For the first time in a long time, Nicole Edelman has some bounce in her step.
Offseason back surgery has taken pain away from the junior, and the Colorado Buffaloes' starting setter is eagerly awaiting the start of the volleyball season next month.
"Last year we kind of proved a point to everyone," Edelman said. "Now it's, 'Can we keep going with that?' "
The 2013 season was a pivotal one for the Buffs, who had a winning record (18-14) and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
For Edelman, however, the season was a constant battle with a bulging disc in her back. She injured her back after her junior year at Fairview High School and had to skip her senior year with the Knights. A series of injections of pain medication "got me through" a couple of years, she said.
The pain intensified last season, though, to the point that the nerves in her right leg would flare up during matches, causing her leg to go numb. Longer matches were especially difficult for Edelman, who still played 113 of 119 sets.
"She was really struggling," CU head coach Liz Kritza said.
Off the court, Edelman had grown used to compensating for her back. She walked differently, by keeping her right leg fairly straight and swinging it to the front. She sat differently, turning the side. Driving, sleeping, going to school and other daily activities were all impacted.
In December, however, Edelman and her family made the decision for her to go through a microdiscectomy, which is a surgery that shaves some of the bone to relieve pressure on the nerve.
"It's been a life-changing experience for me," Edelman said.
Following the surgery, she was inactive throughout the spring but got back on the court in May.
"We're playing every day, a couple hours every day," said Edelman, who has been a team captain since her freshman year. "I'm testing out the limits, seeing what I can and can't do already. By season, I'll be 100 percent for sure.
"I've been trying to come back and I feel really, really good physically. Next season should be a lot easier for me mentally to deal with playing volleyball and as a captain trying to help everyone out with their mental focus."
Edelman's mental focus seems to be as sharp as ever.
Because of her recovery, she elected to skip an opportunity to play in China in June. This is the first summer since her sophomore year at Fairview, she said, that she hasn't competed in tournaments and/or camps.
"It's been more of a laid back summer, but I really needed that," she said. "Physically, my body just needed a break."
While Edelman has had a break, Kritza said there's a noticeable difference lately.
"I think every day she shows something new as far as progress and physical improvement," Kritza said. "She's wanting to be the best she can be so her team can win. In a leadership role, I couldn't ask for more from a player that's trying to come back."
Edelman is still being cautious, but said she feels stronger and healthier than at any point since before the injury occurred. Kritza is one of the few people at CU who remembers seeing Edelman pre-injury, and she can't wait to see her star setter this year.
"I don't think, by any means, there will be some magic and everything will be perfect," Kritza said, "but I'm excited that she'll be able to play and push herself and challenge herself and not have to experience the pain she was having before."
Edelman is excited, too. She and her teammates view last year's breakthrough season as a stepping stone, and she can't wait to take that next step with them.