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When the Olympics Delay Gets You to the Games

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TOKYO — Had there been no coronavirus pandemic, Dayshalee Salamán wouldn’t be at the Summer Olympics.

She wouldn’t be wearing a Puerto Rico uniform as she takes the court Tuesday. She wouldn’t be representing her homeland as it makes its first ever appearance in the women’s basketball competition. She wouldn’t be living out her dream.

On Feb. 9, 2020, during the qualifying tournament in which Puerto Rico secured a spot in the Tokyo Games, Salamán blew out her left knee. It buckled when she landed after a layup.

The dislocation snapped her anterior cruciate ligament and sprained her medial collateral ligament. The arena went quiet when Salamán, a player known as “Dinamita” (dynamite) for her spark of energy on the court, couldn’t get up. Those in attendance heard her scream, “Dios mío, no.” (“My God, no.”)

“What went through my mind wasn’t about the present — ‘Oh no, I’m not going to be able to finish this game,’” Salamán, 31, said later in Spanish in an interview. “It was about my future.”

The postponement of the Olympics by a year because of the pandemic disrupted the plans of many athletes. Some had to push off personal decisions — be it enrolling in college, having children or turning professional in their sport — to continue training for another year. Some failed to qualify for events. Some missed the Games.

Yet for a small group like Salamán, the delay provided an unexpected opportunity.

For Rikako Ikee, 21, the Japanese swimmer who was hospitalized for 10 months in 2019 with leukemia, she had extra time to regain her strength and qualify for an Olympics she was originally going to miss. Kim Je-deok, 17, the South Korean archer who won a gold medal on Saturday in the mixed team competition, could overcome the shoulder ailment that would have prevented him from participating last summer.

Alex Morgan, 32, a star soccer player for the United States, gained time with her newborn daughter and avoided racing against the clock to be ready for the 2020 Games. And Delaney Spaulding, 26, the starting shortstop for the United States’ softball team, could opt to have surgery on her injured right knee.

“It’s a little weird to think about,” Spaulding said in a recent interview. “I kind of take a step back and think, ‘Delaney, that’s so selfish.’ But at the same time, I do think that there has to be some good that comes out of something like this so dark.”

In February 2020, Spaulding tore her A.C.L. and meniscus running the bases in an exhibition game for Team U.S.A. When she walked off the field, she went into the dugout and burst into tears, “realizing that it’s kind of slipping away,” she said of the Olympics.

The recovery from surgery would take nine to 12 months. But Spaulding initially opted to skip the operation and instead rehabilitate her knee through physical therapy and wear a brace to still play in the Games. Then came the postponement of the Olympics on March 24, 2020.

Spaulding immediately called Team U.S.A. officials and asked for the surgery as soon as possible. Although the summer 2021 makeup dates had not been announced yet, she figured she had time to get her knee right.

She gambled correctly.

By March 2021, Spaulding was back playing for Team U.S.A. in an exhibition game, rewarding the faith team officials had placed in her, and others, when they had previously committed to keeping the Olympic roster intact despite the postponement. And since last week, Spaulding has helped the top-ranked U.S. squad reach the gold medal game against rival Japan on Tuesday.

Salamán’s first game in the Olympics will also be on Tuesday, when Puerto Rico faces China, capping a 16-month journey for her. She had played only four games for her professional team in Sweden when she hurt her knee while with the Puerto Rico squad in France.

She flew to the island to have it examined by the national team doctor and waited four weeks for her M.C.L. to heal and the swelling to subside so that her A.C.L. could be repaired. In that time, the pandemic shut down Puerto Rico and canceled all nonessential surgeries, including hers. But then the Olympics were postponed, giving Salamán more time to recover and an opening to fulfill a goal that had previously slipped away.

“I know half of the athletes are like, ‘Why? This was my year and I don’t know what’s going to happen next year,’” she said shortly after the shutdown last year. “I try to put myself in the shoes of the athletes who were very happy for the opportunity in Tokyo 2020 and now it got switched to 2021. It hurts, but it also gives me hope. ”

Salamán had surgery in April 2020 and nearly a year later, she was medically cleared to return to action. She overcame a setback in her recovery — inflammation in her knee that tacked on a few months — and had to earn her place back on the national squad, doubts that she used as additional motivation to reach one of her remaining dreams.

Salamán came to the mainland United States at 15 without speaking English to pursue her education and basketball career. She played at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee and earned a degree in kinesiology.

“I come from a barrio and to graduate from college in the U.S., the first in my family, I’ve accomplished a lot of my goals through basketball,” she said. “Reaching the Olympics would be incredible. I’d make history in my barrio, which is what I want, and for my family.”

Other than a few trips to see her loved ones, Salamán has spent the majority of the pandemic rehabilitating her knee in Puerto Rico, living at her grandmother’s place in her hometown Carolina, and away from her partner and her home in Tampa, Fla. Salamán used that time away to overhaul her diet, improve her body and is now, she said, a different player — but still with her trademark fire off the bench.

As the Tokyo Olympics grew closer and concerns about the still-raging pandemic persisted, Salamán said she tried to ignore any conversations with her family and friends about a possible cancellation or avoid any news about it.

She said she prayed every night for strength. She feels bad that a deadly pandemic is the reason she is even in this position now, in Tokyo, awaiting her first game with a healthy knee. But she, too, believes that a sliver of good can emerge from so much bad.

“Sometimes you don’t get second chances,” she said, “and I got a second chance. I really do feel blessed and fortunate.”

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