Behind every successful sports team and every individual athlete stands a strong team of supporters. UAA’s athletic training staff is a strong component in that matter.
Chris Volk, head athletic trainer at UAA for 24 years, just announced her retirement for October 31, 2017. Volk will celebrate her first Thanksgiving with her family in 25 years. In previous years, she always had to work the Great Alaska Shootout, a basketball tournament hosted by UAA’s Athletic Department.
Her staff, consisting of Rachel Butler, Kevin Lechtenberg and Michael Dhesse, are ready to take over her duties until another addition to their team arrives.
Volk discovered the career as an athletic trainer for herself after getting injured playing softball in college.
“When I got seriously injured I saw even more what the athletic trainers did and the role they played in getting the student athletes back to activity,” Volk said.
When Volk started working as the head athletic trainer at UAA, she was the lone athletic trainer for all sports.
“I love science and I also love sports. So for my career, I was always looking to tie these two together. Back then, sports medicine was a new term I thought, ‘My two favorite things and I can do them together.’ Athletic training was perfect,” Volk said.
Now that her staff has grown, she went from covering all sports to mainly women’s volleyball and gymnastics. The entire staff share the alpine and cross country skiing teams.
Lechtenberg was the first addition to Volk’s staff 19 years ago. The Iowa native also developed an interest in the profession of athletic training after also tearing his ACL at the age of 14.
After caring for UAA’s hockey team for his first 17 years at UAA, Lichtenberg took over men’s basketball and women’s and men’s track and field.
“In physical therapy, you might see a patient for a handful of months and then they are discharged and you maybe never see them again. But we get to see our patients, our student athletes, for four or five years and we get to see them grow,” Lechtenberg said.
Butler, who joined UAA’s athletic training staff six years ago, finds great joy in working with student athletes. After volunteering at a physical therapy clinic during her sophomore year of college, she realized that it wouldn’t be the career for her and switched to athletic training.
“I was working in Colorado at a D-II school for four years and was ready to move on from there. I had a student athlete from Alaska. He was injured and we would just talk about Alaska during his rehab all the time. There was an opening, so I applied,” Butler said.
Butler currently works with women’s basketball and men’s and women’s cross country but is happy to support all athletes during their journey of recovery.
In collegiate sports, each athlete is eligible for four years to compete in a sport and one additional red-shirt season. An injury during the season can mean the loss of one entire year of eligibility. Athletes generally do not want to accept the loss of an entire season due to what seems like bad timing.
“A big challenge can be when you have an athlete and coach that want something different than what’s good for the health of the athlete. Sometimes you get an athlete who can push through certain things and can continue on playing, but sometimes that’s not good for their long term health, so it’s trying to educate them and encourage them to make the best decision,” Butler said.
UAA’s athletic trainers have their students’ short and long term health in mind as well as their athletic and professional success.
“You hear through coaches or teammates about how people are doing and sometimes they come back just to visit. You keep track of some people and it’s also rewarding to see them move on,” Lechtenberg said.
The responsibility as an athletic trainer also comes at a price. The hours are spread according to various circumstances such as court times, coaches and administration meetings, acute injuries, doctors’ appointments, rehab sessions, season progressions and meets or games.
“You are on-call 24/7. Student-athletes have our phone numbers for good reasons,” Volk said. “We have the privilege of working with people that are healthy other than the risks that are inherent in their sport. It is a privilege to work with a population like that and get to watch them perform.”
None of UAA’s athletic trainers would trade their profession under any circumstances.