After career-threatening injury, UTRGV’s Magallon goes from walk-on to NCAA qualifier

EDINBURG — Anthony Magallon said he looked like a “shot dog” during his first warmup laps as a freshman walk-on at UTRGV in 2016.

After three surgeries for injuries to his ankle, leg and back, Magallon could barely move for more than a year. He joined the track team at UTRGV for the chance to be a part of something, he said, but he couldn’t fully extend his leg during his first practices, and his back and core muscles were extremely weak.

“Everyone was like, ‘What is that guy doing on the team?’” Magallon said. “I was super uncoordinated, because I hadn’t done anything for a year.”

Magallon, a La Joya Palmview grad, said his recovery process was lengthy and challenging, but he managed to crack the travel team as a freshman.

Now a junior, Magallon won a WAC indoor championship in the high jump this year and became one of just two UTRGV athletes to qualify for the NCAA Championships West Preliminary Round. He will compete in the first round of the high jump at 6 p.m. Saturday on the campus of Sacramento State University.

“I had a lot of people — doctors, trainers — telling me this was the end,” Magallon said of the time following his injury. “There’s no way I can go Division I after this, because of how bad everything was. I was going to start from ground zero, and I was going to have a year of recovery time. No lifting. No running. So it really kind of put a damper on my spirits, but that’s what fed me to come back, walk on to the team, and do better.”

Magallon was playing basketball for the Palmview Lobos high school team when a player fell on his leg. He broke his fibula and ripped apart the tendons in his ankle. He had surgery to insert screws in his ankle, leaving him on crutches for about six months and in a medical boot for another two months after that.

When he started walking again, he quickly discovered that he was unable to stand up straight, suffering a herniated disk in his back after months of leaning on crutches. Back surgery put him out of action for about another six months. He couldn’t even sit for part of that period, having to either stand upright or lay flat on his back.

“It was definitely tough,” Magallon said. “But after a year of laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about what you could’ve done better, how you could’ve been better, and how you could’ve changed things to be different, it definitely fuels you for a very long time.”

Magallon said he trained with UTRGV for about five months before he started keeping up with his teammates in workouts. Even then, he still hadn’t returned to weight lifting.

In December, UTRGV’s athletes began to compete to see who would qualify for the travel squad.

“I remember giving it my all out, just thinking, ‘I have to run,’” Magallon said. “I can’t really think about my injuries and what has been holding me back. After that practice, coach came up to me and said, ‘You’re beating kids out here six months after your injury. You’re on the travel squad. You earned it.’ That was kind of the turning point.”

Magallon began to compete on a partial scholarship as a sophomore, but his junior year brought a fresh set of challenges with a new coaching staff.

New assistant coach Taylor Cipicchio said Magallon entered the fall “unknowledgeable of the event,” so she restructured his form. The biggest change, she said, was teaching him how to jump off the ground correctly by keeping him from arching his back too early.

“Neither of us had high expectations for the year,” Cipicchio said. “We just wanted to really tear down his jump completely and build it all the way from the bottom. We started basically from ground zero.”

Cipicchio credited Magallon’s quick improvement to his work ethic. She said she often has to dial him back in training to ensure he’s getting adequate rest and recovery time.

He won the WAC indoor title with a jump of 2.06 meters, then set a new career best at the UTSA Invitational in March, clearing 2.10 to tie for the third-best mark in program history.

“The steps that he’s taken to get to this level have just been tremendous,” UTRGV head coach Darren Flowers said. “For him to go indoors and win the WAC title in the high jump was a shock to all of us. But maybe not a shock to him. He’s just putting in a lot of good, hard work, and he’s a great representative of the university and our program.”

Cipicchio said the level of competition was a major factor pushing Magallon to his best jump at UTSA. She believes the talent at the NCAA regional meet could have the same impact. If nothing else, the experience is expected to help Magallon as he looks toward his senior season next year.

He is seeded 46th out of 48 competitors, with the top 12 advancing to the finals on June 8 in Eugene, Oregon.

“It really elevates my level of performance,” Magallon said of the competition. “Jumping against the best of the best is going to one day make me the best of the best. So I’m really excited for the opportunity I’ve been given.”