Anticipation was in the air as the Half Moon Bay High School wrestling team practiced its moves before Thursday night’s first home dual meet.
The Cougars, with just a spotlight for illumination, warmed up to the wailing strains of the old Australian hard rock group AC/DC as the visiting El Camino team watched intently. Observing also was Half Moon Bay’s new athletic trainer, Jessica Markbreiter, who was seated on a folding chair next to the Cougar bench.
“It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll,” those Aussie rockers used to sing. It’s also a long way to the top for an athletic trainer with ambition. That’s particularly true if you’re just 24 years old, you hail from distant Texas, you’re a woman, and you stand just 3 feet, 11 inches tall.
“My brother is 6-foot-4,” Markbreiter said. “The joke is that he got the height in the family.”
New face in town
When the Cabrillo Unified School District slashed the Half Moon Bay High athletic budget by half over the last decade, the athletic trainer position became a luxury. Everyone at the school knew that was unfortunate because athletic trainers are invaluable. They’re health professionals who specialize in prevention and recognition of injuries as well as treatment when they occur.
The Half Moon Bay athletic booster club came through to fund the position and Markbreiter is paid for working 35 hours per week. She typically arrives at the high school in the early afternoon and often leaves late at night.
The Pacifica resident has been an athletic trainer since high school. She got a degree in the discipline at Texas Christian University, did post-graduate work at A.T. Still University in Mesa, Ariz., and then became a graduate assistant trainer at Phoenix College in Phoenix.
Along the way she became a certified athletic trainer. Then came the task of finding a job.
“I was looking for jobs after graduation on the National Athletic Trainer website,” Markbreiter said. “There was a job posting for Half Moon Bay. I contacted the athletic director, Justin Ferdinand, and then there was a follow-up interview. It went well. I got a good vibe.”
At some point in the interview, Markbreiter mentioned her stature — that she’s a little person. She was born with achondroplasia, a genetic bone disorder. It’s the most common type of dwarfism causing a child’s arms and legs to be short in proportion to body length. Ferdinand was unfazed.
“Jessica was our top candidate because of her knowledge and background,” the Cougars AD said. “When (stature) was brought up, it didn’t sway me in any way. My only concern was that we could accommodate her physical disability and put into place anything possible to help her be successful.”
Markbreiter was offered the job over the phone, took the weekend to ponder and then said yes.
The new hire was a quick study. She made an immediate impact at a school that didn’t have a trainer at the start of the fall season. She arrived in early October before the football team’s away game against South San Francisco.
“She’s been phenomenal,” Ferdinand said. “Coaches and student athletes like her because of her knowledge and work ethic. She jumped right in and has done a great job communicating with the coaches about injuries and rehabilitation. She’s organized and keeps logs and files on all the student athletes.”
On Oct. 29, during the Half Moon Bay home volleyball match against Aragon, Cougars star junior setter Bailey Steger stepped on the side of a teammate’s foot and went down hard, injuring her right ankle. Her cries of pain filled the gym.
“She was the first person I saw,” Steger said of Markbreiter. “She relaxed me and calmed me down. There was also a doctor there that day and they said the ankle wasn’t broken. Later she called the hospital to see how I was.”
A long road
Cindy Markbreiter is a pleasant woman who lives with her husband, Keith, in Coppell, Texas, just outside Dallas. Both are of average size. She has taken to calling 6-4 son Daniel and 3-11 daughter her “Yin and Yang.”
The trainer’s mom said she was told after her daughter was born that she had the unusual condition. Through a family contact she was connected with “Little People of America” before they left the hospital. It’s an organization Markbreiter now calls a “huge part” of her life.
As a young girl growing up in Pembroke Pines, Fla., she endured some teasing and bullying from classmates. Things improved in middle school in Texas, which she said is known for its “Southern hospitality.” She got into athletic training at Coppell High almost by accident, as a way to fulfill her physical education requirement so she could get a regular diploma.
The pastime has grown into an adult passion, stoked by her years at TCU, where she watched current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton play for the Horned Frogs, improved her training chops and even felt the thrill of victory.
The TCU athletic trainers were discouraged from fraternizing with the athletes, but also had a tradition of going to the field house entrance to congratulate them after games.
“When Jess went to give her very large football friends a congratulatory hug, it seemed they were lifting her four feet off the ground!” Cindy Markbreiter said.
The Texas mom’s admiration and love for her daughter overflows.
“I’m really proud of her,” Cindy said. “She was born early and has had a lot of obstacles, but the nurses in ICU said she has a stubborn personality. She wants to succeed at whatever she does.”
Athletic Director Ferdinand calls Markbreiter a “prominent member of the athletic department” and a “fantastic role model for student-athletes.”
Wrestling coach Tom Baker marvels at her ability to operate in some male-dominated sports and spoke of how much she cares about the student-athletes and that he hopes she stays a long time.
Half Moon Bay’s newest treasure is noncommittal. She loves the city and environs, but she has goals. She yearns to be an athletic trainer for the USA Paralympics.
“I’ve had people tell me that I can’t be an athletic trainer for various reasons, mostly physical, and all that negativity or doubt fuels my fire,” she said. “I’ll continue to work hard and find those people that are willing to work with me, just like I’ve found at Half Moon Bay High School.”