Athletes are likely to experience several highs and lows during their careers, never knowing when an injury might derail them or be a temporary setback.
For one young New Mexico tennis player, the journey has already included all of those experiences and she said she is happy for it.
Fans that have had an opportunity to see Andrea Leblanc in action might compare the actions of the tennis star to that of a lioness scouring the plains of Africa. The 5-foot-4-inch ball of energy, bouncing on bright green tennis shoes, quietly moves into the perfect position, waiting to pounce on her prey.
The ball ends up in striking distance and she attacks. And when the kill is complete, she emphatically pumps her fist and lets out a triumphant roar.
Leblanc, a redshirt junior, transferred to the University of New Mexico last fall after spending two seasons at Morehead State, a small university about an hour away from Lexington, Kentucky.
She said she took a year off after high school before one of her friends who was already at the school convinced the coach to recruit her. She said it was a difficult decision to leave and go so far away from her home in Mexico City.
“The step of going away from home was kind of shaky,” she said. “But I’m not going to be alone there because I was going with my friend, so that was the key part.”
Leblanc said she was excited to start her college tennis career, but things took a turn for the worse right away. She said she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the first week of practice sidelining her for the season. After undergoing two knee surgeries, she fought her way back onto the court.
But things did not stay positive for too long. Leblanc said the relationship that was once strong with her Morehead State coach started to deteriorate. Her confidence was shattered, the environment turned toxic and eventually she stopped enjoying tennis so much that she dreaded going to practice.
“I never thought it would come to a point where I hated the sport I’ve loved my whole life,” Leblanc said. “I knew I needed to get out of there.”
Former UNM head coach Erica Jasper and assistant coach at the time, Kelcy McKenna, reached out to Leblanc and convinced her to join the UNM team. Shortly after she signed, Leblanc received word that Jasper had stepped down as head coach.
She said her heart sank initially, but then learned McKenna was taking over as head coach. Leblanc said she never thought twice about her commitment, and for the first time in a long time, things started looking up.
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New Mexico was a good school and the move would put her closer to her family, she said. Even though Albuquerque reminds her of home, Leblanc said moving to New Mexico from Kentucky was a complete shock.
After tearing her ACL and enduring two knee surgeries, she thought things happen for a reason she said. Leblanc added that she believes those things happened so she can be here.
She said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leblanc said McKenna was able to use her former experience as an All-American standout at Arizona State to connect with her and the rest of the team. The two-way street of trust allowed her to start falling back in love with the game. “It was the one thing that was missing at Morehead State,” she said.
Leblanc quickly forged strong relationships with her teammates as well, becoming roommates with Dominique Dulski and Ludivine Burguiere. Leblanc said she and Burguiere, a fellow transfer from Virginia Commonwealth and international player, bonded right away.
“I remember telling her, ‘no matter what, we stick together,’” Leblanc said.
But Leblanc said all seven of the women on the team were a perfect fit for each other. The existing members of the team welcomed the transfers along with another international player, an incoming freshman from Ireland.
She said she considers her teammates to be her second family because they spend so much time together. If someone wants to go see a football game or a movie, it is likely that the entire team will be together, often joining the men’s team as well.
Football and baseball are two sports Leblanc learned about from her grandfather. She said she remembers watching the game and asking him questions — the same kind she started answering for some of her new friends when going to UNM games together.
Ingrid Gutierrez, a native of Mexico and one of Leblanc’s closest friends, said she was excited when a couple of players from the men’s tennis team told her the women had just signed a Mexican player. Gutierrez, who plays women’s golf for UNM, said she knew she had to meet Leblanc and the two become instant friends.
Although tennis and golf are very different, they also have many similarities. She said the two often help each other when they experience some adversity, and it is nice to have a friend with such a big heart.
“I had a really bad qualifying round, and she just told me everything I needed in that moment,” Gutierrez said. “She is really supportive.”
In addition to having a big heart, Coach McKenna said one thing people might be surprised to find out about Leblanc is her witty sense of humor. Leblanc, normally very tactical and business-like in her approach to the game, is “queen of the one-liners” and always has a snappy comeback, McKenna said.
Along with dropping one-liners, Leblanc also has a sense of fashion when protecting her face from the sun. Leblanc may possibly have an unhealthy obsession with Nike dri-fit hats. Her head coach said she probably has over 50 hats in every color one could imagine.
“Whether she plays inside or outside, she always has a hat on,” McKenna said. “It’s her one thing that she has to have. She’s addicted.”
Technically a liberal arts major, Leblanc said she plans to pursue a career in sports when her playing days are behind her. “I don’t know if I have the patience,” she said when asked of the possibility of becoming a coach herself. She said that her dream job would be to work at ESPN.
Gutierrez said one thing about Leblanc that really sticks out is that when she wants something, she has to have it. And like the trajectory of her collegiate tennis career, she might ultimately find her own way to reach that goal.
Robert Maler is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers cross country, tennis, and track and field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @robert_maler.