Chiropractic Road to the Olympics

North American DCs are poised to make their mark at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

By Caitlin Lukacs

If you’ve ever had an Olympic dream, you know about all of the hard work and training it takes to get to the Games. The same holds true for members of the medical staff. Olympic-caliber athletes need medical care in the unfortunate event of an injury, but they also need help pushing their bodies to perform at their maximum potential. Doctors of chiropractic who specialize in sports injuries and physical fitness are the ideal practitioners to provide that care, being uniquely equipped to handle both injury and recovery treatment, as well as to help athletes prepare for the competition. And the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) agrees.

Since the 1980 Games, when George Goodheart, DC, was selected to be Team USA’s chiropractor for the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., DCs have been included on the U.S. Medical Team. In 2008, a record number of four chiropractors were sent to Beijing, China, with Team USA for the Summer Games. There were approximately 600 athletes to care for on the U.S. team. This winter, the USOC will take five DCs to Vancouver, Canada, for the 2010 Olympics. They’ll have about 200 athletic competitors to work with.

“Chiropractors have really come a long way in terms of the Olympic Games,” says Michael Reed, DC, MS, DACBSP, medical director for the USOC. “And the demands of athletes are one of the main reasons why.”

Simply put, elite athletes are asking for chiropractic treatment. Sports-focused DCs are able to treat pain and injury with spinal manipulation, but they are also trained in many other modalities that help athletes avoid injury and prepare their bodies for competition—including taping, icing and stretching, explains Dr. Reed. At the 2008 Summer Games, for example, the U.S. beach volleyball team requested that Ernest Ferrel, MA, DC, CCSP, serve as the medical staff member to accompany them to their matches.

Preparing for Vancouver
One of the five DCs chosen by the USOC to work at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Blase Toto, DC, DACBSP, will be working at the medical clinic in the Olympic Village in Vancouver. The clinic will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. He’ll provide care for several different sports teams, including figure skating, hockey and curling, as well as for those athletes whose sport does not have a team chiropractor.

“These athletes are used to receiving chiropractic care at their home training centers because they know that it helps them to perform at their top level,” Dr. Toto says. “Since we’ll all be there for about a month, the athletes will need someone to continue their regular chiropractic routine.” In addition to maintenance and performance care, Dr. Toto will also be available for acute-injury treatment.

Richard Robinson, DC, CSCS, who practices in Calgary, Canada, will attend the Olympics with the Canadian team and work with the freestyle skiing, speed skating, women’s ice hockey and alpine ski teams. “I wasn’t hired by the Canadian team just to treat injuries,” he says. “I was hired because the team recognized the value in what I do to make them go faster and perform better. If we plan to treat injuries after they’ve happened, we’re already too late; we need to get to the Olympics performing our absolute best.”

Competition actually begins a week prior to the opening ceremonies, and Dr. Robinson will be moving into the Olympic Village in the first week of February. “I’ll spend time working in the clinic in the village, but I’ll also be onsite for every training session and competition for speed skating and freestyle skiing,” he says. Luckily, the speed skating events will take place in the mornings, while freestyle will be under the lights in the evenings.

Greg Uchacz, DC, FCCSS(C), CSCS, who practices in Calgary, Canada, will also be a part of the Canadian medical staff. He will focus on the bobsled and skeleton teams and was chosen because of athlete requests. He, too, will prepare the athletes, rather than just treat their injuries. “As DCs, we focus on ensuring that the athletes are performing to their optimum biomechanical function,” he explains. “If you think about athletes as racecars, we are essentially fine-tuning them all the way through training. I’ll be present at competition time, helping to make sure the athletes are in ideal condition by stimulating nervous system responses and stretching, among other things. I’m the last person they’ll interact with before stepping onto the course,” Dr. Uchacz continues. 

According to Dr. Reed, each of the five DCs on the U.S. medical team will have slightly different responsibilities come February, but one thing they’ll have in common is competition preparation. Tetsuya Hasegawa, DC, MS, ATC, CSCS, will work with the bobsled and skeleton teams onsite at the sliding center and also out of the Olympic Village in Whistler. Eric St. Pierre, DC, DACBSP, CCSP, CSCS, who is employed by U.S. Speed Skating, will focus his attention on that team from the Olympic Village in Vancouver. Both Drs. Hasegawa and St. Pierre will be expected to care for any injuries, but their main focus will be stretching and other preparatory care—whatever it takes to have the athletes ready to compete.

Dr. Toto will work in the medical center in the Olympic Village in Vancouver and Josh Sandell, DC, DACBSP, CSCS, will be stationed at the performance service center in Whistler, doing recovery work for injured athletes. The fifth DC, Dr. Reed, is in charge of organizing the U.S. medical staff for the Games and providing care for the athletes in the Whistler Olympic Village. “It’s becoming more and more paperwork, but I’ll be available to jump in and treat athletes, if help is needed,” he says.

How They Got There
As an athlete, you can’t just sign up to compete at the Olympic Games. It takes years and years of training, and you must prove your skills at Olympic trials or team try-outs. The same holds true for doctors of chiropractic who want to work at the event. The road to the Olympics is a long one, and it often requires relationship building, as well as physical training.

To be considered for inclusion on the U.S. medical staff, DCs must first go through the USOC’s Sports Medicine Volunteer Program—a 15-day rotation at one of the U.S. Olympic Training Centers, in which they treat any athletes that need rehab or long-term care. (DCs can apply for a volunteer position by logging onto www.teamusa.org/medical.)

And it may take years before you get selected to work in an official capacity. Dr. Toto completed the volunteer program for the first time in 1995. In spring 2009, he was invited back to the training center in Colorado Springs. Shortly after he returned home, Dr. Toto received a letter stating that he had been selected to go to Vancouver for the Winter Games. “It had been a goal of mine for a long time, but I didn’t think it would ever happen because it had been 14 years since I’d first worked with the USOC,” Dr. Toto says. “I’m humbled and grateful and excited. I’ve never served in the military, so this is my opportunity to serve my country by caring for the best athletes it has to offer.”

For Dr. Robinson, it all started when he was a student at Palmer College of Chiropractic West. Having always been interested in sports, he worked with the faculty and students to start a sports chiropractic program and student sports council. After graduation, he returned home to Canada with the goal of working with athletes. “I was always looking for opportunities to get involved with sports, and I discovered that there really are a lot of ways to do that,” he says.

About 10 years ago, he started working with a trainer and a strength and conditioning coach who happened to treat elite freestyle skiers. The skiers had never had chiropractic care before, and they immediately noticed a big advantage to their bodies, particularly with the soft-tissue work Dr. Robinson was providing. Within six to nine months, Dr. Robinson was asked to travel with the freestyle ski team, and he began treating them at the national center for winter sports training in Calgary, where he was noticed by athletes from numerous other sports.

Eventually, Dr. Robinson became a contractor to the sports center, treating many of the national team members that came through. For the 2010 Olympics, those teams put in a referral for Dr. Robinson to join the Canadian team’s medical staff. “All of my opportunities have come from word-of-mouth endorsements from athletes,” he says.

Dr. Uchacz had a similar experience. When its time to select the medical staff for the Winter Games, all of the Canadian national organizations for the various sports put in applications for the practitioners that they want to be there. The bobsled and skeleton team requested Dr. Uchacz. That endorsement, along with his training and credentials, secured him a spot on the Canadian team’s staff.

Getting Started in Sports Chiropractic
If you’re interested in working within the sports arena, take the CCSP program, says Dr. Reed. There’s a lot more to working with athletes than simply giving treatments, he explains. You have to understand the team environment and know that there is a proper protocol for making decisions about an athlete’s care and communicating with other practitioners, coaches and team members.

“Then just get out there and work,” continues Dr. Reed. “The athletic population utilizes chiropractic more than the general public, and there are so many sports out there—from youth programs to local high schools or universities to semi-professional and professional teams. Volunteer your services, and opportunities will continue to open up.”
 
Dr. Reed also suggests finding a sports medicine mentor, or two. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a DC, but find someone working in sports and just follow them around and take in as much knowledge as you possibly can,” he says. “Pay particular attention to how they interact with other practitioners and members of the sports community because that is such a huge part of working in sports medicine.”

“Your focus should never be that you want to go to the Olympics; it should be that you want to serve athletes and provide them with the best care possible,” says Dr. Uchacz. “If you do a good job, the athletes will tell each other, and there’s no end to the opportunities that can come your way.”