Athletes rely on steady support from trainers

In the AFC weight room by the Walker Field House Athletic Training Room, athletes use the exercise machines to assist in rehabilitation with the oversight of the Athletic Training Department. Photo By: Megan Griffiths
In the AFC weight room by the Walker Field House Athletic Training Room, athletes use the exercise machines to assist in rehabilitation with the oversight of the Athletic Training Department. Photo By: Megan Griffiths
In the AFC weight room by the Walker Field House Athletic Training Room, athletes use the exercise machines to assist in rehabilitation with the oversight of the Athletic Training Department. Photo By: Megan Griffiths

Injury is never something any athlete wants during a game or practice, but unfortunately it is a frequently experienced hazard.  Should any athletes find themselves in the hapless position of physical injury requiring treatment, they’ll end up in Vassar’s Athletic Training Department.  It has three full-time staff members and a host of student workers, offering all recognized athletic teams with coverage during, before and after games and practices.

The priority of the Athletic Trainers’ Department is to prevent injury and minimize the risk to Vassar athletes both in games and in practice, but when it is called for, they are there for evaluation, first aid, management and rehabilitation of all injuries. Even the smallest and most obvious-seeming procedures, like drinking water, are monitored by the trainers.  Especially early on in this semester when it’s hot and teams are losing liters of fluids at every practice, it’s important to make sure that everyone’s staying hydrated. To give an idea of how precise the trainers are, teams have to weigh in before and after practice to see how much water they’ve lost. It’s this kind of care that makes Vassar’s athletes extremely appreciative of the effort and thought that the trainers put into their work.

In an emailed response, Suzi Higgins, Director of Sports Medicine, explained why she became an athletic trainer, “I love sports and the mentality of the student-athlete to strive to get better and be their best.” The competitive streak that sports inspire in those individuals who choose to participate is clearly a big draw for Higgins, who’s been an athletic trainer for twenty-three years. Though it should be noted that not everything about the student-athlete is up to Higgins’s rigorously high standards, she writes of Vassar students, “They are the best! Now they just need to do a better job on their paperwork.”

Having to ensure that athletes complete their paperwork is absolutely the worst part of the job for Higgins. One would imagine it to be the sickly sweet smell of protective gear as it’s peeled off sweaty shins and shoulders, or perhaps that special perfume of year old cleats rising slowly but surely from the department floor as a swollen ankle is gingerly (or not so gingerly) treated by one of the attentive athletic staff. For another athletic trainer, Danielle Turner, displeasure is found in other aspects of the job, “No single worst thing—some things are more mundane than others—such as filling water bottles, cleaning etc.”

Josh Bellevance, along with Higgins and Turner, isn’t affected by what one would assume to be the nastier parts of the job. Bellevance shrugs it off in an emailed statement and writes, “Smelly feet, sweat, odd funky smells, open wounds, infections, gnarly general medical conditions—they’re all par for the course and to be expected in this profession.” Though the more seasoned trainers appear to have few qualms with the fouler parts of the human body, junior and Student Worker Lucy Brainerd said that the smell is one of the worst parts of the job: “The worst is when guys who have gross feet come in and want their ankles taped.”

While paperwork may occupy the hallowed place of most despised work-related tasks, the most satisfying part for all three athletic trainers is seeing an athlete recover and take to the field again.  Higgins writes, “I really enjoy being part of a big win and get a rush from being able to get an injured athlete back in the game right away and then seeing the team win.” Turner, too, says the most rewarding part of the job is “seeing a person through initial injury, their entire rehabilitation and then being successful once back playing his or her sport.” There can be no greater reward for an athletic trainer’s work than the success of their athletes upon returning to the field.

The trainers have more riding on the line then just their own satisfaction with their athletes getting back to full health. Lucy Brainerd outlined the competition that the trainers have among themselves each semester. Each trainer takes care of specific sports teams, and so monitors how many wins they have, adding up each teams’ record at the end of the season to see which of the trainers has been the most successful by extension.

Sophomore rugby player Mary Margaret McElduff was part of the team that made it to the semi-finals of nationals last year, which must have been a big contribution to one of the trainers’ record books. McElduff suffered from a calf muscle injury last semester and was quick to sing the praises of the athletic trainers, “They were really helpful. They really cared about me, taking good care of my body. They’re really knowledgeable and they’re happy for anyone, even with the slightest injury, to come in because they care so much about us.”

Indeed, some athletes will stay in contact long after graduating, such is the relationship that they have come to have with the Athletic Training Department. Higgins writes of such relationships, “I also really enjoy it when student athletes contact me after they’ve left; most of the time it’s because they are hurt (again)… but I consider it a big compliment that they seek my advice. With today’s technology I’ve been evaluating former athletes through Skype.” Though it’s amusing to wonder at what that evaluation might look like, holding up an apple to judge the severity of swelling around a kneecap, perhaps, it may be touching and also comforting to know that athletes will return to Vassar, even if it is through a screen, to receive advice from our trainers.

The host of student workers that work alongside the trainers helping them in their everyday routines get a lot of hands on experience working with athletes. For most, this is a fantastic opportunity to see what it takes to be in sport’s medicine as many of the students working in the Athletic Trainers’ Department are headed for work in some sector of healthcare. Senior and Student Worker Madison Senior says she “plan[s] on going into physical therapy or sports medicine, so this line of work is really relevant to [her] career aspirations.”

As far as the work itself goes, Senior says there’s never a dull moment, “It’s fun to be in the middle of all the action.” Junior Maggie Shepherd, elaborating on what kind of work has to be done on a day-to-day basis, outlines the mundane but necessary jobs she accomplishes. “In a normal day at the training room, there are a variety of jobs that need to be done, such as wiping down tables frequently, restocking drawers and other tasks that keep the training room clean and organized. First and foremost, though, is assisting the athletic trainers in any way needed, as well as greeting athletes and helping them if we can.” The sort of jobs student workers find themselves doing in relation to athletes are icing, wrapping ankles, wrists etc. and demonstrating rehabilitation exercises. Though these are not the only students receiving guidance from the athletic trainers: Not only does Vassar offer work experience to its own students, but it also has an exchange program with Marist College. Students from Marist come and work in Vassar’s athletic department, gaining invaluable experience that isn’t offered at their institution.

Should athletes ever find themselves in the position of injury, they need not fear.  There is a staff available whose main concern is their recovery and success upon completion of their rehabilitation. Though it’s not an enjoyable experience to be injured, the chance to meet the Athletic Training Department Staff could mean a professional opinion on an injury sustained in a pick-up basketball game after graduation. The consensus among all those who work and are treated there is that it’s an enjoyable, high energy environment, in which the main purpose is to get athletes back on the field and able to compete at their highest level.

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