Three Long Years

By JOE McFARLAND

No one could blame Shaun Atamanchuk for bristling at being told that the tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) was the worst his doctor had ever seen.

Yet, instead of lamenting the long recovery journey ahead, the Beaumont, Alberta native decided to document it.

Taking to Instagram on August 12, 2019, Atamanchuk began posting under @shaunthrows, telling his own story of the ups and downs of recovering from Tommy John surgery.

That long and winding road brought him to the University of Antelope Valley, where the sophomore made his triumphant return to the field more than three years after his last pitch.

In a 6-4 win over Bethesda University of California, Atamanchuk allowed one run on one hit and three walks while striking out three in four innings of work.

“To do what I’ve done and come back from an injury that has taken me more than two years to recover from fully really showed me how much I love the game,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories via Twitter message.

POP OUT

Atamanchuk remembers the day everything went wrong like it was yesterday.

While on vacation during the summer of 2019, he was doing a remote training program involving “run-and-gun throws” with underweight baseballs.

On one of his last throws, he felt – and heard – a pop in his elbow.

“It was like nothing I had ever felt before,” the Dawgs Academy alum recalled. “I knew something was off right away.”

Right way, he thought he tore his UCL, so he told his friend, who laughed it off at first. Several phone calls and conversations later, an MRI confirmed the tear.

A couple of days after the vacation was over, Atamanchuk had a surgery date and slow rehabilitation process was about to begin.

EARLY PROGRESS

Just days after going under the knife, Atamanchuk was showing off his battle scars to his Instagram audience.

Over the coming days, weeks and months, he showed the training regimes and the range of motion he developed.

In the snow and cold of Alberta in early-February 2020, the right-hander posted a video of his first throw since suiting up for the Colby Community College Trojans.

Little by little, he gained back some velocity, while committing himself to a stronger workout and nutrition routine.

He also committed to Georgia Gwinnett Community College to continue his college career, even heading to the school in hopes of getting a leg up on the competition.

HARD ROAD AHEAD

Unfortunately, Atamanchuk had to make new plans as he headed into 2021.

Just a few days in, he noticed the pain in his elbow starting to flare up again, particularly when he tried throwing harder.

“I won’t be ready for the season and there is no point in me sitting on the bench wasting a year of eligibility,” wrote the 6-foot-5, 235-pound fireballer. “I will be travelling home to rehab and train full-time to try and be ready for my summer ball season.”

He was hopeful he could hit the field for the expansion Edmonton Riverhawks of the West Coast League to get some innings in before returning to school in the fall.

Atamanchuk’s plan was dealt another blow that spring when the WCL announced that the Canadian division wouldn’t take part in the season because of uncertainties and remaining restrictions from the pandemic.

Facing yet another major obstacle, he decided to focus on himself to make sure his comeback would be as good as it could be.

“Tommy John recovery is typically seen as a 12-month process,” he said. “However, due to creating some bad habits early on in my return to throw, pain and discomfort kept pushing me back.”

He estimates it took about 27 months to be back to what he would call “100 per cent.”

BACK HOME

That time away from the game allowed Atamanchuk to work with Taylor Burns and the team at Absolute Human Performance.

Burns says getting an athlete back into game-shape is complex and different for everyone, so he needed to do some information gathering in the early stages before putting a plan in place.

“Honestly, the biggest thing was earning his trust in me to follow the process and to stick with it,” he said. “We go about the ‘return to throw’ program differently than the majority of places.”

Burns was impressed with Atamanchuk’s work ethic, so it was important to keep him on the right path with a positive mindset.

“He did everything you could ask,” he said. “He got himself into incredible shape, showed up to work every day and ended up being a great role model for somebody like Chas Wheatley, who he was training beside every day.”

Last fall, Atamanchuk made the move to the University of Antelope Valley with the expectation that he would finally get back into a game this spring.

AT LONG LAST

All the blood, sweat and tears poured into getting himself into game shape finally came to fruition on January 22, 2022.

Up 3-2 heading into the fourth inning, third-year head coach Neal White made the call to the bullpen for Atamanchuk.

While he admits to some nerves, he kept telling himself that he was better than anyone standing in the batter’s box that day.

“Honestly, in the moment, I wasn’t thinking too much about the fact that it had been so long,” the hurler said. “I was more thinking about making sure I gave the team a chance to win, which is always my goal.”

Despite giving up a couple of walks and a run in his first inning of work, Atamanchuk ended the inning with a strikeout.

“After a talk with my pitching coach and some more realization that if I just throw it how I can they won’t touch me, my confidence definitely grew and I was able to shake the nerves,” he said. “After that, I went out and hung three zeroes, working more efficiently than the first, feeling better with every out.”

Coincidentally, the Pioneers’ starter was Stettler’s Kyle Poapst.

The Prairie Baseball Academy grad had also trained with Atamanchuk during the offseason, so knew what was on the line when he saw his friend take to the hill.

“It was a really cool experience to see him out there again,” Poapst said. “I couldn’t be more happy for him – it was easy to tell the team was, too, as they were cheering for ‘Sheriff.’”

JUST THE BEGINNING

With that first outing under his belt, Atamanchuk is finally able to focus in on getting better with each outing.

The business management major knows there will be more ups and downs, but with the support around him, he’s confident he will be a factor at Antelope Valley and with the Riverhawks this summer.

Burns admits he’s at a loss for words when looking at Atamanchuk’s journey and how he was able to play a part in his recovery.

“I got into this career because I had a shoulder surgery after my college junior year that I couldn’t get back from until five-and-a-half years later,” he said. “I remember that feeling of getting back after all that time and I’m just so happy Shaun got to experience it – but this is just the start for him and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Poapst is equally impressed with what he’s seen out of his fellow Albertan, particularly when it comes to the weight room, practice and recovery work he put in.

“Shaun is great at putting things into perspective from where he was three months ago, or a year ago, compared to now,” he said. “He has an admirable ability to sacrifice in the short-term for the betterment of his career long-term.”

That is exactly the mindset Atamanchuk exudes when asked about what he’s learned about himself over the last three years.

It all starts with his love of the game.

“If I were to take a step back and look at the path I’ve taken, there were countless moments that might have caused anyone else to give up,” he concluded. “But I never once gave a real thought to giving up, because I don’t know what I would do without this game.”

And now hitters will bristle at the thought of once again having to face Atamanchuk from sixty feet away.

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