Brianna Rodriguez knows her limitations.
Talent-wise, the sky is the limit. That is, when her body allows it.
For much of her life, though, her body hasn’t been too helpful. It’s failed her once, twice, three times. There were injuries that were career-threatening, and one life-threatening.
“It’s always serious. I’ve never just been able to say ‘oh, I sprained my wrist,’ ” she said. “Nope. Just ‘you broke a bone.’ It’s always serious.”
Serious enough for a full-body cast, for a knee brace, for months of rehab. Serious enough to cry, which she did. To call it quits, which she thought about. She had to come up with a Plan B, and a Plan C, for the rest of her life.
On May 16, Rodriguez won a NJCAA national title in the long jump for Pima College, hitting a mark of 18 feet 11¾ inches at Mesa Community College. It was her last-ever meet as an Aztec.
That was part of plan A.
Rodriguez, a Cienega High School product, has come a long way.
As a kid, before Rodriguez started launching herself into pits of sand, she was a gymnast. That stopped when she was 7, though.
It was an accident, of the “freak” sort.
At her brother’s baseball game, she was running around, having fun, playing with a baseball. As she ran to pick it up, she slipped on it, hit her knee on the concrete and snapped her femur.
“It was a life-threatening, never-walk-again type injury,” said her father, Chris Rodriguez.
The bone was trying to protrude, so he had to “pull it straight,” he said. “And she yelled out in pain,” because if he left it there, the bone would have worked its way through the skin. So Rodriguez, who has experience with first aid and sports medicine, straightened it out and took her to the hospital.
“So,” he said, “that was the end of gymnastics for her.”
Rodriguez spent the summer in a full body cast, all the way up to her chest, all the way down to her legs. She wanted to play soccer, but that wasn’t an option, her doctor said, because her leg was too weak. So, she ran. She raced her brother and his baseball team, and often out-ran them, all two years her senior.
“She smoked them,” said Chris Rodriguez, laughing.
Eventually, she switched gears to jumping — “I was like Fred Flintstone when I would run,” she said. “I would start out so slow” — with training from her father, a former high school track coach and longtime instructor for Tucson Elite Track Club.
Rodriguez was so technically sound that when she was in elementary school and middle school, her father would bring her to his high school practices to use as an example for his athletes.
In middle school she was, quite literally, too good.
“Even at a young age, she wanted it perfect,” Chris Rodriguez said. “She told me ‘I’m not very good because I don’t win everything.’ There were times where she was distraught because she came in second.”
In seventh grade, she out-jumped a pit during a competition.
Meaning, the sand wasn’t tilled far out enough to match how far Rodriguez could jump. So, she landed awkwardly, hyper-extended her knee, and had to sit out competition for all of eighth and ninth grades.
“She was jumping 16 to 17 feet in middle school,” Chris Rodriguez said. “A lot of kids in high school, it’s 14 to 17 (feet), and that’s their career.”
Rodriguez walked up to the pit, in competition at Mesa CC.
She’s been here before.
“Every time I jump there,” she said. “I always think, ‘this is the pit.’ It’s always like I need to avenge myself at that pit every single time I jump on it.”
It was the kryptonite to her Superman.
A reminder of what happened, and what almost did.
Overcome this, overcome everything.
On this day, May 16, the pit was more angelic than demonic. She wound up with the national title on it, narrowly beating out Janeil McDonald from South Plains College, by 1 centimeter.
About two years prior, though, that pit was more demonic than angelic.
Jumping for Tucson Elite in the Junior Olympic preliminaries, she went the first time, and was fine. Second time, all good. On the third jump she “really hurt herself.” She tried to run, but couldn’t. It felt like an ankle sprain.
For the entire summer, she rehabbed. Or, at least, tried to — it wasn’t getting any better, so in October she had an MRI, which revealed she tore two ligaments in her ankle. The doctor gave her three choices:
1. Stop running
2. Get a brace and keep running
The last option came with a caveat — “we don’t know how you’re going to come back,” the doctor said.
“I’m thinking ‘oh my god, this is probably the end of my track career,’ ” Brianna said. “I was really devastated.”
Still, she got the surgery. Rodriguez said she now has a titanium screw “with, like wires hanging out of it,” to attach the ligament to the bone — and sat out most of her freshman year.
“She almost gave up,” Pima jumps coach Chad Harrison said. “She was like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I don’t want to do this.’ ”
When she started practicing, she would be fine for two weeks, then the ankle would hurt and she’d be out for two weeks. She started jumping again in March, but she was only reaching 15 feet. She jumped farther in middle school.
“It was so much stress,” Brianna said. “I didn’t have that much confidence in myself anymore, just being set back so far from where I was. I started to think about other ways to pay for college, because I was so close to quitting.”
She considered getting a job, paying her way to college. That was Plan B.
She considered becoming a track coach, Plan C.
Harrison convinced her to stick it out, at least through her sophomore year.
As Rodriguez walked up to the pit, that pit, she smiled.
Just before, McDonald’s landing was too short to challenge Rodriguez’s tally.
Lock it up, championship.
In the distance, she heard her Dad bellow an emphatic “Yes!”
Harrison celebrated, pumped his fist, hugged another coach.
Rodriguez didn’t do a victory dance just yet — she still had to jump — but she’s had a better dance. Never a bigger accomplishment as a jumper, but definitely as a person.
About one year earlier, she finally did it. All the hurt, the rehab, the recovery, the waiting. Man, the waiting.
It was the 2013 Region I championships at, you guessed it, Mesa Community College.
The national qualifying mark was 18 feet 3 inches. She jumped 18-8, good enough for third place.
Then, it was like Rodriguez won the pick-six lotto. Or, a national title. Although, it was neither.
She jumped straight up, and down, and up, and down. She screamed. She laughed, she cried. She ran to Harrison, told him she was back. Back to pre-injury, back on the path, the upward swing in her jumping career.
“I was just so happy,” she said.
Added Chris Rodriguez: “She arrived. She’s back. You could see her confidence had come back. For real, man, I bawled like a baby. She had come back and I saw the change, and that to me was bigger, better, stronger, more impactful than winning the title. It truly told me my baby is special.”
Now, a year later, Harrison took it a step further.
“For me as a coach there will never be something more gratifying than coaching Brianna Rodriguez to a championship,” Harrison said. “She’s going to be one of the greatest athletes Tucson has ever seen. And that really is what it is. The girl is really talented. I’m telling you, the girl is going to jump 21 feet one day. You might see her in the Olympics, that’s my honest opinion.”
Now, Rodriguez can go to college on scholarship. She can run, she can jump.
She’s spending most of the offseason visiting schools, and training. Right now, she’s choosing between Cal State-East Bay (Division II), Idaho State (Division I) and New Mexico State (Division I).
So, back to Plan A.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “there’s always going to be someone better than you, you just have to keep working to be the best. That’s what keeps me going.
“I’ve been at an all-time low as an athlete, but I made it to the top. I can bring that with me wherever I go.”