps of faith and it wound up going the right direction. A lot of ups and downs but it ended up a positive for sure.”
They are back together, these two, never once wavering from the commitment they made in 2022 to play as a team. They’ve hired a coach in Jen Snyder. They lift at the USA Volleyball facility in Torrance, and therefore share the same trainer. While Simo was off competing with Megan Kraft or Emily Capers or Jessica Gaffney or Victoria Dennis or Megan Gebhard or Deahna Kraft, Rodriguez was slowly rehabbing her knee. It wasn’t an ACL this time. When her doctor in Baton Rouge took a peek in that embattled knee of hers, he found a cist had formed in the tunnel of her knee from a previous surgery, and that her meniscus was partially torn. But her ACL? Unscathed. For two months, then, Rodriguez stayed in Louisiana with her family, living out of the suitcase she packed only for an AVP Next in San Antonio and the Pro Series in New Orleans.
In simple terms, Rodriguez’s doctors “added a strap, removed some scar tissue from the past surgery and boom, we’re here,” she said, laughing. As for what those months off of volleyball provided her, while all of her peers and friends and rivals were playing the sport she had finally begun to play professionally, they helped her realize “that I am ok if I’m not playing volleyball. I can be successful in whatever I am doing and volleyball does not define who I am. I’ve learned it every time I’ve gotten injured but this time I’m an adult, I’m not in college, I have other things going on, I can be happy and not play volleyball. That was really cool. And coming back to playing and just trusting that I’m going to be fine, and week after week after week I’m getting better and trusting that this is what it’s supposed to be. I’m feeling excited, blessed, grateful that I’m just going to continue to trust the process because this is what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t matter why it happened, it happened, I just need to continue living life and getting to the next space.”
She was patient this time. Didn’t rush back, as she was wont to do at LSU. She had initially targeted the late fall events on the international schedule, in the Maldives and Dubai. But she wasn’t ready. So Simo packed up and went with Gaffney and Deahna Kraft, while Rodriguez trained with a fleet of Brazilian coaches hired by USA Volleyball to run its fledgling developmental program.
“I wanted Savvy to go and perform at the highest level and so we made a team decision for her to go and play with someone else because I didn’t feel ready,” Rodriguez said. “I’m glad I didn’t because going into this season I feel really strong and ready to go.”
When their season will begin is yet to be determined. They are currently sixth on the reserve list for the Doha Elite 16 on February 1-5, the first event of the Olympic qualifying cycle and one that they are unlikely to get in. The remainder of the Volleyball World schedule has not yet been released, though events are expected to resume in mid-March. Whenever it does, they’ll be ready, for getting ready is all Rodriguez has been doing for nearly a year now.
“She hasn’t really had a chance to prove herself and I just think for her, this is all going to be a part of a very cool fairytale story,” Simo said. “We all have different journeys and whatever is meant to happen is going to happen. I just think this girl has a lot to show and this is going to be a cool part of the journey, like ‘Remember when that happened?’
“We are going for an Olympic run and the odds are way low but with the way this system works and keeping three out of four [finishes for entry points], you never know. We’ll see. We have no idea where we’re going to stand.”