By Larry Cooper
Larry Cooper, MS, LAT, ATC, is Head Athletic Trainer at Penn-Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pa., where he also teaches health, physical education, and sports medicine classes. Since 2012, he has served as Chair of the NATA Secondary School Athletic Trainers’ Committee. Winner of a 2016 NATA Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award, he received a NATA Athletic Training Service Award in 2014 and was inducted into the Pennsylvana Athletic Trainers' Society's Hall of Fame that same year. Cooper can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I love a challenge just as much as the next person. As a matter of fact, depending on the day, week, or season, it can be a welcome break from the ordinary. You could actually say that, as athletic trainers, we are challenged on a daily basis, more some days than others.
When you think of a challenging injury and the rehabilitation process, everyone usually thinks about a surgery gone wrong, complications following surgery, or a reinjury from returning to activity too soon. My take on a difficult rehab takes a twist, albeit a very positive one.
A few years ago, I was tasked with taking over the recovery of a female cross country runner who had suffered a significant stress fracture in her leg. This is a pretty mundane task for athletic trainers—we do this every day for many of our student-athletes. I knew the athlete from her involvement in multiple sports and other family members of hers who had been athletes. She was also a twin, which usually isn’t that important, but played a significant factor a little later in the process.
Here’s some background information needed to understand the athlete’s injury: The stress fracture came about because of her doing two-a-day runs. These weren’t the normal high school-aged running loads of three to five miles per session—these were seven to nine miles each workout and at a high intensity.
The athlete’s treating physician was someone who I had a very close working relationship with and who completely understood the skill set of an athletic trainer. He gave me control of the rehabilitation program and just asked that I contact him if there were any changes in the athlete’s status. This itself was both a blessing and a curse.
For the rehab, I wanted to start working her out in the pool with some deep end running to maintain her cardiovascular endurance. Having done some aquatic therapy before, I had a few workouts already cataloged. They included sprints with a set recovery time, long slow distance, sprints with reduced exertion recovery, pyramid sprints, and reverse pyramid sprints.
From day one, I knew that I was dealing with a special athlete. Each day rehabbing in the swimming pool was this girl’s “practice,” and that is how she approached it. She wasn’t using this time with me as a means to just recover—she was using this time as a means to get better. It didn’t matter what I prepared for the athlete’s workout, she wanted more. If I gave her a hard workout and she tackled it and didn’t have any change in her status, it just fueled her desire even more.
It took all of my exercise physiology knowledge, marathon training workouts, and more to keep her happy. She tested my knowledge as a clinician, physical education instructor, and fitness fanatic each and every day because the more I put her through, the more she wanted. We had to keep in mind the goal—to recover and return her to the sport that she loved. But it soon became clear that wasn’t all she had in mind.
Back to her being a twin. The athlete’s twin sister also ran cross country and was having a pretty good year. It was the first time that the athlete’s sister had beaten her, even though she technically wasn’t running. That was the way she looked at her sister’s success. Being a twin made things a little more difficult, and I understood that.
The athlete spent the entire season with me working out in the pool and returned to land workouts a few days before the district qualifiers. At this event, she placed in the top 15, which allowed her to compete at the regional meet where she placed third. She ultimately qualified for the state meet, where she placed 10th. The athlete went on to have tremendous success at the college level in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter, placing first once, gaining All-American status 14 times, and qualifying for the Olympics in the marathon.
This situation helped me expand my rehabilitation skills and allowed me to work with a very motivated young lady. Though it was a difficult rehabilitation program, I consider it a positive experience and one that I will cherish forever.