May 28, 20202020 High School Athletic Trainer of the Year — Ashley Jenkins
Walking through the hallways of University City High School, in University City, Missouri, it’s not uncommon to hear students referring to the Lions’ athletic trainer by one of her various nicknames.
“Hey A-Jacks!” “How are ya, Apple Jacks?” “See ya later, Ms. AJ!”
In her three years serving as UCity’s athletic trainer, Ashley “AJ” Jenkins hasn’t just taped up ankles and stretched out tight hamstrings — she’s become an important presence in the lives of her student-athletes in addition to completely revamping the Lions’ approach to treating athletes.
A regular on the sidelines during athletic events, Jenkins further established herself among her peers and students alike by serving as a substitute teacher in the district, hosting study hall sessions in her trainer’s room, and stays in-house during school hours as the administrative assistant to the athletic director.
All of that is in addition to Jenkins’ overhaul of the University City High School athletic training program. Her relentless pursuit of excellence in her profession not only made her an invaluable cog in the school’s athletics department — going from part-time employee to full-time mainstay in three years — but also Training & Conditioning’s Most Valuable High School Athletic Trainer for 2020, sponsored by School Health Corporation.
“It’s truly an honor. I wasn’t expecting this at all,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think any athletic trainer gets into this profession to be recognized. It’s a selfless position. I’m always willing to go above and beyond for my students.”
A Seismic Shift
Upon graduating high school from Wichita Southeast High School, Jenkins set out to the University of Kansas with a lofty set of goals. The Wichita, Kansas native aspired to earn a double major in journalism and development science but soon realized that wasn’t right for her.
“I was interested in working with special needs kids growing up, and I developed a passion for journalism in high school — I was actually accepted into Kansas’ journalism program before graduating high school,” Jenkins said. “But by the end of my freshman year, I knew both were more temporary interests than what I wanted to do with my life.”
With a tough decision waiting in the wings, Jenkins looked back at her time in high school to help her future career choice. She was a competitive cheerleader and part of her high school track and field team and the weight training program while serving as the volleyball team’s manager. She did all of that despite adding that she once told her father she “didn’t like to sweat” to get out of playing youth soccer. Throughout her varsity athletic career, she found herself in the trainer’s room periodically, getting to know her trainers and seeing what they do.
It wasn’t until college, however, that she realized just how deep of an interest she had in athletic training
“I [pretty quickly] came to my senses and changed my major to better fit my goal of having a hands-on approach to helping people,” Jenkins said.
She shifted her major to athletic training, where she earned a bachelor’s of science, in what Jenkins called one of the “better decisions she made while at KU.”
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Jenkins advanced to Concordia University Chicago through a fellowship program offered by Athleticare Sports Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to create safer high school sports programs at underserved schools and serving as a premier resource for athletic trainers. At Concordia, she received her master’s of science degree in applied exercise science.
While earning her master’s, Jenkins began working at University City and was able to quickly build a rapport with her athletes, coaches, administrators, as well as the parents and families of her athletes.
“She’s a go-getter. She sees a need in the program and creates solutions,” said Dr. Matt Brooks, University City’s athletic director. “We’d point her in the right direction and away she’d go. She’s developed good relationships with everyone involved with the school — from coaches, teachers, and administrators to the students and parents alike.”
The 25-year-old Jenkins added that from day one she always felt comfortable at University City, citing the family-like atmosphere of the high school and the community.
Changing The Culture
Once in the doors of University City, Jenkins brought with her a mantra that continues to fuel the trainer to this day: advocate for herself and the profession; education herself and others about the profession in addition to her athletes on how to care for themselves; elevate the profession from interprofessional collaboration; motivate her athletes to strive for more.
She began implementing that plan by overhauling her workspace — converting the former tiny trainer’s room into a fully-functioning area equipped with accessories earned from grants. She helped transform her space from a 10-by-10 “closet” with no running water into a 500-square foot room with a bathroom and ice machine.
Jenkins played a pivotal role in assuring student-athletes receive free physicals and are meeting nutritional needs after practice — striking up relationships with Gatorade representatives and receiving chocolate milk grants. The education continues off the field for student-athletes that want a closer look at what it takes to be an athletic trainer. Jenkins hosts an after-school athletic trainer’s club that has 20 members this year — growing from five members the first year she started.
“It all boils down to the education component,” Jenkins said. “I’m [at the school] no matter what, but I was to prepare you for life after the trainer’s room. I’m giving you these drills and exercises and how to progress through them so that when you’re older you can think back and recall what I told them to do if they have an ankle injury.”
It continued by elevating the standard of her peers in the building on best practices for dealing with heat illness while updating the school’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). And she has held the school’s coaches and athletic director to greater expectations, ensuring they get CPR and first aid certified at a higher standard than the state’s requirements.
Her passion for helping others and community-building spoke volumes to anyone who came in contact with Jenkins — including Brent Holtgrewe from Athleticare Sports Health Foundation.
“Ashley epitomizes the mission and heart of Athleticare and the quintessential values of what it means to be an athletic trainer in the secondary school setting,” he said.
Holtgrewe went on to credit Jenkins for revamping what he described as a “failing program” to University City High School being named to the second team Sports School Award in 2017 from the National Athletic Trainers Association. Additionally, she is involved with the Special Olympics and an active volunteer with the United States Wheelchair Tennis Association.
“Over the past three years, she has single-handedly changed the culture at her high school showing them what a comprehensive sports medicine program looks like and how valuable and important it is to have an Athletic Trainer on-site daily for the school’s student-athletes,” Holtgrewe wrote in his nomination of Jenkins. “From day one, she hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back.”
Here To Stay
Typically at University City, the athletic trainer’s room had a revolving door. Trainers were hired by an outside company — in Jenkins’ case, Athleticare Sports Health Foundation — and worked on two-year contracts before moving on to another school. As Brooks pointed out, when a deadline is placed on tenure relationships can suffer.
“Kids come in and they know [trainers] are on a two-year contract. They see a lot of turnover,” Brooks said. “Some of our kids had two or three trainers in their time here. It’s tough to build a level of trust when you know that person is only here temporarily.”
That all ended with Jenkins as she impressed the district with not only her proficiency in her field but the way in which she engrained herself within the University City community. The district created a full-time position that included her working as Brooks’ administrative assistant during the school hours just to retain their trainer.
The decision to hire Jenkins full-time came as welcomed news to the University City student body. If a student-athlete were to suffer an injury during their senior year, Jenkins has a working knowledge of their injury history which is an invaluable source of information.
Jenkins prides herself on her ability to relate with the students but also realizes there’s a line that must be drawn. She cited her communication skills in understanding when there’s a time to joke around with the students and when it’s time to get work done. And, in her experiences, that honesty has rubbed off with her student-athletes.
“I’m open and honest with the kids, and I want that to work both ways,” Jenkins said. “We all have bad days sometimes, and as long as we can communicate that we can move forward. I’ve noticed that [the student-athletes] do the same now too. It’s really helped our relationship to understand one another like that.”
After three years of weaving herself into the quilt of University City, Jenkins always will have a home with the Lions — no matter where her future takes her.
“[The students] kept telling her that she couldn’t leave; that they forbid her from leaving,” Brooks said with a chuckle. “She’s part of the fabric of University City. There’s no question about it.”