Creative Careers

Ever wonder if your athletic training skills could take you out of the college or high school setting? We spoke with 10 ATCs who have created unusual and satisfying opportunities around their skills.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.4, May/June 2002,

Take a look at today’s job market and you’ll find certified athletic trainers working in office complexes and power plants, at race tracks and rodeos, and even on Broadway. In their search for better pay, improved working conditions, and personal fulfillment, or in pursuit of their passions, athletic trainers are expanding the boundaries of their profession, proving that an athletic trainer’s skills are needed wherever there are active people.

“Every individual is physically active in some way, shape, or form,” says Mary Kirkland, MS, ATC/L, CSCS, Chair of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Council on Employment. And the activity level of the general public will only increase as the link between exercise and disease-prevention becomes more widely seen, notes Kirkland.

What follows are the stories of some athletic trainers who are finding new and innovative applications for their athletic training skills.

Rob Lawton, MA, ATC, CSCS, learned about aquatic therapy and SwimEx stationary pools while working as an athletic trainer at the U.S. Naval Academy. Soon, he was staffing a SwimEx booth at conventions and making presentations about the equipment. Lawton moved to the University of Maine to become Head Athletic Trainer, but the long hours were discouraging. Drawing on the contacts he’d made at SwimEx, Lawton proposed that the company could benefit from having an athletic trainer experienced in aquatic therapy on staff.

The company bit. Since March 2001, Lawton’s role has been to keep in touch with athletic teams and college customers and get feedback on improvements, therapy techniques, and new products. There’s just enough travel to keep him interested, the salary is better, and so are the hours. He’s found his ATC background useful, whether in advising an architect on properly aligning a pool, listening to customers, or advising company executives. “They always turn to me and say, ‘Well, what would the athletic trainer think about this?’”

Lawton advises ATCs to make sure they’re ready to switch before considering a career change. “It’s a whole lifestyle change because when you’re an athletic trainer, that’s your whole life.” Second, Lawton says it is important to be sure you will feel comfortable with what you will be doing and you should believe in the organization, its products, or its services. “You just have to pick your interest and sell yourself.”

Lawton isn’t the first athletic trainer to trade the training room for the boardroom. Even while working for five years as an athletic trainer in high schools and clinics, Brady Smith, MBA, ATC, had a business career in mind. “I just wanted to have more options and develop my career in health care in a slightly different way than most athletic trainers do. It’s proven to be a wise move,” he says.

Newly armed with a master’s degree in business administration, Smith last year became a business analyst in musculoskeletal and surgical services for St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. His job is to take the strategic direction of upper management, research the problem, analyze financial ramifications, develop a plan, and work with whomever necessary to carry it out. Recently, for instance, he successfully cut the number of insurance payment denials.

With an MBA, his salary is significantly larger than for a typical campus-based ATC, and the schedule is more reasonable. “In the odd week when we have several reports due or a lot of things scheduled, I may work 55 hours, but for the most part it’s a 40-hour work week,” Smith says. “More than the hours, the reasonably set schedule is nice. I can plan to meet my fiancee for dinner at 7 p.m. and know I’m going to be there.”

Knowledge of spreadsheet and database software strengthened his MBA-program application, but more important, Smith says, was a general aptitude for business-world demands. “Overall, the programs that I applied to and investigated were very much interested in a mix of practical experience and classroom knowledge, probably more so on the practical side—showing that you can work with people, have good communication skills, can solve problems, and think on your feet. That’s what an athletic trainer does every day. You just have to learn how to apply those skills to business settings.”

Some athletes can't keep score, don't face an opponent, and never walk on a podium. These are the type of people treated by David Oliphant, MS, ATC, Manager of the Work-Fit Center at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland Fossil Plant in Cumberland City, Tenn.

Oliphant, the only ATC at the 480-employee facility, leads injury-prevention classes and conducts voluntary ready-to-work evaluations for new hires in which their strength, range of motion, and flexibility are assessed in hopes of helping their work go easier and without injury. “There’s the feeling that these are industrial athletes,” Oliphant says. “Our evaluations fit right in with athletic training. There are some other areas, like ergonomics, assessing body posture, and things like that sometimes fit in with athletic training as well.”

Oliphant came to athletic training relatively late, in his 40s, after an industrial career himself. He worked in high schools and colleges before taking his current position.

An average of 30 patients per week come on their own or after referrals from the plant nurse or their personal physicians. Oliphant has access to a full spectrum of standard rehab equipment, and the plant has a fitness facility. He occasionally lends a hand in emergency situations but such response is usually up to other professionals.

“It’s an environment that can be dirty, and sometimes it’s very noisy,” he says. “The plusses are that I’m my own person, yet I work for a company. I can talk to other people who work here, but I’m essentially my own boss.

“I work 40 hours a week, and it’s very rare that I have overtime. If I have to see someone who’s on a rotating shift, I may have to come in an hour early to do their rehab, but then I’ll just leave an hour early.”

Earnings are “well above $30,000,” Oliphant says. “There are decent benefits and health care. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

The irony isn’t lost on Les Lundberg, MS, ATC: Seeking more stability, he quit his job as athletic trainer for the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League and did something that’s usually less stable. Although about half of all new businesses fail within five years, Lundberg started one anyway.

Three years later, the Blades have folded, while Lundberg’s business thrives. “I guess I was looking at long-term stability,” Lundberg recalls with a chuckle. “When you’re on a one-year contract from year to year to year, you don’t really know where you are going to be. You can be 100 percent flawless, but if they change general managers or coaches, and then they want to bring their own staff in, boom, out the door you go.”

Being your own boss, though, doesn’t guarantee an income, and jumping in takes more than a little nerve. Now, Lundberg’s business, Kinetic Innovations, of Omaha, Neb., continues to grow. Lundberg figures he’s gained control over his destiny, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Lundberg, unable to find the kind of braces he wanted for his athletes, began making his own. With the help of the team’s equipment manager, he’d cobble together pieces of old gear, and developed a knack for designing. Companies kept shooting him down because the mock-ups were raw, but once Lundberg got professional-quality prototypes made, he got some bites. He found a contract manufacturer in Taiwan, and got logistical help from the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s small-business development center.

“It’s been pretty much on-the-job training, like the internship route for an ATC,” Lundberg explains.

For ATCs contemplating a switch to entrepreneurship, Lundberg advises that they set aside their egos and ask for help with tasks such as accounting, setting up a corporation, documenting importing, and getting patents. Other advice: If you have a good idea, don’t let a few rejections stop you. Take it to the next stage of development because that can make your product more marketable.

Some days, Lundberg wishes he had someone to pass the buck to. But now he can have dinner with his family before resuming work in the evenings, and long hours are easier to accept when he’s in control. “I don’t view it as work,” he says. “It’s just something I have to do. I have a better attitude.”

When documenting the causes of injuries that athletes have sustained, it’s a safe bet that few athletic trainers have had to write “ran into the set” or “overuse from weight of headdress.” But these are common diagnoses for Elaine Winslow-Redmond, MS, ATC.

Winslow-Redmond is the Athletic Trainer for New York City’s storied Radio City Music Hall Rockettes dance troupe. After joining the Rockettes as a dancer eight years ago, Winslow-Redmond got hurt and, facing up to 30 shows a week with as little as an hour between performances, she found it hard to get out to see an athletic trainer for help. She believed there was a better way to treat and rehabilitate the 200 dancers than simply referring them out, and that they could benefit from preventive training.

So Winslow-Redmond began work on a master’s degree in exercise physiology and nutrition and an athletic training certification. For her thesis, Winslow-Redmond wrote a proposal aimed at the company that owns the Rockettes (whose corporate cousins include the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers), and eventually persuaded decision-makers that the dancers needed in-house sports-medicine care just like basketball and hockey players.

Today, Winslow-Redmond works with a dance-medicine physician and a physical therapist. They start the 200 Rockettes out with a preseason screening—October through January is their busiest time—then launch preventive conditioning. Winslow-Redmond still dances, and seeing her go injury-free helps sell many Rockettes on the importance of a conditioning regime and the 45-minute pre-performance warm up she advocates.

“We have a lot of upper-body concerns because of the costumes, which weigh quite a bit. I actually had a dancer who subluxed a shoulder while putting on a costume. We have a lot of hip issues as well due to our famous high kicks.”

Her advice to someone hoping to combine athletic training with another passion is to be prepared to educate others about an ATC’s role. Although she initially met resistance, Winslow-Redmond focused on athletic training’s injury-prevention potential in her proposal.

“Know what you’re talking about and be very persistent,” she says. “And educate yourself well. It took me five years.”

Dance is also a part of the athletic-training career of Anna Owsley, MS, ATC. Owsley danced as a high school student and worked with a Broadway-style theater company in college. While Owsley was pursuing a master’s degree at Indiana University, the head of her graduate program began an assistantship providing IU’s ballet department with an athletic trainer. Owsley got the job. After school, she went to work in Virginia with HealthSouth and the Richmond Ballet.

Now, she’s in Ohio as an athletic trainer whose duties include training and coverage at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which functions as the University of Cincinnati’s dance department. She also works with Jacqui Haas, ATC, of Spectrum Rehab Performing Arts Medicine, to cover Cincinnati Ballet performances and dress rehearsals.

“For the most part, I’m your typical athletic trainer who works in a clinic and does outreach. My outreach happens to be dance medicine,” Owsley explains.

“We also have a contract with one of the big theaters in town and we cover all the Broadway shows. So when a company comes in, I’ll give the stage manager a call. Sometimes, it’s as easy as arranging doctor’s visits.”

Owsley says that having covered football games, she’s accustomed to dealing with acute injuries, which, though rare, do happen in dance. And in rehabilitation, she has the mind set of getting an athlete—be it a dancer or ball player—back into performing shape as soon as possible.

“I take the attitude that these dancers are high-level athletes, and we progress them as such. They just happen to stand with their feet turned out, do things in different planes, and are a little bit more aesthetic.”

Performing-arts medicine has huge market potential for athletic trainers, from local dance studios and schools to touring Broadway shows, Owsley says. She suggests contacting nearby dance teachers or university dance departments to identify new clients. “You can gradually make a name for yourself as the person in town who dancers should see,” she says. “Dancers are always happy to have someone who wants to help them. I doubt you’re ever going to be turned down.”

Erik Nason’s passion is a bit noisier than his colleagues’, but he’s managed to combine it with athletic training. Nason, MS, ATC/L, CSCS, works full-time with RehabWorks at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, providing preventive and rehabilitative care to the 12,000 workers at the nation’s launch center for manned space flight and the Cape Canaveral Air Station. But Nason’s true passion is auto racing, and he combines it with his career in a part-time job is as Program Manager for the International Motor Sports Association sports medicine service, providing care for drivers and crew members on the American LeMans Series sportscar racing circuit.

Once a month for 10 months each year, Nason spends a weekend in the trailer of the Mobile Sports Medicine Group at race sites during practice and race sessions. “Drivers, team members, and car owners come to us,” Nason says. “If there's an accident on the track, the individual is brought in by emergency crews and evaluated at the infield care center. After those doctors are done, they’ll send them over to the sports medicine trailer, and we’ll take care of them. Whether it’s an individual saying he’s got chronic back pain from loading and unloading a truck, or a driver who has rotator cuff problems, we can help.”

Nason acknowledges how fortunate he is. He gets to travel, occasionally to Europe and Asia, but it’s only a few days a month. “I grew up loving racing. And to actually be at a track once a month for 30 hours on a weekend, you can’t beat it.”

Nason happened upon the role through luck and salesmanship. He met some doctors working with the Corvette racing team. Nason made his pitch about what athletic trainers can do, and the people in charge gave him one race to prove himself.

“When they hired me, I ended up doing quite a bit of the work,” Nason says. “Most of the guys had complaints of muscle soreness, pain, chronic injuries, or acute injuries that an emergency physician didn’t normally deal with, but as an athletic trainer, it was right up my alley.”

Nason also volunteers at professional rodeos. Listed as an approved ATC, Nason is contacted by a regional representative of the rodeo circuit whenever there’s an event in Florida. Nason says the same approach can work for anyone trying to break into a non-traditional sport.

“If you know someone in that area, you can promote athletic training and show it can benefit the sport,” says Nason. “Most people are all for it.”

Britta Ottoboni, MA, ATC, CSCS, and certified personal trainer, also volunteers. As a result, she’s now a full-time freelancer whose clients include nationally and internationally competitive figure skaters in the Detroit area. She’s her own boss, yet she travels and has a role in the highest level of the sport.

Ottoboni began volunteering in the U.S. Olympic system in 1988, gradually working up to traveling to the 1992 Winter Games with the women’s alpine skiing team, and with the snowboarders in 1994. Then, just before the 1998 Winter Games, Ottoboni got a call from a doctor for a Detroit-area figure skater. A swimmer in high school and college, Ottoboni had never considered the sport. But she immediately saw a need for athletic training care for the area’s figure skaters at the Detroit Skating Club, a private three-rink center.

Word of Ottoboni’s work spread, and she found herself with a list of club clients for whom she functions as a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach. Though independent, she works out of a small clinic at the club staffed with one full- and one part-time ATC/physical therapist from Detroit’s Beaumont Hospital.

Ottoboni suggests that ATCs looking for a change should think broadly and volunteer. “I would never have expected to be involved in figure skating. I belonged, I thought, on a football field or at a hockey rink, those types of things. But athletes to me are athletes, and their goals are all to be the best they can. I thrive on the pressure of getting them to that goal.

“You have to go out and try to create some of your own opportunities,” she adds, “and you have to be willing to take risks. Because they won’t all work out.”

Athletic training can provide a valuable foundation for other careers in hands-on healthcare, as Tom Gocke, MS, ATC, PA-C, discovered. Gocke became a physician’s assistant for Strand Orthopaedic Consultants of Myrtle Beach, S.C., after about 10 years as a college athletic trainer.

Gocke sees new patients and makes hospital rounds, assists in surgery, and is regularly on call to see hospital emergency room patients with orthopedic injuries. “Just like athletic trainers, we’re an extension of the team physician—seeing people at practice, evaluating injuries, and discussing with the team physician how to manage them.”

Gocke was drawn to being a physician’s assistant, in part, by realizing that what he liked most about athletic training was diagnosing patients. He says his athletic training experience gave him a huge advantage, particularly in an orthopedic practice.

“I know what a grade-two AC joint sprain looks and feels like, and recognize those subtle hints when someone has an unstable or partial ACL tear versus a complete tear,” he says. “Those are things that I just never learned in physician assistant school, and athletic training taught me. As athletic trainers, we learn how to manage injuries from the get-go. You have to make a decision. You evaluate somebody, you set up a treatment plan, you initiate it, and then you reassess. That’s a lot of what we do in orthopedic surgery. In physician assistant school, I picked up some of those skills on clinical rounds, but they didn’t really teach a lot of that stuff.”

Gocke says he doubled his salary from his athletic training days, though the hours are still long and, thanks to emergency on-call duty, occasionally odd. But it’s more predictable and manageable. “If I want to go on vacation in October, I can go,” he says. “It’s not like I’m stuck someplace because football practice is going on.

“By the same token, athletic trainers don’t necessarily have to get up at three in the morning and operate on somebody who ran their car into a telephone pole and has two broken femurs.”

Other athletic trainers are capitalizing on their healthcare knowledge in a variety of jobs. Edward Stier, MA, ATC, spends some of his afternoons each week as Head Athletic Trainer at the Pennsylvania State University-Abington campus and covering events at Manor College in the Philadelphia area. But he also works as an auditor of pharmaceutical sales people’s inventories. To help them meet a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule, Stier takes inventory of drug company reps’ sample supplies for comparison against the sales people’s records.

A former clinic-based ATC, Stier says he’s familiar with drug reps and the pharmacopoeia from his athletic training work. “I guarantee that if you talk to an athletic trainer about the difference between aspirin and Advil, they’ll give you a five-minute lecture on it, without question.”

As Operations Director for Quintech Health Services of Essington, Pa., Stier also helps put ATCs in roles that enable them to use their medical education and experiences. For example, the company is working with a hotel chain to talk to employees about wellness, injury prevention, nutrition, emergencies, and using other healthcare providers.

“Most companies that deal with on-site prevention of injuries mostly use healthcare professionals such as registered nurses, EMTs, or physical therapists,” says Stier. “Well, we fit that mold identically, even more so, because we have a little bit of knowledge of each of those disciplines, and we’re accustomed to dealing with acute trauma. If you have an athlete who blew out his knee on the field and a guy in a hotel who fells down a flight of stairs, what’s the difference?”

When it comes to encouraging his fellow athletic trainers, Stier is an unabashed proselytizer. “You went to school to be a leader, to deal with organizational management, and to learn how to prevent injuries, rehab injuries, and give educational seminars,” he says. “Simply doing that in only one setting is, in my opinion, a waste of good talent.”