Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Diana Palmer

Westmont College, USA Olympic Triathlon Team

It would be easy to assume that Diana Palmer’s life calling is as a world traveler, not an athletic trainer. Palmer, MS, ATC, EMT, has been to Hawai’i to work the Ironman World Championship, Santo Domingo with the USA Cycling team for the Pan American Games, Australia and New Zealand with the International Triathlon Union Sport Development Program, and in August is headed to Beijing with the USA Olympic Triathlon team. And that’s just a sampling of her overseas experience.

While she admits that visiting sought-after vacation destinations has been rewarding, Palmer says her true home is Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she has been Head Athletic Trainer for almost 20 years. Palmer graduated from Linfield College, where she received two bachelor’s degrees, and then attended the University of Oregon, where she earned her master’s while serving as Head Athletic Trainer at Thurston High School from 1987-88, and Head Athletic Trainer for the Oregon women’s volleyball team from 1988-89.

From Oregon, Palmer went straight to Westmont, where in addition to her role as Head Athletic Trainer, she was also an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology until athletic training duties took over her teaching time this year. Soon after starting at Westmont, Palmer agreed to provide athletic training services for the Santa Barbara (equestrian) Polo Club, which she has continued doing for the past 15 years.

In 2001, she started working with America’s elite athletes through the Olympic Training Center residency program. Since then, she has worked with the USA Triathlon and Cycling teams at World Cup events and Pan Am Games, and is currently serving as Athletic Trainer for USA Triathlon. In Beijing this summer, she will cover the modern pentathlon, triathlon, and badminton events.

In this interview, Palmer talks about the upcoming Olympics, working with elite-level athletes, and how her job at Westmont has changed over the years.

T&C: How did you get involved with the Olympics and USA Triathlon team?

Palmer: I went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 2001 for a two-week athletic training residency program. The program serves as a trial period to see whether an athletic trainer’s skills, personality, and adaptability fit the needs of the Olympic program and national teams. Though triathlon wasn’t one of my primary sports at the time, I worked on a number of their athletes and met Team Director Libby Burrell. We found it was a good fit, and since then I have worked and traveled with the USA Triathlon and Cycling teams for the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, and for World Cup events throughout the year.

What are your duties as Athletic Trainer for USA Triathlon?

Occasionally, I travel to Colorado Springs–for instance, if an athlete needs a specific type of rehab–but my primary duties are helping the team at World Cup events and Pan Am Games. At those events, I’m responsible for injury evaluation, referral to physicians when needed, massage, rehabilitation programs, acute injury care, and triage. I also help establish medical “networks” if an athlete outside the Colorado Springs area wants to find a chiropractor, physical therapist, or other medical professional closer to home.

What is different about working with elite athletes?

Over the years I have worked with professional soccer, cycling, equestrian polo, and triathlon teams. Elite athletes often have a team of professionals around them who work together, and we have to communicate frequently about their care–diagnosis, treatment plans, medications, possible restrictions, and so on. It’s also critical for us to educate athletes regarding injury prevention, nutrition, the need for massages and other prophylactic medical care, and the importance of prompt attention to any injuries that occur. Since it is their livelihood, implementing the right care quickly is crucial.

How has your schedule at Westmont changed since you started working with the Olympic team?

I prioritize Westmont. I only choose to go on trips with the national teams when it won’t impact the care of my college athletes. I am able to take trips during the year because of a great assistant athletic trainer, a strong student health center, and two very attentive and involved team physicians.

When I’m off campus at professional sporting events or conferences, I use the time to closely watch and interact with other athletic trainers and physical therapists. Later on, I might ask some of those people to travel with the national triathlon and cycling teams or to cover various other events when I am not available.

How will your experience with the Pan Am Games help you at the Olympics?

Events like that require flexibility, a willingness to take on diverse roles–such as helping with equipment, transportation, cleanup–and a readiness to put in extremely long workdays. I would not want to try working at an Olympic Games without having first worked at the Pan Am Games or another big event. Knowing the flow of the day and how to work with team directors and athletes, and being familiar with the rest of the medical staff, will make Beijing go smoothly.

Do you think the pollution in Beijing will be a problem for Olympians?

The pollution, as well as the heat and humidity, are a big concern for the endurance athletes. The team had a test event in Beijing last fall, at which our High Performance Director worked with Olympic Training Center Head Exercise Physiologist Randy Wilber and the team nutritionist to perform pulmonary function tests on team members. Using that data, they put together detailed information for each athlete on how to prepare for the heat, humidity, and pollution they will face at the Games.

How has the athletic training program at Westmont changed since you started?

Westmont had a full-time athletic trainer in place before I arrived, and he had already laid the groundwork by showing coaches what athletic trainers do and how our skills can best be utilized. An assistant athletic training position was approved about 10 years ago, and the biggest change since my arrival was adding that second staff member.

We can now offer more prophylactic care, extended clinic hours, and more rehabilitation programs on-site. We have also added new sports and increased the number of athletes on our teams, so my overall workload has increased.

Do you often travel with your teams?

Not usually. We are able to send our athletic training students as first responders, and they work under the host university’s athletic trainer, providing prevention care and immediate first aid. We rely on the host school’s staff to evaluate injuries and recommend a course of treatment if necessary. All the schools in our conference notify each other when an athletic trainer is not traveling with the team so the host school can staff accordingly. The agreement works out well because it allows our students to watch how other athletic trainers interact with athletes and study their evaluation technique, which is a great way to learn.

When our teams are going to large tournaments or if a host school is short-staffed, my assistant athletic trainer and I work it out so that one of us can accompany the team while the other stays on campus to cover practices and home contests. If that causes one of us to work a 12-hour day, we shorten up the next day’s shift to control burnout and avoid excessive overtime.

What is it like working at the NAIA level?

It’s great because we are still allowed to build personal relationships with students, take them out for meals, give them a ride somewhere, help tutor them, and serve as mentors. I even allow students to house sit if I am on vacation. The downside is that we are so much more restricted financially. There are many supplies and pieces of equipment I would love to use at Westmont, but we just can’t afford them.

What is the toughest injury you’ve ever treated?

There have been a few! I’ve had a college soccer goalie with bilateral shoulder reconstructions and a professional cyclist with two spinal stress fractures, two levels of disc degeneration, and a scar from falling on a stake during a race. The challenges have been fun to say the least.

Honestly, I use my psychology degree as much as my exercise science and athletic training background. The mental state of an athlete ties directly into his or her physical healing and perception of pain. Many times, helping athletes recognize and deal with the psychological issues affecting their injury is more difficult than their physical treatment. For that reason, we work closely with our student health and counseling departments.

What is it like working at the Ironman Championship?

Endurance sports of this nature are a completely different world than collegiate sports and even most other endurance sports. Being in the medical tent to see the illnesses and conditions that result from the intense demands of an Ironman is worthwhile for any athletic trainer. The cases of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and hyponatremia are much more severe than they are anywhere else. And seeing the speed at which an athlete’s condition can worsen was very eye-opening for me. I am much more aware of medical conditions, the importance of knowing an athlete’s medical history, and compounding variables like medications, food choices, and the stress level surrounding an event.

The nature of the Ironman is such that nursing and physician skills are much more needed than athletic training skills, so aside from acute injuries on the course–like a bike crash or fall–most problems require medical intervention in the form of IVs, ischemic colitis evaluation, heat stroke treatment, and care for other systemic conditions.

How did you end up as Medical Director of the Santa Barbara Polo Club?

A friend had been covering polo for a few years, but didn’t really like it–at that time, the athletic trainer was responsible only for medical triage during competition and practices. I agreed to work for the club for one year, and during that time, the shortcomings of what was being offered to the players became painfully obvious to me. So I took on the responsibility of expanding my position.

It took a long time to develop the program that is in place now. Players were not used to having someone available who could evaluate injuries, help with medical referrals, and implement rehabilitation programs. And I didn’t earn the trust of our international players for years–they had never heard of athletic trainers or seen what we do, so they needed time to observe who I was and how I could help them. I have been with the club for 15 years now, and I’m happy to see a similar level of care now being provided at other clubs as well.

How do you balance your personal life with a very busy professional life?

I did not do a good job of that in my first four or five years out of graduate school. It took time to realize that giving everything to my work was not only burning me out, but also capping my potential on the job. Early on, a colleague told me how he blocked out one hour a day on his calendar as his “appointment” with himself. He spent that hour exercising, having lunch with friends, going for walks, or reading for fun.

I implemented this practice, and started treating myself as well as I treat my clients and athletes. This entails a great nutritional program, regular sleep, daily exercise, time with close friends, and trying to learn a new skill or hobby each year. As a result, I am actually much more productive and creative at work. I enjoy my job, I have more time for outside work opportunities like the triathlon, cycling, and polo teams, and I can learn new skills to add to my “tool bag” each year.

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