Jan 29, 2015
Winner: Cliff Chulada

Cliff Chulada takes the big-picture view of work, school, and his profession.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

The Bow (N.H.) High School Falcons started the 2004 football season with significant injuries to four of their senior stars. But with the help of Athletic Trainer Cliff Chulada, the team ended the season with all four student-athletes back on the field—and the first state football championship in school history.

“Over the course of the season, Cliff was able to rehab each of them, and they all returned to play exactly when we needed them,” says Head Football and Strength Coach Paul Cohen, PhD, MBA, CSCS. “He spent a lot of time with them on bands, balance boards, medicine balls, and various lower body exercises. We couldn’t have asked for more than what Cliff delivered. These athletes didn’t just contribute to our championship, they dominated the games.

“I started in education in 1986, and I’ve been in different sports at all different levels,” continues Cohen. “In that time, I’ve seen a lot of athletic trainers, but Cliff is the best.”

One of only a few high school athletic trainers in the region, Chulada arrives at school early in the morning and leaves late in the evening, juggling a family and a full teaching load in Bow’s health education program. During the spring, he also leads an independent study for athletic training student aides, and makes time to complete his paperwork whenever he can—usually late at night.

“It’s a lot of time, no doubt about it,” says Chulada, MS, LAT, ATC, CAPE. “But I’m here because that’s what the students need. People ask me, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you work all these hours?’ I tell them I’m doing something I really believe in. I don’t think there are a lot of people who can say that.

“I don’t see this as a 9-to-5 job, I see it as being a part of the school,” continues Chulada. “There’s so much that can be taught, and I see my two positions as teacher and athletic trainer fitting together. It’s a lot of hours and a real commitment, but that’s the way I want to do it.”

As a teenager attending nearby Londonderry High School, Chulada decided to become an athletic trainer after attending his first course in the care and prevention of athletic injuries. At the conclusion of those classes, he began work as an athletic training student aide, and while pursuing his degree at the University of New Hampshire, Chulada continued to work at LHS as an assistant athletic trainer. After graduation, he worked for three years as LHS’s Head Athletic Trainer before moving to Florida, where he taught physical education to students with mental and physical disabilities at Miami’s Poinciana Park Elementary School, worked as Athletic Trainer for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers professional soccer team, and became Head Athletic Trainer at Nova High School in Davie.

In 12 years at Nova, Chulada built the athletic training program from scratch, then rebuilt it after a fire destroyed the original facility. He created a successful college intern program to improve coverage for Nova’s athletic teams, and even saved the life of a spectator who had passed out in the stands at a j.v. football game. Then in 1999, he moved with his wife and twin daughters back to New Hampshire, after cold-calling around the state turned up an opening for a Head Athletic Trainer at Bow High School, which had opened its doors two years earlier.

Chulada’s first task at Bow was to improve the school’s emergency response program. “When Cliff first came into the school, we had only the most basic Red Cross training and no CPR information available to the students,” says Laurie McDonald, President of the Bow High School Boosters Club, whose two sons have been rehabbed by Chulada. “So Cliff started setting aside money from his paycheck to buy a defibrillator. He went through Red Cross training to become certified as an AED instructor. Then he persuaded the school board to add it to the curriculum of his 11th grade health education class. There are probably 400 students who’ve gone through the training, all because of him.”

At the same time, he began updating the school’s athletic training facilities, two small rooms with no space for expansion. From home, Chulada brought his own custom-made athletic training cart, refrigerator, hydrocolator, and therapy equipment for ultrasound and e-stim. Then, he persuaded the manufacturer to donate a whirlpool to the school. He later found another company that was willing to discount 25 sports heart rate monitors.

“I wish we didn’t have to rely on Cliff’s generosity to equip the program, but it’s something that he really wants to do,” says Principal George Edwards, whose son was one of the four rehabbed seniors on the football team. He’s been very dedicated to upgrading the program and providing our students with opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. He’s really raised the standard of care that our student-athletes receive.”

Chulada has created a volunteer medical team consisting of a family physician, an orthopedic surgeon, and a podiatrist, and Bow is now among the few schools in New Hampshire with at least two doctors at all home football games.

“In the five years that Cliff has been here, the athletic training program has become much more user-friendly for the student-athletes,” says Athletic Director Jim Kaufman. “Instead of trying to hide an injury, the student-athletes are more willing to visit the athletic trainer.

“Cliff is professional, knowledgeable, and calm,” continues Kaufman. “Because of the way he approaches injuries, we’ve never had an instance where an athlete who should have been on the sidelines was on the field. Cliff just makes the right call, and our program has improved because he’s been able to keep more athletes in competitive shape.”

In the last five years, Bow has won 24 state championships, including titles in baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, skiing, soccer, tennis, and track and field. Chulada credits Bow’s performance to Kaufman’s vision and the philosophy of the athletic department, where coaches encourage students to play multiple sports. Of his own philosophy, Chulada talks about seeing each student-athlete as an individual, and draws on his experience teaching physical education to students with disabilities.

“At Poinciana, we had a very interdisciplinary approach, with occupational and physical therapists, which taught me about assessment and working with other medical professionals,” says Chulada. “I’ve carried that experience into treating injuries. Even when I’m working with two athletes who have similar injuries, I know that I’m dealing with individuals who have different characteristics, both mentally and physically, and that’s going to dictate how I tailor treatment for each of them.

“I’ve learned that if I treat them as individuals, they’ll respect that and know that I care,” continues Chulada. “I was fortunate to learn that when I worked with the handicapped.”

McDonald, whose son Ryan was recently injured in an away ice hockey game, supports Chulada’s approach. “Another athletic trainer examined my son on the ice and okayed him to play,” says McDonald. “He played, but he was still incredibly sore. So I asked Cliff to take a look at him. He spent about 20 minutes with Ryan, examined his ankle, assessed the problem, and put him on crutches for two weeks.

Chulada sees his job as going beyond rehab to educate student-athletes about their injuries. “As high school athletic trainers, one of the biggest challenges we have is teaching kids to understand the difference between pain and injury,” says Chulada. “Some things will hurt for a day or two and then be fine. Other things will feel like they’re all better when they’re not. Helping student-athletes understand the difference plays a big part in what I do here.”

As a teacher in Bow’s health education program, which is called Building Essential Skills for Tomorrow (BEST), Chulada has created a curriculum that covers personal fitness, nutrition, career and college planning, and prevention and care of illness and injury, which includes Red Cross CPR certification. And when the school was forced to cut its budget, Chulada turned his course on athletic training into an independent study, where students receive class credit for completing modules on their own as well as helping him cover spring sports.

“There are a lot of people who have a passion for their subject area but aren’t able to translate that to their students,” says Edwards. “Cliff is able to share that passion with his students, which is one of his greatest strengths as a teacher. He makes strong connections with his students and shares his knowledge very effectively. The passion Cliff brings to his job makes him a role model for all of us.”

Outside of school, Chulada enjoys competing in an adult soccer league, skiing with his family, and spending time with his 11-year-old twin daughters, who play field hockey and lacrosse. He keeps up with developments in the profession by attending seminars during the summer, reading journal articles, and integrating the information into his work with coaches and student-athletes. He also puts effort into educating others about the importance of athletic training.

“Along with providing care, I see part of my job as getting the word out, so other schools can see the benefits of athletic training and the risks they assume by not having a medical professional on site,” says Chulada. “I’m fortunate because I believe in what I’m doing, I love what I’m doing, and I have fun doing it. That’s what keeps me going.”

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