The challenge for Sanford Health certified athletic trainers starts with being where they need to be. That can involve any number of sports and locations and comes with an assurance of expertise.
Collectively, this team plays an indispensable role in keeping athletes safe. There are 150 athletic trainers employed by Sanford who are a part of an effort that delivers comprehensive care to one athlete at a time. Or one field or one court at a time.
Across the enterprise, certified athletic trainers attend thousands of games and practices a year. Not only is Sanford’s blanket approach to athletes distinctive, so too is its commitment to their welfare.
“There are athletic complexes across the country, but what makes us different is that we run venues owned and operated by a health system,” said Tryg Odney, sports medicine outreach manager for Sanford Health. “Because of that we have a stronger and more keen focus toward athletic safety and the medical services that are available to athletes. There are a lot of places our teams go where there are not athletic trainers on site. It’s something we’ve decided to make a standard at Sanford.”
Recovery from volleyball injury
Emma Van Regenmorter is one of those athletes benefiting from those standards.
The junior at Baltic High School loves volleyball, wants to play it in college, and is doing all she can to make that happen. When a troublesome stress fracture got in the way of that, however, she needed help in charting a path that would lead to efficient and complete healing.
Athletes recovering from injuries need to know that they’ll be fully capable of doing things the way they did before they were injured. Doubt is an enemy of that process. For Van Regenmorter, conversations with the training staff helped alleviate those doubts.
“My Sanford athletic trainers weren’t like ‘Oh, this is just another injury,’” Van Regenmorter said. “They want to do what is best for you. They want to accommodate your needs. I really liked that.”
Van Regenmorter’s injury, a stress fracture of her tibia, was a dull pain in her leg that affected how high she could jump and how fast she could run. Her full potential – always the target for a dedicated athlete – wasn’t going to happen unless she got rid of the pain.
In her sessions with Sanford athletic trainers, she learned to be consistent with her self-care while also gaining insight into the specifics of her injury. Thanks to her dedication and their assistance, she’s back on track.
“They have helped me a lot,” she said. “I’m still doing the exercises they explained to me. What’s really great is that I can go 100% and I won’t feel like I have anything holding me back.”
Partners in the healing process
Van Regenmorter’s experience represents just one young athlete’s recovery within a system that provides care for many athletes throughout the region. Athletic trainers are often the first on the scene when athletes suffer injuries competing. They then often become partners in the healing process.
“Everything we do, we do with the athletes’ best intentions in mind,” said Braxton Smith, a certified athletic trainer at the Sanford Sports Complex. “We’re all trying to get kids healthy again. It can be difficult when athletes come to you thinking, ‘Well, the first thing he’s going to do is pull me from competition.’ But that’s not necessarily true. I would much rather see athletes on the field playing their sport than see them showing up at my office to do rehab.”
Smith, an Augustana University graduate, has been an athletic trainer at Sanford since 2015. He has worked with athletes of all ages in that time in just about every sport imaginable. Patients range from a toddler who fell off playground equipment while Smith was at a junior football game to athletes headed to the professional ranks.
“I’ve had a unique chance to work with a wide variety of people,” Smith said. “Officially, I only work with athletes but sometimes you run into situations where you’re the only one there and people ask you to help out.”
The impact of COVID-19 on the role of an athletic trainer has been impossible to dismiss the last two years. Just as it became a factor in the lives of athletes, particularly young athletes, so too did it work its way back to people like Smith.
“One of the big things during COVID-19 has been mental health issues for youth,” Smith said. “Sometimes when kids come in you’ll hear ‘I’m feeling down and I don’t know why.’
“It could be something besides being tired. Something new for the young athletes is that they’re hearing about pro athletes dealing with mental health issues. I couldn’t feel better about that – it trickles down to our young athletes and they realize it’s OK to admit you might need some help.”
Safe place to practice
Sanford’s athletic trainers aim at delivering quiet victories day after day. Safety can be taken for granted at times, but it’s a significant part of training and competing at Sanford POWER locations and for Sanford-affiliated sports programs.
“It’s a great luxury for us to have athletic trainers around us on a daily basis,” said Mark McCloskey, director of the Sanford POWER Volleyball Academy. “The teams coming in, from a tournament perspective, are also lucky to have it. You don’t see that at every tournament you go to, large or small. But here, it’s part of our kids’ everyday lives.”
The benefits of that kind of comprehensive care extend to parents and coaches. They’re not in the thick of it like the kids. But they can be part of the experience knowing a distinctive set of precautions is a priority.
“It gives us peace of mind knowing it’s not something as coaches that we’re going to have to deal with too often,” McCloskey said. “We’re not going to have to come up with medical diagnoses on our own. When athletes are dealing with strains and bumps and bruises, they have athletic trainers here for them who they can trust.”
Athletic trainers often do their own coaching. Rehab can sometimes become a grind for athletes. Getting back to full speed demands effort that only the athletes themselves can supply, but that doesn’t mean they’re all alone.
“Often we can compare a kid’s injury to a pro athlete who had the same injury,” Smith said. “We can say, ‘Look at how well he came back. It’s just going to take some work on your part.’ We have a lot of different ways to break up the monotony of their rehab and the transition back to their sport.”
Accidents can happen in sports but it’s not an accident when athletes like Van Regenmorter make graceful returns to all the things they want to be doing.
“All our athletic trainers are board-certified, just like our doctors,” Odney said. “They’ve all gone through the proper education and certification. On the hiring side, we want to make sure we’re very thorough. That has certainly helped us. We’ve been really fortunate to have outstanding staff here at the Sports Complex who really understand the kind of services we’re trying to provide.”
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