Jan 29, 2015
Wendy Svoboda, Tulane University

For Wendy Svoboda, ATC, Tulane’s Director of Athletic Training, the 2005-06 school year began like any other. She organized her staff, prepared for pre-participation physicals, and welcomed Tulane’s athletes back to campus. But those first few weeks in August would be her last business-as-usual days for a very long time.

On Aug. 28, Hurricane Katrina was threatening, and everyone in New Orleans was told to evacuate the city. Svoboda helped gather athletes onto buses and packed supplies to last a week, even though she assumed they’d be back on campus in just a few days.

What happened on Aug. 29 doesn’t need to be repeated here. It was six weeks before Svoboda could return to check the status of her own home, and four months before she worked another game in a Tulane facility.

While the university was closed for the fall, Tulane athletics went on, competing out of Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Southern Methodist Universities. Seven Tulane teams played out their seasons representing the Green Wave—and the spirit of a city determined to fight its way back.

For Svoboda, the arrangement meant managing a staff spread out across four locations in two states. She juggled coverage and supplies, coordinated rehabs long-distance, and attempted to maintain morale when no one knew for sure whether they would eventually be able to return home.

Here, Svoboda tells her story, from the day the buses pulled out of New Orleans, through the biggest leadership challenge she’s ever faced, to her return to a very different Tulane this winter. She also talks about how the experience has changed her perspective, and why she’s never been prouder to be an athletic trainer.

T&C: How did you prepare when you learned Katrina was on the way?

Svoboda: It was a Sunday morning, and we were getting ready to run football and soccer practices. The storm began moving faster than anyone expected and we were told, “Forget practice. Get out now.”

We crammed 100 football players, 30 soccer players, and both coaching staffs, along with administrators, my staff, and some other students who had nowhere else to go, into two buses and a couple of school vans and went to Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. It took us 10 hours to travel 180 miles because of the traffic.

We all slept in the Jackson State gym. We thought we’d just be staying in Jackson a few days, and expected to run practices there. But the storm headed right our way, so we were stuck inside the gym for the next day and a half.

What were the next 36 hours like?

It was crazy. There was a violent storm outside. There was no power. We used flashlights and listened to our portable CD players until the batteries died. We didn’t have cell phone service, so I couldn’t get in touch with people on my staff who weren’t with us when we evacuated, and none of us could get in touch with family or friends. There was a lot of anxiety.

We did whatever we could to keep the kids from thinking about what was going on around them. We actually had a football team workout in the gym while the storm was hitting. People asked, “Why are we doing this?” But it gave everyone something to focus on, and that helped.

Where did you go from Jackson State?

We temporarily sent the football group and half of my staff to SMU in Dallas, and we sent our soccer team and that staff to Birmingham. I went to Dallas and spent the next seven days working football practice with our football athletic trainer and one graduate assistant.

At the same time, I was calling and begging companies to give us supplies. All of the university’s assets were frozen, so we couldn’t even buy tape. At that point, it was still unclear whether we were going to be able to field teams for the fall—or for any season this year.

But your athletic director was working behind the scenes to figure out a plan.

Right. He was working like crazy to convince the university administration to let the teams go on and to figure out how to make that happen. We ended up having agreements with four institutions to get athletes housing, a place to go to class, and a place to work out.

One assistant who suffered a lot of losses personally in the storm decided to leave, so I had a staff of seven. Seven sports went to Texas A&M, and I went with them, taking one GA and our newest assistant, who had been with us for a month. Our football athletic trainer went to Louisiana Tech with the football program, and I sent two GAs with him. We sent one of our assistants to Texas Tech to cover baseball and women’s basketball. And golf was at SMU, with coverage by telephone as best we could.

What was a typical day like for you?

I spoke to the people at other sites by phone several times a week, and my staff sent me all the injury reports, so I was still aware of what was going on. I spent a lot of time trying to coordinate everything. Did everyone have the supplies and coverage they needed that day? Where were athletes going to get dental care and contact lenses? It was crazy, but I have a great staff, and their professionalism made it work.

The other thing that made it work was help from the athletic training staffs at our host schools. I’ve always known athletic trainers are a great group of people, but I have never been so proud to be part of this profession.

In Dallas, Ken Locker of Presbyterian Hospital helped us find temporary staff for taping and covering practices, while SMU Head Athletic Trainer Cash Birdwell coordinated accepting and storing all the donated supplies. At Louisiana Tech, my staff was given an athletic training room in the gym and Head Athletic Trainer Bob Burns made us feel at home. Before we got to Texas A&M, Head Athletic Trainer Karl Kapchinski had us all set up with a full training room, ultrasound stim units, and supplies. At Texas Tech, Head Athletic Trainer Ken Murray set up our PPEs and completely shared his facilities with us.

I tried to keep things as routine as I possibly could for my staff. I think that was also very important for our student-athletes, because they didn’t need any more distractions. They needed it to be as normal as it could be, although really, there wasn’t a whole lot normal about it.

What was the biggest management challenge you faced?

I had to learn to delegate and then just let go. That has always been hard for me. I know my staff can do the job, but sometimes I feel like I need to directly oversee everything myself.

In this case, that was not an option. I learned to count on them to do what they can do. I think that made me realize, “Hey, I don’t have to be there. The whole world doesn’t fall apart.” My staff has probably been going crazy hoping that one day I would learn to do that!

How did the seven teams do this fall?

Kids worked hard, but there weren’t a lot of winning records. No one wanted to make the excuse that the storm affected our performance, but the truth is that the athletes were facing a huge number of challenges. This situation was difficult as a staff member and as an adult. I can’t imagine experiencing it as a student-athlete.

Was there a different definition of success for these teams?

Yes, without a doubt. Our athletic director emphasized that success was representing Tulane and carrying the torch. Especially when classes were suspended and the university was closed down, the fact that Tulane athletes were still putting on the uniform helped people believe the school would come back.

The basketball teams played some home games back at Tulane before the holiday break. What were those games like?

Incredible. As great as the facilities were that we were at, they didn’t have the “T” wave on the floor, and they didn’t have our fans in the stands.

The number of fans that came out, with everything that’s going on in the city, was also pretty amazing. At the first women’s game, about halfway through the first half, out of the blue, some guy stood up and played the Tulane fight song on a trumpet. The place went crazy. There was a period when we didn’t know whether we were even going to have an athletic program, or a university, to come back to. So it was a roller coaster of emotions those first nights.

The university announced it would suspend eight teams indefinitely after the spring semester: men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf, women’s soccer, women’s swimming and diving, men’s track and field, and men’s cross country. How many of those teams are competing or practicing?

The NCAA ruled that athletes on the tennis, swimming and diving, and golf teams could get back this year of eligibility if they stopped competing after the fall semester. So only two of the teams that are being suspended will be competing: men’s golf and parts of swimming and diving. The other teams don’t have enough athletes left to field teams.

What is the status of your athletic training facility?

Right now, it’s a mess. We had two facilities on campus, the athletic training room and the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine, which housed our team physicians, a physical therapy department, and a state-of-the-art biomechanics lab. We got about two and a half feet of water in both facilities.

They’re working on our facility now. It will be at least mid-February before we’re in, and it will be April before the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine is up and running. Currently, we have one treatment table and one taping table. But we will rebuild. It may take a while and it won’t be quite the same, but at least we’re here, and I think that pretty much sums it up for the entire city.

Has your staff been downsized?

We’re going from a staff of eight to potentially a staff of five, but the sports still here are those that require 75 or 80 percent of our time, and that’s going to create a challenge. The university has also dropped the exercise science department, so the one program that sent a few student volunteers our way is gone.

It’s going to be a challenging spring, but it can’t be as challenging as the fall, so I think we can make it through. Being separated as a staff was tough. The spring is going to be better because we’re all facing the situation together.

Although nothing could compare to the past six months, throughout your career, have you faced any challenges being a female in a male-dominated profession?

In the beginning, I was concerned that I was going to encounter a glass ceiling. But I honestly have never had any problems. In part, I think that’s because I choose not to think of the job in male and female terms. I’m simply a professional.

This is what I tell some of my female students: “You’re here to do the job. It’s not social time. You do your job and work hard and hopefully it will come together. If it doesn’t, you’re working for the wrong set of people.”

I was a senior at the University of Nebraska in 1992, and that was the first time we ever had women working the home sidelines at a football game. We have come a long way. Many women before me have fought hard, and I am reaping the benefits of their hard work.

What advice do you have for an athletic trainer who would like to head an NCAA Division I athletic training staff?

Seek out the right experiences. Figure out what your head athletic trainer does that you don’t, and try to get involved in some of those things. Get exposure to as many aspects of their job as you can, particularly the administrative side.

Prepare yourself, but also realize that when you walk into a head athletic training job, it’s still going to be a learning process. Have confidence in yourself that you’ll be able to learn as you go.

How do you balance your personal time with your job?

I’m a bad person to ask that. I’ve struggled with juggling a personal life and a professional life, almost to the point of not having a personal life. But at the same time, I’m proud of where I’ve gotten with my career.

The older I get, though, the more I realize that I have to make time for a personal life and not be consumed by my work. It’s too easy to get caught up in this job. The Katrina experience has taught me that there is a whole lot more to this life than your job, and that one’s worth isn’t measured by their career.

What are your goals for the future? Will you stay at Tulane?

Yes, as of right now. I want to be part of rebuilding it. I want to be there for the athletes. I will stay and get our training room back together and get our kids back together and do what we need to do to make this a successful program.

But the experience has changed my outlook as a whole. It’s made me ask a lot of questions about what’s important to me in life. What does my future have in store? Is it college athletics, or something else? I don’t know. I honestly have not completely sorted out the past six months yet. It’s been really crazy. But I’m going to keep working on figuring it all out, and in the meantime, we keep joking that maybe we’re all going to write a book about our experience!

PROFILE Wendy Svoboda

  • Director of Athletic Training, Tulane University
  • Athletic Training Staff: Daisy Kovach, Justin LeDuc, Kevin McShan, Aaron Yeary, Andrea Christensen, Miesty Woodburn
  • Previous Jobs:
  • Graduate Assistant, Tulane, 1993-1995

    Head Athletic Trainer, Abilene (Texas) High School, 1995-1999

    Assistant Athletic Trainer, Tulane University, 2000-2001

  • Lessons from Katrina:
  • “I had to learn to delegate and then just let go. That has always been hard for me. I know my staff can do the job, but sometimes I feel like I need to directly oversee everythingmyself.”

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