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A thank-you note to athletic trainers

Athletic Trainer Nina Walker cheering on the gymnastics team.
UNC Athletics
Athletic Trainer Nina Walker cheering on the gymnastics team.

The importance of athletic trainers - the first-on-the-scene medical personnel who tend to athletes from high school to the professional level - has never been more obvious.

Earlier this year, athletic trainers saved the life of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin when he went into cardiac arrest on the field. And while March marked Women’s History Month, it also celebrated National Athletic Training Month, and there are some incredible women who embody both.

Teams like North Carolina Wesleyan University's men's basketball team and UNC-Chapel Hill’s women's basketball team completed their season after powering through the NCAA tournament. I caught up with a few of the athletic trainers who work for the various teams that have cheered them on.

Alyssa Hammock is an athletic trainer at NC Wesleyan and is the only woman on staff.

“The coolest thing about being an athletic trainer over the past four years is I've seen a whole freshman class come in and go all the way through graduation this year," she said. Hammock works alongside Head Athletic Trainer Tim Donovan; they played an integral role in the men's basketball team’s championship-winning season.

The demographic of certified athletic trainers in the United States is 58% female and 42% male. Hammock has been an athletic trainer full time for four years and reflects on the growth she’s seen since college.

“I will say that, interestingly, athletic training … used to be more male-dominant," she said. "And over the last, I would estimate like eight to 10 years, it's actually shifted to be more female dominant. My graduating class from undergrad was 11 females and four males. My masters graduating class was actually nine females - and that was the whole class.”

Athletic Trainer Alyssa Hammock assisting women’s lacrosse player.
Carl Lewis
Athletic Trainer Alyssa Hammock assisting women’s lacrosse player.

Even with that growth, not all schools have athletic trainers. Former Wesleyan athletic trainer and current Head Athletic Trainer at Lake Taylor High School Kelly Bly pointed out the stark contrast between working in collegiate versus high school sports.

“My high school didn't have an athletic trainer. Right now, I am the only athletic trainer at my individual school,” Bly says. "That's one of the biggest things is getting more access to athletic trainers, helping to increase that exposure so people understand the value that we can provide.”

On a typical day, Bly and Hammock are juggling multiple athletes, multiple sports, games, and practices, all to keep everyone safe. At any given time they help the prevention of injuries and save lives for athletes and patients. Between creating treatment plans, completing paperwork, and being on call for patients for almost 24-hrs a day, it is a full-time job.

Kelly Bly and others practiced CPR as a response to the Damar Hamlin incident.
Saundra Sawyer
Kelly Bly and others practiced CPR as a response to the Damar Hamlin incident.

For a job that requires maximum effort all of the time, burnout is a real possibility. Bly talks about how she works to avoid that: “I think the biggest thing is, is learning your own limits. And it's very easy to say, [but] it's harder to practice and do it. When you are younger, you're gung-ho and you don't want to come off as lazy or trying not to work,” Bly explained. “But you have to kind of try to set some level of boundaries for yourself; doesn't matter what they are because if I'm burned out, I can't be my best capable self.”

The stress of the job has athletic trainers like Nina Walker calling for an increase and improvement in the benefits and compensation of the job.

Walker has worked in athletic training for more than 17 years. She currently holds the title of an associate head athletic trainer at UNC-Chapel Hill, athletic trainer for women's gymnastics, and president of the North Carolina Athletic Trainers Association. For her, retention is an area she would like more athletic training programs schools to focus on.

“I always say, people want concierge medicine for bargain basement prices, right? If you had a physician on call for every single month of your life would be like a million dollars a year,” she says. ”But the expectation for an athletic trainer to be available whenever you need it, change practice, call in the middle of the night, illness, everything. And average salaries are the 40s or 50s.”

The field is changing slowly as the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of jobs in this field to increase by 23% by 2030. Still, in the professional ranks of athletic training, 32% are women and 68% are men. Even getting your foot in the door is an obstacle for a lot of aspiring athletic trainers. Walker reminisced on her struggle to work in professional sports.

“When I was in college … I tried to get this minority scholarship, where students are able to go and intern with professional teams. And I had amazing grades, I had all the recommendations and everything. And I actually got a phone call from one of the gentlemen and he said, ‘Yeah you would be amazing here. But because of the administration and the general manager, [and] because you're female, we can't have you here.’ Now, mind you, it was ... 30-plus years ago, but that message was still out there until probably about 10 years ago, for women.”

As the field grows, Walker is grateful for the change. “There are not a lot of Black women holding administrative roles,” she says.

Just 9.5% of Certified Athletic Trainers are Black or African American.Walker says she knows a lot of Black women in administrative athletic trainer positions at Power Five schools who are breaking down race and gender barriers in their respective departments.

“Georgia Tech has a female - Carla Gilson - who is the head Athletic Director of Sports Medicine there. So it's like, we're starting to kind of, once again, move into those spaces. … At UNC, ... I think I was the first black person on staff. And then with that, obviously, with men's lacrosse, I was the first black person and first female athletic trainer. And so those opportunities have been great, because I think as Black women, we can now try to hold the door open for you know, our sisters later.”

Athletic trainers like Walker hope that conversations like these will spark an increase in appreciation for their field in more ways than one. “I think recognition and appreciation of what we do would make a big difference. That appreciation recognition does not have to be huge, even something as simple as like, a ‘Thank you,’ ... That's huge from coaches … from administrative staff” says Hammock.

Caitlin Leggett was WUNC's News Administrative Intern & Youth Reporting Mentor.
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