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The fix-it squad

“We simply would not be competitive without their help and expertise,” says hockey Head Coach George Gwozdecky of DU’s sports medicine staff. Photo: Michael Richmond

“It’s broken.” With those two words, senior hockey forward Connor James was deflated.

Not only was his leg broken with just a few weeks left in the 2003–04 season, but his dream of helping his team win a national championship was shattered.

“It was really a slim chance for him to return,” says Erik Rasmussen, director of DU’s sports medicine department.

But Rasmussen and the sports medicine staff quickly created an aggressive rehab strategy that included a bone stimulator (to speed the growth of new bone). As the days passed, the bone began to heal. And after four-and-a-half weeks, James was back on the ice and even assisted with the winning goal to take the national championship. A dream revived.

Behind all the resounding cheers, the heartfelt accolades and the hoisted trophies of Pioneers athletics is a group of people hidden from the luster of the spotlight. But DU’s athletic trainers are just as critical as a last-second winning goal.

They work in the sports medicine department, deep inside the Ritchie Center, where some might say resides the heartbeat of DU athletics and where student-athletes are prepped to offer their best. Five sports medicine staffers—Rasmussen; Associate Director Julie Campbell and assistant trainers Eric Fry, Nicole Makris and Pat Hoxsey—serve the Pioneers’ 17 sports and approximately 315 student-athletes. (Certified athletic trainers have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, but all five full-time DU trainers hold at least a master’s degree.) In addition, there are two full-time interns who are certified to assist the staff. The department also partners with local physicians, massage therapists and other paraprofessionals.

They can use the help. On any given day during the height of a particular season, as many as 250 student-athletes will seek some form of treatment in the training room.

“It’s not unusual to have 70-hour work weeks during the busy times,” Rasmussen says. “If women’s basketball decides to practice at 5:30 a.m., we’ll have a trainer there.”

The athletic trainers’ “office” is filled with treatment tables, ultrasound machines, a whirlpool, weights, a treadmill and exercise bikes. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the school year.

The first half of a typical day is mostly for rehab. Teams usually practice in the afternoon; student-athletes come in afterwards for more treatment.

When athletic trainers aren’t fixing what’s wrong, they’re working on preventing what can go wrong. The department regularly analyzes injury trends and then develops customized prevention regimens for student-athletes. The most common injuries are to the joints—shoulders, knees and ankles. Concussions also are fairly common.

“We really look at all aspects of an athlete to boost performance: physical, mental, nutrition, strength—it’s all vital,” Rasmussen says.

During the summer, the trainers are intent on improving their craft and immerse themselves in topics that include anatomy, biomechanics, emergency care, nutrition, psychology, pathology and pharmacology, to name a few. They also cover summer and pre-season varsity camps and attend conferences.

While most of the trainers’ work is backstage, coaches notice—and appreciate—their work.

“What they do is absolutely essential; we simply would not be competitive without their help and expertise,” says hockey Head Coach George Gwozdecky. “For much of our season, about 90 percent of our team is hurt in some way, so sports medicine is a must.”

Athletes notice the trainers’ work, too. Connor James hugged Rasmussen after his first game back on the ice.

“That’s why I come to work,” Rasmussen says.

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