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The Best of Both Worlds

by: Jane Musgrave
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As a youngster, Kathy Schniedwind was fascinated with medicine. "When I was in fourth grade I told people I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up," she says.

But in addition to her interest in dissection kits, anatomy books and games like Operation, she was also drawn to the athletic field. An avid athlete, she played lacrosse, softball, field hockey, basketball and ran track in high school and college.

So when it came time to pick a career, she knew she had to alter her fourth-grade plans. She wanted a job that would enable her to combine her two passions. And 25 years after she graduated with a master's degree in athletic training, she knows she made the right choice.

"When I run out on the field with the team on game day it gives me chills," says Schniedwind, who has been head athletic trainer at Illinois State University for 13 of the 25 years she's been at the school. "I just love it. I love athletics. I love the competition. I love being able to help people. I guess when I stop getting chills, I'll know its time to retire."

At 48, however, Schniedwind is too busy to even think about her faraway golden years. There's accreditation to seek, continuing education classes to take, students to teach, athletes to keep in top physical shape, injuries to wrap, schedules to write and games to attend.

Since being recognized by the American Medical Association as an affiliated health care group in 1990, the profession has undergone sweeping changes. All schools that have athletic training programs must be accredited by 2004 or their programs will cease to exist. That means beefing up educational offerings, rewriting rules and procedures and changing the way many things have been done for years.

"In the long-term I think it's going to be a very good thing," Schniedwind says of the changes. "Students will have a lot more course work and a lot more education." And, ultimately, athletes will receive better care.

But, she says, in the short-term it's made her already demanding job even more hectic.

As the head athletic trainer at Illinois, it is up to Schniedwind to provide medical care, nutritional advice and counseling to 350 athletes involved in 19 sports at the Division I-A school. That means juggling schedules to make sure that either she or one of her three assistants or three graduate assistants are available, not just to staff games, but to serve athletes who are working out in the off-season.

Since athletes began working out year around, the demands on athletic trainers have grown tremendously, she says. Like the athletes they serve, trainers used to move in an orderly fashion from football to basketball to baseball. One group of athletes would shuffle in while another group shuffled out. These days, however, athletes don't go away. Football players are working out during baseball season, baseball players are working out in football season and basketball players are working out in both. Add the increasing number of women athletes to the mix and the reasons for the increased demand on trainers' time is obvious.

Further, she says, at the same time the sheer number of athletes they are dealing with at any given time has grown, so too has the education required for trainers.

"You have to know a lot more than you did in the earlier years," she says. "You have to have much more technical knowledge and there's continuing medical advances. It's difficult to keep up with it all."

When Schniedwind began work at Illinois in 1976, for instance, the most common way to treat injuries was to hand athletes an ice pack or a hot pack, have them rub down with Ben Gay or stick them in the whirlpool. These days, she says, there are machines to stimulate muscles, machines to increase muscle strength and agility, and machines that sped an injured athlete's recovery.

But, at the same time that the use of machines has increased, the personal touch has increased as well. Trainers do a lot more hands-on therapy, manipulating and massaging muscles to both prevent injury and to aid rehabilitation.

That Schniedwind is head athletic trainer at a major university is a sign of how much the profession has changed. She was hired in 1976 to be the athletic trainer for women's sports. After a few years she was promoted to co-head athletic director and helped out with some of the men's sports, including football. Then, when the longtime athletic director retired in 1988, she was named sole head athletic trainer.

While there are no statistics on how many women are head athletic trainers, Schniedwind says she is one of the few at a Division I-A school who oversees a football program. When the 27,000-member National Athletic Trainers Association surveyed its members last year, only 217 of the roughly 400 women who responded described themselves as head trainers. Of those only 34.4 percent said they were responsible for both men's and women's sports.

Schnwiedwind says there's no reason women shouldn't be considered for head jobs. One of the few things she does differently than a male athletic trainer is her approach to the locker room. Unless it is absolutely necessary, she doesn't go in when the team is getting ready for a game or immediately after a game. "What I don't want to do is impinge on their privacy," she says. Players, she says, respect her because she treats them with respect.

Other than waiting outside the locker room instead of rushing in, she says her gender has never caused her any problem. "I've been fortunate that the staffs have been very accepting," she says.

Still, she is looking forward to the day when gender isn't an issue in hiring decisions. In the national association's survey, 84.3 percent of the women members said that men are given preference over women when head trainers are hired. Schniedwind said she got the post at Illinois because she had proved she could do the job after working for the university for nearly 11 years before she was promoted. "In the long-term the goal is for women to be hired to head positions from the outside," she says.

A bigger goal, she says, is that all schools have athletic trainers. While big universities have them, small schools and high schools often don't. The National Athletic Trainers Association is pushing for legislation that would require athletic trainers in every high school in the nation. Until that happens, Schniedwind, like many other athletic trainers, helps out area high schools by sending student athletic trainers to high school games as part of the school's trainer in training program.

Hiring certified athletic trainers will reduce the pressure on coaches, she says. Too often, when schools don't have athletic trainers, coaches are forced to make medical decisions. That, she says, isn't fair to the coach, who doesn't have proper training to make such decisions, or the athletes, who deserve the best medical treatment they can get.

When an athletic trainer is finally hired, however, some coaches have a hard time giving up their former responsibility. Coaches should remember that trainers are part of the same team and are working for what's best for the athlete and the program, Schniedwind says.

As for herself, she says, she can't imagine a better job.

To remind herself how lucky she and her student athletes are, she works as chairwoman of the medical committee for the Illinois Special Olympics and oversees the care of the mentally and physically challenged athletes at games throughout the state. "You get to appreciate sports from a different perspective," she says of what attracts her to the Special Olympics. "They get excited when they come in seventh place. You feel such joy when you're around them. It's just a neat feeling."

Further, working on a college campus, has its own special rewards.

"The college kids keep me young," she says. "The students never age because a new group comes in every year. And because they never age, you feel like you don't either."


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