Everybody Wins

Athletic Training Education Program good for students and the community

By Margaret Cox

Ask any athlete who has suffered an injury, and they'll tell you that athletic trainers play a crucial role in helping them get back in the game.

Certified athletic trainers work with high school, college, and professional level teams, often serving as the first point of contact for injured athletes. They evaluate injuries, provide treatment, and develop rehabilitation programs designed to help athletes return to their sport. And as many thankful athletes will attest, an athletic trainer can make an enormous difference in their recovery, health, and wellness.

To fully prepare students for this challenging career, Winona State University boasts an extraordinary Athletic Training Education Program that goes well beyond the classroom and literally onto the field. During their sophomore year, students in the program are paired with certified athletic trainers at sporting events in Winona and at surrounding area schools or "clinical sites," where they can apply their classroom knowledge in real-life settings.

"As a senior it is rewarding to be able to work with athletes under the supervision of the certified athletic trainers," says current student Hannah Okerberg. Students gain invaluable hands-on experience, while area schools, athletes, and parents appreciate their expertise during games. The result is a win-win for WSU and the community.

Suiting up

Building one of the finest athletic training education programs in the Midwest is no small feat, and Shellie Nelson has been there from the start. As program director and chair for Health, Exercise, and Rehabilitative Sciences, she has fostered the program from inception into a nationally accredited program.

"When I started in 1988, it was just me," says Nelson. "Eventually, we added staff to take care of the athletes, build the curriculum, and supervise the students. Today, we have eight certified athletic trainers: three who teach in the classroom, a head athletic trainer, and four assistant athletic trainers to care for the athletes and supervise students in the field."

Through an innovative partnership with Winona Health, which employs three of the program's staff members, WSU educates nearly 100 students and services more than ten clinical sites each year.

For the staff, maintaining the quality of the educational experience can be a challenge because of the steady increase in the number of interested students. "To some degree the number of clinical sites dictates how many students can enter the program," says Nelson.

Head athletic trainer Stacey Czaplewski adds that practical experience is key to the students' success. "They get to spend time with different certified athletic trainers and see that the work can be performed differently by every trainer."

"Working with different philosophies and personalities allows the student to grow, as well. We make sure that we give our students the best practical education and that happens by working with the most qualified medical personnel in this area."

Love of the game

The program's popularity stems in part from societal focus on health and wellness, but for Winona State students, it's often more personal. Justin Streiff, a junior in the program and avid baseball player, became interested after recovering from a shoulder injury with the help of an athletic trainer. Fellow student Kayla Block met an athletic trainer following knee surgery, an experience that inspired her to pursue athletic training as a career.

"I have been very active in sports throughout my life and wanted to continue that involvement," says Block. "I like the hands-on learning of the athletic training program. Even though it's time-intensive, this program has given me much experience and has prepared me for my future."

What does the future hold for graduates of the program? Not only are they eligible to take the national certification exam, these students are well equipped to launch their careers in any number of directions.

In addition to working as athletic trainers at the high school, college and professional levels, alumni of the program also work in careers such as chiropractic medicine, physical therapy, and orthopedic sports medicine.

"After graduation I am planning on attending chiropractic school," says senior Carrie Belleson. "I hope to one day work in a chiropractic clinic that is specific to sports medicine."

Regardless of their chosen career path, students and alumni alike share a common understanding of athletes and a love for sports.

Streiff sums it up best with his no-nonsense explanation for pursuing a career as an athletic trainer: "I want to help athletes get back to doing what they love to do: playing."

With the Athletic Training Education Program at WSU, there's no doubt he and his classmates will accomplish this goal.