May 18, 2016
Most Valuable Athletic Trainer 2016
Caitlin Hayes

Announcing our 2016 Winner: Elicia Leal, McKinney (Texas) North High School

This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Never underestimate the impact a caring adult can have on the life of a teenager. Elicia Leal, MEd, ATC, LAT, Head Athletic Trainer at McKinney (Texas) North High School, is living proof of this. Ever since a coach introduced her to athletic training when she was in high school, Leal has been paying it forward by devoting nearly all of her 30-year career to the secondary school setting.

Within her school community, Leal is known as a caring and dependable expert in her field, with a special ability to build relationships with everyone from athletes to coaches to the special needs students who help out in her athletic training room. She is also a model of perseverance, rehabbing back to health after suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm and stroke in 2014.

Held in equally high esteem by her peers, Leal was selected to work with the U.S. Women’s National Water Polo Team for the 2004 Olympics, received the NATA Athletic Training Service Award in 2014, and was recently elected President of the North Texas Athletic Trainers’ Society (NTATS). Not one to simply sit back and rake in honors, however, she’s steadfastly given back to the profession with stints as District Representative to the NATA’s Ethnic Diversity Advisory Committee, Chair of the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association’s Ethnic Diversity Committee, and Board Member and Secretary of the Texas Advisory Board of Athletic Trainers.

For these reasons and more, Elicia Leal has been selected to receive Training & Conditioning’s 2016 Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award, sponsored by School Health, to honor professionals at the high school level. Leal was nominated by friend and peer Dawn Allen, MS, ATC, LAT, Athletic Trainer at Leander (Texas) High School, who describes her as dedicated, passionate, intelligent, and possessing “an innate ability to relate to [student-athletes] and show true empathy.”

“To her it does not matter your experience or level of play or even if you are an athlete,” Allen wrote in her nomination. “She is dedicated to helping people do what they love because she loves what she does. Her commitment to the athletic training profession and athletes is invaluable and amazing.”

Leal’s colleagues outside of sports medicine echo Allen’s thoughts. “She has a way of making people around her feel important,” says Valerie Little, Associate Director of Athletics for the McKinney Independent School District and former Head Girls’ Basketball Coach at McKinney North. “She takes an interest in you, remembers what’s going on in your life, and asks you about it.

“Her office and athletic training room are in a different building than the school, but she often goes up to the main building,” Little continues. “On any given day, you’ll see Leal-as she’s known around school-sitting in the lunchroom having an in-depth conversation with a student about their outlook on life and what they want to do when they grow up. Sometimes they are athletes, but often they’re kids she wouldn’t otherwise have any contact with. People are just drawn to her.”

Leal’s ability to relate to students who are unsure about the future may come from once being in their shoes. “I made Cs and Ds in my early high school years,” she says. “I’m the youngest of 11 kids and the daughter of Mexican migrant workers, so the thought of going to college was inconceivable for me.”

Everything changed in Leal’s sophomore year when the girls’ basketball coach at her school, Debbie Weems, approached her during a gym class. “Among her many jobs, my mother cleaned Debbie’s house, so she knew about me. She asked if I wanted to be her athletic trainer,” says Leal. “I said I didn’t know how to do that, and she told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll send you somewhere to learn.'”

That somewhere was a Cramer sports medicine camp held at the University of Texas. “They taught us about rehab exercises, ice treatments, stretches, and ankle taping. As soon as I learned how to tape ankles, I fell in love with athletic training,” Leal says. “I wasn’t used to being on a college campus, but once I was in that environment, I got engulfed in it. I started to believe I could go to college.”

The same year, Weems encouraged Leal to join Upward Bound at Tarleton State University, a program designed to help underprivileged students get into college. This connection led to Leal’s admission into the school’s undergraduate program. Four years later, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college.

As a young athletic trainer, Leal landed a job at Permian (Texas) High School and stayed for eight years, leaving for a year to try her hand at the college level. She then served at Cy-Fair High School and McKinney High School, both in Texas, before settling into her current position at McKinney North in 1999.

Since then, Leal has had plenty of chances to leave for the college ranks but always opted to stay in the high school setting, which she feels offers more opportunities to influence young people. “With high school athletes, I can change their frame of mind, and I can teach them the right way to do rehab, correct nutrition habits, and proper hydration. I can also inspire and motivate them in different ways,” she says. “But all of that is harder with collegiate athletes because they’ve already set their framework and mindsets. They may do some of your treatments and rehab, but once they are feeling better, they’ll stop coming.”

Leal’s particular brand of care with high school athletes is centered on education and empowerment. “When they come into our athletic training facility, I want them to feel welcomed and know that they’re going to be helped,” she says. “We take the time to teach athletes the procedures for rehab. For example, if a kid comes in with a sprained ankle, we’ll explain everything we do bit by bit-where the equipment is, what exercises to do, and how to use each machine for each exercise. Sometimes, I have to describe the process three or four times, but then they’ve learned it and can help others understand it.”

Little notes that this approach makes student-athletes feel safe. “One of the reasons kids are drawn to Leal is because she provides the structure and discipline they don’t always get at home,” she says. “When they walk into her athletic training room, they know where to take off their shoes, where to sign in, and where the rehab equipment is. Things are in order and consistent around her.”

There is also an overall feeling of inclusiveness in the athletic training room. “Student-athletes see the star quarterback and the girls’ soccer player who never gets playing time come in, and Leal treats both of them with the same level of compassion and care,” Little says. “That gives her a lot of credibility with kids.”

It’s not just athletes who are welcome in her program, however. Leal has a large group of athletic training students, and in 2010, she was approached about allowing special needs students from McKinney North’s Community Access Program (CAP) to help out in the athletic training room. She knew it was a great opportunity for the CAP kids to gain skills and feel included, so she eagerly accepted. Called student assistants, the group now comes in twice a week to fold towels, wipe down tables, and fill water coolers.

“They absolutely love it,” Leal says. “It’s like being on a team for them. They feel they’re giving something back to the school and the athletic program.

“It’s beneficial for me, too, because it teaches me patience,” she continues. “It’s easy to become impatient when you work with high school students every day, but the CAP kids ground me and make me a better communicator. I can’t just say to them, ‘Go fill up that cooler.’ I have to explain exactly what I want them to do and how to do it.”

Beyond her relationships with athletes, CAP students, and athletic training students, Leal has a unique ability to build trust with coaches. “When I was coaching, I knew that if any of my athletes were hurt and went to Leal, she was going to take complete care of them,” Little says. “She communicated their status to me daily, so I never had to wonder when a player was coming back. It was always: ‘Hey, your athlete came to see me. Here’s where they are. Here’s where I see them progressing.’ Keeping me in the loop was important to her.”

The strength of Leal’s relationships with peers, athletes, and coaches was never more evident than when she suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm in 2014. While undergoing emergency surgery for the condition, she endured a stroke that temporarily paralyzed the right side of her body and affected some of her cognitive abilities. It was questionable at times whether she would survive, and she spent three weeks in the hospital following the surgery.

Afterward, Leal was admitted to an in-patient rehabilitation facility, where the hard work of recovery began. “My therapists would show me a picture of a duck and I would say, ‘That’s a chicken.’ They’d tell me no, but I still thought it was a chicken,” she says. “They had to reeducate me on all the simple things that we take for granted, such as picking up and using a hairbrush or calling out somebody’s name. I couldn’t do any of those things.

“But I was never depressed or discouraged,” she continues. “I think a lot of that was because of how tight-knit our profession is. I was surrounded by friends, other athletic trainers, and so many people from McKinney North. There was always someone there to see me and encourage me.”

Another boost to Leal’s recovery was being able to draw on her experiences as an athletic trainer. “I just kept going every day knowing that whatever little step I took was going to make me better,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always told my rehabbing athletes.”

Leal returned to work in January 2015, a mere six months after her aneurysm, with a new outlook on life and a deeper level of empathy for her injured athletes. “The experience taught me to have more patience with them,” she says. “In the past, I might have been in a hurry to finish rehabs or thought certain kids were not hurting badly-that they should just buckle up and get back out there. Now, I look at rehabs differently. Having gone through one, I know how much you have to endure.”

Fully recovered from the aneurysm and stroke, Leal’s sights are focused solely on the future. A big part of her new role as President of the NTATS will be growing the profession. “In order for athletic training to get bigger and better, we have to give back to it,” she says. “All athletic trainers need to ask themselves: ‘What am I doing to spread the word about my profession?’ Whether it’s through helping out with a registration committee, packing pamphlets in envelopes, or speaking to different organizations, there are lots of ways to get involved.”

Often, she says, the best place to start is your own school. For National Athletic Training Month (NATM) this year, Leal distributed athletic training information cards with candies attached throughout the hallways of McKinney North. She also sent a mass email announcement to teachers about NATM that they shared with students.

For Leal, spreading the word about her profession extends into her local community, as well. “My next door neighbor just had a knee replacement, so I’m helping her with her rehab and simple things she can’t do herself,” Leal says. “At the same time, it spreads the word about what athletic trainers do.”

A more long-term goal for Leal with the NTATS is to make the profession more inclusive and culturally aware. “I certainly want to increase diversity and get more athletic trainers of color in the field,” she says. “But beyond that, I want to educate all athletic trainers about cultural competence. For example, I’m Mexican-I may go to a curandera or other healer. An athletic trainer will provide me better care if they know what is accepted as treatment in my culture. It also helps if they know what diseases my ethnicity predisposes me to.”

Regardless of what’s to come in the future, the rewards of the high school level continue to keep Leal as dedicated as ever. “Every time an athlete comes into the athletic training room with an injury, and I can make them better, that’s an honor,” she says. “I’m still friends with kids who graduated years ago, which says a lot about the relationship and bond that can develop between a student-athlete and their high school athletic trainer.”


The following athletic trainers were finalists for this year’s Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award.


At economically disadvantaged schools, it can be a challenge to provide comprehensive athletic training coverage. But Erin Cernuda, ATC/L, Head Athletic Trainer at Miami (Fla.) Sunset Senior High School, has refused to let financial limitations get in her way. Winning a Donors Choose grant allowed Cernuda to create a biomechanical analysis program for Miami Sunset’s cross country team. Her other initiatives include starting a coach education series on sports medicine topics, creating a seminar for athletes on relieving stress, and founding the school’s Health Information Project, which educates students about health issues and local resources.

Cernuda is also a leader in improving the overall school community. She created a student-athlete advisory committee and has secured $25,000 in grants to purchase various equipment for the school and athletic department.

In his nomination, Moises Rivera, Athletic Director at Miami Sunset, shared what a senior varsity swimmer had to say about Cernuda: “As student-athletes, our success on and off the field comes from the person who pushes us the most, helps us to set our standards high, and [does] not allow us to fail. Ms. Cernuda is our champion.”


At Floyd Central High School in Floyds Knobs, Ind., words of praise for Head Athletic Trainer Becky Clifton, MS, ATC, LAT, CKTP, came from every corner. Heartfelt letters of support were not only submitted by the school’s Assistant Principal of Student Activities, but also from four sport coaches.

Over her 25 years at the school, Clifton, who was honored as Indiana High School Athletic Trainer of the Year in 2003 and with an NATA Athletic Trainer Service Award in 2006, has been “a lifelong learner in the profession, constantly improving her knowledge and craft by attending seminars and other post-graduate opportunities,” wrote Head Football Coach Brian Glesing.

In addition, all of Clifton’s nominators praised her ability to build relationships with student-athletes. Head Wrestling Coach Brandon Sisson has worked with Clifton as both an athlete and coach. “When I graduated, she provided me with a book of advice for my future … When I got married, she was there, and when I had my first child, we received a gift,” Sisson wrote. “I know I am not the only athlete she has done this for. Becky has a deep desire to not only keep kids healthy but to make a connection with them and help them grow.”


There aren’t many districts in which every high school has earned the NATA’s Safe Sports School First Team Award. Thanks to the leadership of Chris DeVault, ATC, SCAT, the Georgetown County (S.C.) School District-one of the poorest in the state-is one of them. As the Head Athletic Trainer at Georgetown High School, DeVault has made it his mission to provide quality athletic training services to the county’s student-athletes by placing full-time athletic trainers in each of the four high schools and organizing the Safe Sports School application process. Jim Berry, EdD, ATC, SCAT, NREMT, Head Athletic Trainer at Conway (S.C.) High School, wrote in his nomination: “The athletic health care system Chris has helped to create for his county and community is sometimes the only health care many students have regular access to.”

DeVault is also well-known in the area for starting “Carl’s Christmas Cheer,” which provides gifts to the Georgetown County Toys for Tots program. Inspired by his late Uncle Carl, who was mentally disabled and always loved Christmas, the initiative was especially meaningful last year after flooding devastated the region in early October.


Still in her 20s, Soleil McLaughlin, MS, ATC, might be considered a novice in the athletic training profession, but she’s already done more than many veterans. In July 2015, McLaughlin started 1Team Athletic Care, LLC, which offers athletic training services to underprivileged communities in New Orleans. “[Soleil’s] passion is to ensure every young athlete in our country [is] afforded the proper care and treatment,” says one of her nominators, Rob Dicks, MA, ATC, Director of Athletic Training and Compliance at LaGrange College. “She promotes great care at great rates to so many communities that cannot afford to pay for the existing [athletic training services] in their areas.”

McLaughlin also serves as Louisiana Public Relations Representative to the NATA, Louisiana Representative-Young Professional Committee Chair for the Southeastern Athletic Trainers’ Association, and Young Professional Committee Chair in the Louisiana Athletic Trainers’ Association. She does all of this in addition to her “day job” as an Outreach Athletic Trainer at the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine.


Lisa Strick, MEd, LAT, CSCS, and her colleagues often said that if they won the lottery, they would set up athletic training coverage for underserved athletes in inner-city Milwaukee Public Schools. This past year, Strick decided to stop waiting to strike it rich and make it happen.

As a contract athletic trainer with MPS via Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare/Midwest Orthopedic Sports Medicine, Strick began with coverage for girls’ soccer in spring 2015 and expanded to football in the fall after she helped land an NFL Matching Grant. Now, athletic trainers are also available for basketball, wrestling, and track and field. Beyond doing the legwork to get supplies for each of the 19 high schools and making inroads with athletic directors and coaches, Strick coordinates the athletic trainers and often covers multiple contests per day.

“I’m not sure how we would have made this happen without the hard work, dedication, and above-and-beyond effort that Lisa Strick has provided to the athletes of MPS,” Bill Molbeck, Commissioner of Interscholastic Athletics for MPS, wrote in his nomination.


The following athletic trainers received honorable mention for the Most Valuable Athletic Trainer award.

Terri Ajaski, ATC, Daniel Hand High School, Madison, Conn.

David App, MS, ATC, LAT, Dover (Pa.) Area School District

Katie Bracken, ATC, PES, Palmetto Scholars Academy, North Charleston, S.C.

James Eischeid, LAT, CSCS, Mercy Walworth Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, Lake Geneva, Wis.

Joseph Haywood, MEd, LAT, NEMT, Ottawa Township (Ill.) High School

Hilary Lange, ATC, LAT, Sebastian River High School, Sebastian, Fla.

Kathy Levandoski, ATC/L, Valparaiso (Ind.) High School

Tom Loew, ATC, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, Ill.

Morgan McDaniel, ATC, Smackover (Ark.) High School

Sean O’Connor, ATC, William Fremd High School, Palatine, Ill.

Craig Olejniczak, MS, ATC, Middletown (N.Y.) High School

Emily Renna, ATC, LAT, Danbury (Conn.) High School

Matt Scotton, DPT, ATC, CSCS, Newton (Iowa) High School

Matt Shifflett, ATC-VAL, East Rockingham High School, Elkton, Va.

Jonathan Skaar, MS, ATC, CES, Calvary Chapel High School, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Marie Walburn, MS, ATC, Canal Winchester (Ohio) High School

Joe Whetstone, ATC, LAT, ITAT, CES, PES, Oak Park High School, Kansas City, Mo.

Caitlin Hayes is a former Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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