Behind-the-scenes work of athletic trainers — unsung heroes of high-school sports — proves crucial | Observer Preps

March is National Athletic Training Month, providing an opportunity to recognized the hard-working professional who keep high-school athletes in West and Southwest Orange safe.

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  • | 12:10 p.m. March 29, 2018
Ocoee High athletic trainer Nikki Reis ices the arm of Knights baseball player Peyton Butler.
Ocoee High athletic trainer Nikki Reis ices the arm of Knights baseball player Peyton Butler.
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Athletic trainers spend the majority of their time working in the background.

They’re on the sidelines during practices and games. They are on location hours before a high-school sports game for setup and are often among the last — if not the last — people to leave afterward.

They’re not intended to be the center of attention, nor do they want to be.

But then there are the moments when a large “oh” from the crowd is followed by silence, when play has stopped and there is a student-athlete on the ground in pain — and, suddenly, everyone is looking very intently at the athletic trainer.

Olympia High athletic trainer Barry Walters tapes an ankle for a student-athlete after school March 14.
Olympia High athletic trainer Barry Walters tapes an ankle for a student-athlete after school March 14.

It’s a moment that local trainers from schools in West and Southwest Orange County know well and have all experienced. And while each has his or her own unique explanation of what comes over them during those moments, the essence is the same: there is a laser-focus on athlete.

“For me, personally, I go into tunnel-vision,” Foundation Academy's Ranil Sirigampola said. “I’m reacting from my experience and what I’ve learned and I’m making the best decision at the time. … I don’t really hear anything else.”

“The one thing they teach you in school is you never want to feel rushed,” explained Jillian Sutton, an athletic trainer at Windermere High. “Your main priority is the athlete.”

Outside of these moments, athletic trainers operate relatively as unsung heroes of the high-school sports community.

Each March presents an opportunity to disrupt that, though, with National Athletic Training Month. Sponsored by the National Association of Athletic Trainers, the effort is geared toward awareness about the important work of athletic trainers and the 2018 slogan is “Compassionate care for all.”


Emphasis on ‘athletic’

For local athletic trainers, the hope is to spread the awareness that they are athletic trainers — not personal trainers or sports-specific trainers.

“I think a lot of times people think ‘athletic trainers’ and we’re commonly mistaken for personal trainers — or that we are just the people who get ice,” said Ocoee High's Nikki. “We, as a profession, are trying to make it known that we are healthcare professionals. … So, National Athletic Training Month kind of gives us that push. We’re not ‘trainers.’ We’re constantly correcting people — ‘athletic trainers.’”

Indeed, Matthew Laws — who is the head athletic trainer at West Orange along with Jennifer Laws, his wife — says many people do not realize that athletic trainers are licensed and certified health professionals, recognized by the Florida Department of Health.

“We have a lot of responsibility on our hands — we’re first responders,” Laws said. “We see injuries at their worst and we have to react to them. … We make split-second decisions that, in some cases, may be life-impacting, as well.”

Athletic trainers also have to have strong communication skills, being able to talk to the injured athletes and walk him or her through what’s happening — as well as being able to talk to the athlete’s coach and parents.

“You have to be able to talk the parents down,” Ellis said. 

Beyond responding to injuries during competition, what goes unseen is the work athletic trainers do on a day-to-day basis: helping athletes rehab and return to the field. Most days after school, the athletic trainers’ office can be a busy place — and the services offered to the student-athletes are rather impressive.

“Something that, if you went through your insurance company would cost $50 an hour, we offer it to our athletes here,” said Barry Walters, the head athletic trainer at Olympia High.

Spreading knowledge

For athletic trainers who are full-time staff members at their schools, there are additional responsibilities, as well.

Most Orange County Public Schools high schools have dedicated athletic trainers — in addition to other contracted athletic trainers, usually through CORA Physical Therapy — and those staffers often are asked to teach related courses during the school day.

For someone who chose the career based on the desire to do the work out in the field, working additionally in the classroom may require a bit of a learning curve, but it’s something many athletic trainers say they find rewarding.

“The first semester was interesting,” said Jennifer Ovando, an athletic trainer at Windermere High. “I’ve only been teaching since August and it’s different. This semester has been much easier.”

Eventually, teaching can become something athletic trainers enjoy nearly as much as their work in the field.

“It’s actually turned out to be something I thoroughly enjoy — getting to know the kids and getting to impact kids’ lives in that way,” Laws said.

Of course, whether they are in the classroom or taping a player’s ankle before a big game, athletic trainers say they are constantly looking to impart knowledge along the way.

“A lot of injuries can be prevented — that’s the main thing that athletic trainers do is the injury-prevention aspect,” Reis said. “So, at all times, we are educating … so we can hopefully prevent those injuries from occurring.”

Many public high schools also have programs for student athletic trainers. In fact, later this month there will be a student athletic training Olympics competition at Showalter Field in Winter Park.

For staff athletic trainers such as Reis and Ocoee’s other full-time athletic trainer, Coryn Novak, having a million things to do can become a little easier with help of the student athletic trainers.

“They are our go-to’s — they’re out there just as often as we are,” Reis said.


Labor of love

The hours can be long as an athletic trainer.

“For us, spring is the busiest season,” said Trey Tyler, an athletic trainer for The First Academy. “I’m married, and often my wife wonders if we’re still married.”

Professionals who gravitate toward athletic training tend to do so because of a core interest in combining a passion for medicine and a passion for sports. That said, it is important that athletic trainers learn as much as they can about all of the varsity sports offered at their school to best do their job.

“It helps a lot to know as much of the sport as you can,” Sirigampola said. “Then you can get on their level, talk their vernacular, as well as understand what kind of stresses they’re put under.”

Athletic trainers at local schools are also cognizant that their student-athletes are watching and that they, themselves, may end up being the inspiration for the next generation of athletic trainers. Several say they have had former students go on to pursue the field in college, and a common origin story for most athletic trainers is looking up to an athletic trainer when they were in high school

“I kept hanging out in the athletic training office — I was one of the annoying kids who never went home,” Sutton recalled. “My athletic trainer became a mentor to me and she kind of was like ‘if you’re going to be here everyday, you’re going to help me.’”

And, at the end of the day, athletic trainers are as much a part of the teams as the coaches or players. Especially for those who are tied mainly to one school, the investment in those teams’ success becomes another perk of the work.

“I get thoroughly invested,” Laws said. “I get invested in what these kids do because they enjoy doing it and I see how much enjoyment they get out of it. Me being part of that, I get highly involved.”


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