Athletic Trainers in Training
By Robery McKinney
For many Willamette students, a campus job is a rite of passage. Some restack books at the library; others scan packages at the mail room or craft admission mailers. There’s also an especially hands-on group of students who roam the sidelines at athletic events, coming to the aid of any athlete making an unplanned stop there.
Willamette competes in 20 intercollegiate sports and enrolls nearly 500 student athletes, so there are plenty of opportunities for student athletic trainers. Full-time professional athletic trainers help students gain experience before sending many into careers in health-related professions.
The work has been a great learning experience for Tannin Kueffner ’13 and Michaela Freeby ’15, two athletes-turned-trainers who can easily relate to the ones they help. Kueffner played soccer at WU for two years and Freeby is still a member of the cross country and track and field teams.
“During my second year, I had a knee injury and spent my whole season in the training room doing rehabilitation,” Kueffner says. “After deciding I didn’t want to risk re-injury, I thought the next best thing for me would be to help others to follow their athletic pursuits.”
Freeby, while still competing, has a similar outlook. “I helped out in the training room at my high school and have always found sports medicine very interesting,” she says. “I still love working with the trainers and learning everything that I can — it is rewarding to help people and see athletes improve and come back from their injuries.”
Student trainers are mentored by head athletic trainer Shane Wibel and his full-time staff. His team maintains close ties with Silverton Hospital and PT Northwest to provide a complete sports medicine program. “We students learn about everything in the training room, from taping to using the electronic stimulation and ultrasound machines,” Freeby says.
They also learn to look ahead. Kueffner, for instance, made health-related career plans long before graduating.
“I hope to attend medical school and become a sports orthopedist,” she says. “My work in the training room has exposed me to the entire injury process, from onset of symptoms to the return to competition — including all the physiological and emotional changes that an athlete undergoes.”
Freeby has focused on gaining applicable knowledge. “I’m not sure what my career plans are,” the sophomore says, “but for the meantime, it is great to have a job that I enjoy and am continuously learning and working to improve.”
The Bearcat softball players feel like they’re part of a family, and that’s by design. Head Coach Damian Williams has taught the team to be this way throughout his 14 seasons at Willamette. His players have responded to the concept of unity and made it work consistently over time.
Many student trainers find their experiences provide a foundation for successful careers in the health sciences. Numerous alumni, including Marcey Keefer Hutchison ’88 and Emily (Vracin) Kosderka ’96, trace their careers to their time in the training room at Willamette.
Hutchison holds a doctorate in physical therapy and is an assistant professor at George Fox University. She was a student athletic trainer at Willamette from 1985–88, and owned a private physical therapy practice for more than 14 years.
She worked with Russ Cagle during his first few years with the Bearcats. Cagle was hired as head athletic trainer in 1985 and led the training room until Deborah Cagle took over in 1999. Wibel was hired in 2002 and became head athletic trainer in 2006.
“My experience in the training room and on the field provided me with hands-on skills and confidence in myself as a provider,” Hutchison says. “The opportunity to have actually touched and cared for an injured person was extremely valuable when I began working with patients.”
She also remembers developing communication skills as a student trainer by discussing injuries with team physicians.
Kosderka, a certified athletic trainer, is the head athletic trainer at Concordia University in Portland. She was a student athletic trainer at Willamette from 1993–97.
“We spent a lot of time taping, learning about using treatment modalities such as ultrasound and electric stimulation, and improving our orthopedic evaluation skills,” she says. As a student, she worked extensively with football and men’s basketball, including several NAIA tournament games.
“I’m extremely blessed to have had such incredible people willing to invest their time and energies in me, and it is largely because of them that I have enjoyed the career I have,” Kosderka says. “At Willamette I fell in love with athletic training. I can remember watching [professor of exercise science] Peter Harmer working with injured athletes and thinking I wanted to be able to connect with them just like he did.”
Today, athletic training at Willamette is a bit different than it was when Russ Cagle was in charge.
“When I began, the McCulloch Stadium training room was small: two tables, a poorly working ice machine. Foodservice trays held our taping supplies,” Cagle says. “The Sparks training center had one table and a whirlpool.”
Over the years, the program has benefited from improved facilities, durable equipment, a significant increase in supplies, and increased staff. “The addition of the third full-time athletic training position was huge,” Wibel says. “More recently, the partnership with PT Northwest [providing a fourth trainer, part-time] and the partnership with Silverton Hospital have been really great.”
Soon, the sports medicine center will be expanded and improved further as part of the Sparks Athletic Center renovation project. Recent giving to the project has included an anonymous $3 million matching gift by an alumni family. More information regarding the Sparks Athletics Center renocation can be seen at athletics/facilities/spark_renovation .
What won’t change, however, is that student athletic trainers will be a key part of the athletic training program.
“Their value is immeasurable,” Wibel says. “We couldn’t continue providing a high level of care without them.”
Some student trainers will enter health professions and some will surely work in other fields. But they all remain part of a great tradition of student involvement in athletic training at Willamette.
For complete news coverage, remember to check willamette.edu/athletics.