A Tireless Trainer

Stephanie Smith takes the holistic approach with her athletes—and her profession.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 11.5, July/August 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1105/trainer.htm

Most people associate Halloween with jack o’lanterns and trick or treating. But for Stephanie Smith, EMT, ATC/R, an athletic trainer from Bloomington, Minn., an unexpected encounter with a hockey game on Halloween, 1993, changed the course of her career and enabled her to find her calling in the field.

“After college, I came up to Minnesota in 1992 to do an internship with the Timberwolves, and I thought I was going to work in basketball for the rest of my life,” she says. “But I filled in for someone to cover a hockey game on Halloween of 1993, the very first hockey game I had ever worked. There was a really bad checking-from-behind incident during the game, causing a severe head and neck injury. The young man went into seizures. It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to get there, so it was difficult to maintain cervical stabilization for someone going in and out of seizures for a long time, while kneeling on the ice.

“I went to the hospital with him and his family,” she continues, “and while I was there a fight broke out in the waiting room between members of the two teams. I don’t know what possessed me, but I intervened, and I’m even more amazed that they listened to me. There are a lot of other athletic trainers who feel comfortable working with non-collision sports, but that night I discovered hockey was where I’m really gifted. I can keep my head, I can make good decisions, and I thought it would be a waste of my abilities and skills to go into another sport. My interest is primarily in head injuries, and, sadly, this is a sport where I get more than ample opportunity to put my skills and education to use.”

During the school year, Smith divides her time working with the South Suburban Steers, a local Junior B hockey team in the Minneapolis area, and serving as Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Academy of Holy Angels, a private Catholic school in Richfield, Minn. At both places, she has earned the respect and accolades of coaches, athletes, and administrators. She also has worked USA Hockey tournaments, and will soon be working with the hockey program at the 2002 winter Olympics.

But that’s not all. Smith is also heavily involved in disaster relief work, frequently enlisting her student-athletes to assist with damage from floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

For her contributions to the Academy of Holy Angels, the Steers, and to USA Hockey, as well as her disaster relief work, Smith has been chosen to receive Training & Conditioning’s Above the Call Award for July/August 2001.

Smith was nominated for the Above the Call Award by a student-athlete, most likely from Holy Angels, who anonymously sent in a letter detailing the athletic trainer’s achievements. “There are so many other athletes who would write their own reasons for why Stephanie Smith is an excellent Certified Athletic Trainer, but I want to write about how she balances her quest for professional excellence, her passion for preventing and treating those who are hurt (even when she is ‘off the clock’), her joy in training hockey athletes, and her drive to make the world better by living out her faith,” the nominator wrote.

One person who openly recognizes Smith’s talents and dedication is Jim Martin, General Manager of the Steers. “She goes above and beyond what we expect,” he says. “She’s been working with our team for six or seven years now. She puts in a lot of hours, comes to practices and helps with dry-land workouts. She also helps a lot of kids get into physical therapy, and works with them in terms of showing them what to do when they’re off the ice.”

For example, there was an incident when Smith stayed up all night with a player who had alcohol poisoning during a team trip. “That was a pretty scary night,” she remembers. “After we got back to our hotel rooms, one of the kids knocked on my door, saying ‘I know this isn’t in your job description, but can you help?’ That’s going to be my epitaph. The student was really concerned about his friend who was having trouble breathing. It was really scary for the other kids, so I just stayed up with him. I feel it’s my job to take care of the medical needs of my team, and whether it’s self-inflicted or not, I can assist with whatever comes up.”

Smith began her tenure at Holy Angels in the fall of 1999. While working with a Steers student-athlete who attended Holy Angels, she began helping out in the school’s weight room. Then, a position opened up for a strength and conditioning coach, and Smith formally came on board.

Her first goal was to increase participation by the school’s student-athletes. “We had a whole new weight room put in by Milt Sunday, a Holy Angels alum who played for the Vikings and owns Body Power Exercise Equipment, but no one was using it,” says Gary Rufsvold, Director of Activities at Holy Angels. “After Stephanie came in, she worked closely with the new football coach, and probably quadrupled the use of the weight room. We now offer a varsity letter in strength training for students who complete a certain series of tests.”

“There were only about four or five kids who would come in to lift when I was training the one kid on our hockey team,” Smith says. “But then a lot of kids started asking me for advice on how to use the equipment. We brought in Swiss balls for core-stabilization drills and ladders for ladder drills, boxes for plyometrics, and bungee cords. We just started with a couple of kids, but they were key athletes looking for something more. When they saw the results, the word spread quickly. It’s so rewarding when you see a sophomore kid being taught by a senior how to properly do a drill.”

Last fall, Smith added Head Athletic Trainer to her duties at Academy of Holy Angels, where she works with all sports, including ice hockey. “My specialty is hockey, but I love working with the football and the basketball players, too,” she says.

Through her work in the weight room and as the athletic trainer, Smith has gained the respect and admiration of the staff and student-athletes. “She really gets along with young guys,” Rufsvold says. “She makes them hold the mark. We’ve got one kid going to Pittsburgh for football, and another to Wisconsin, and they just idolize her.”

One thing that sets Smith apart is her drive to always look for new challenges and opportunities. When the upcoming Winter Olympic Games begin in Salt Lake City, Smith will be helping to coordinate medical staff. Smith’s abilities have also caught the attention of USA Hockey, which has utilized her skills at several national tournaments. And as if balancing those commitments isn’t impressive enough, Smith is also working toward obtaining her PhD at the University of Minnesota.

For her dissertation, Smith is researching head injuries in hockey. “I’m tracking them at all levels, with younger kids and high school, and moving up to the Junior A and B and college levels,” she says. “I look at the incidents, how frequently they happen and their severity, and how compliant the players are in telling either their coach or ATC or medical staffers if they have any signs or symptoms, because a lot of times concussions go unreported. I’m trying to find trends.”

No idle academician, Smith has already been putting her research to work. “She’s not only been someone who has provided care to the injured players,” says David Tyler, a Vice President of USA Hockey and Chairman of its Junior Council, “but she has provided us with some valuable advice and recommendations as far as how to avoid those types of head injuries and what should be the protocol for their care.

“Concussive injuries are a major concern for our sport, at all levels,” Tyler continues. “Stephanie helped us deal with a number of concussions we had during our tournament two years ago, and in protecting the kids from further injury. She also helped to develop protocols that have gone forth from that tournament and now have become rules of USA Hockey. We have instituted a head-checking rule this year as a result of the things she was instrumental in helping us realize and develop.”

In a further effort to minimize injuries from hockey, Smith is trying to establish guidelines to ensure there’s adequate medical personnel and equipment at events. “A lot of times when you go to a youth tournament, if it’s not high school-based, they might not have to have medical staff there,” she says. “If they do, they might have people who are moonlighting and don’t bring supplies with them. So even if they’re trained as EMTs and in first aid, there might be no gloves or bloodborne pathogen spray on site.

“I’m also trying to get people to understand the difference between a first responder, an EMT, a paramedic, and an athletic trainer,” she says, “because most people assume the EMT has more training than an ATC does. So I explain what the scopes of their practices are, and what the liabilities are, and emphasize what each of those groups can offer, so leagues can hire the level of medical training they feel is necessary for their tournaments.”

Whether she’s conditioning hockey players, treating injured student-athletes, or conducting research, Smith’s faith informs her work. In addition to her other titles, she’s also a youth minister, which enables her to take a holistic approach when dealing with student-athletes. “It’s definitely an approach of not just treating injuries, but of treating people as a whole,” she says. “I’m really good at seeing them as athletes, as students, as young men—all the pieces of who they are. If all those things aren’t in line, they’re not going to have the performance they want to have, especially in Junior B hockey, where they’re all college age or just finishing high school and they have lots of questions. So the biggest support I can offer them is encouragement, and just listening.”

So, what’s this about disaster relief we alluded to earlier? During the extensive flooding that occurred in Minnesota this year, Smith rounded up and trained a disaster relief corps basically from the kids who are in her weight-training and conditioning program at the Academy. The students assisted with sandbagging and other flood relief work in a time of need for the area. That’s what we call going above the call.