Windermere High School has found a new athletic director in a familiar face — athletic trainer Jillian Sutton, who has been there since it opened in 2017.
“I think transitioning from the athletic department to athletic director, I have really strong relationships with the administration, the coaches and the students, their families and the community,” she said. “It’s nice for them to have a familiar face. No one likes change, so maybe when they see someone they already have that relationship with, it’ll be a little bit comforting.”
BECOMING AN ATHLETIC TRAINER
Sutton, 30, graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor in athletic training in 2015 and then attended the University of South Florida for a master’s degree in pediatric sports medicine — which she earned online while working part-time as an athletic trainer at Rollins College.
“I thought that was really cool because I, predominantly, only had collegiate experience,” she said. “I worked with the UCF baseball team for two seasons when I was finishing my (bachelor’s) degree, and then I was working at Rollins, so I was like, ‘If I ever end up in a high school, this pediatric-focused degree would be really beneficial to kind of make me well-rounded.’”
When Windermere High was still in construction, Sutton heard from the position through the current department chair at UCF at the time.
“It was so fast,” she said. “Next thing I know, I was here teaching anatomy full-time and (was) one of the two athletic trainers to open the school. … The biggest difference when people ask me between collegiate and high school athletic training is parents. Of course, we don’t talk to parents at the collegiate setting (because) we can’t. We are legally not allowed to unless we’re given consent. So that’s probably the biggest challenge as athletic trainers — communication is our key skill that we have to utilize every day.”
Sutton discovered her love for athletic training early in life, when she was still in high school. She attended Lake Highland Preparatory School, where she played lacrosse and basketball, and also did a little of weightlifting.
“I started having hip pain from playing lacrosse,” she said. “I was probably a freshman at the time. The doctors just kept saying I was growing. … (That was when) the athletic trainer at the time … Gina Martin (helped me with my hip problem), and she had opened the sports medicine department at Lake Highland back when athletic training in high school was not a common thing — we are talking 2006, 2007.
“In the fall, I had a lot of rough personal family life stuff going on at home, and I was one of those kids, those stories you hear, it was more pleasant to be at school,” Sutton said. “And I just wouldn’t go home, and I’d hang out with her. She was just like a mentor. She let me talk about my family stuff, friend drama, anything like that.”
During those talks, Martin taught Sutton how to tape an ankle, and Sutton became involved in the athletic department at her alma mater. However, not long after that, Martin was diagnosed with leukemia and died a short time later.
“It sounds cliche or like a movie, but I swear when I visited the hospital, I actually have an email from her and the last thing I said was, ‘I’m going to be just like you, and I’m going to be an athletic trainer,’” Sutton said.
FROM TRAINER TO DIRECTOR
This was not the first time she was offered the position. Sutton first was approached by prior Athletic Director Russell Williams back in August 2022.
“I think a huge aspect we had to consider was the vacancy I would create, because with any internal candidate, you are creating a vacancy,” Sutton said. “We like internal candidates because they know the students, they know the staff, they know the school. But with that, it comes with a vacancy and athletic trainers, there are not many of us. Unfortunately, the attrition rate is low because a lot of them leave the profession for a number of reasons, and I didn’t feel confident for the students’ safety and … leaving a void there.”
The same week that conversation took place — the first week of school for the 2022-23 academic year — Windermere High mourned the death of student-athlete Jaiden Simmons.
“We’ve had our fair share of loss at Windermere … but that one hit me different,” Sutton said. “I had seen her 12 hours prior, on the first day of school, but it was interesting, almost like a sign — her or the students were telling me, ‘Not yet.’ That’s the only way I can describe it. … All I could say was the kids needed me to be their athletic trainer.”
But, when asked again at the end of the academic year, that no became a yes.
“I’d only do it for Windermere; it’s not like I wanted to be an athletic director,” Sutton said.
One of the advantages Sutton brings with her into the athletic director position is her knowledge of policy and procedure: being familiar with FHSAA Athletic guidelines and Orange County Athletics guidelines as well provides Sutton with an advantage when stepping into the shoes as the new athletic director for the Wolverines.
“That is your foundation (in public education),” she said. “You build everything on policy and procedure, and I think knowing it like the back of your hand is just super important when utilizing your resources. If you don’t know an answer, (it’s) knowing where to look and not stopping until you have an answer.”
One of Sutton’s goals for the athletic program at Windermere High is to let the program set down its roots.
“I still feel like we are the baby,” she said. “We are so new, and I really just want to build those roots and let them grow up and be able to grow. In the short two weeks I’ve officially been doing this, my biggest thing has just been advocating for the coaches.”
Sutton hopes that through observation and communication, she will be able to help coaches find solutions to wherever it may be they are struggling, as well as help her student-athletes reach their full potential.
“We have an incredibly talented group of student-athletes here,” she said. “I just want to give them all the possible tools that they need or can utilize to reach their maximum potential, I don’t want them to leave here with any potential unused or unmapped. … I want to make sure I do absolutely everything I can to make the coaches and students successful.”
One of the biggest changes Sutton hopes to implementing is the Captains’ Council.
“I want to take the captain or leaders of every team — maybe two or probably a number, depending on the size of the roster — and call it like a club, but they would be nominated by their coaches,” she said. “My plan is to have them meet with me once a month and help build strong cross-sport relationships. … I want them to think of philanthropy, charity ideas. … I think we are really great at connecting within each individual team, and I think our coaches build great strong bonds and families within their team. I would like to take those and bring them together and really just be one athletic department and one athletic program.”
All in all, Sutton is excited to embark in this new journey and looking forward to leading the Windermere Wolverines this upcoming season.
“I’m really excited, I’m just learning what it all entails,” she said. “I feel really good about this year, … the senior class is insane.”