A Legacy of Leadership: Athletic Training at UVA

UVA’s Athletic Training program has been an innovator in its field since day one. As the program debuts a new degree, its leaders are determined to maintain the program’s standard of excellence.

Laura Hoxworth

When UVA announced its first athletic training program in 1975, it wasn’t just a first for the university – it was one of the very first post-professional athletic training programs in the country. This year, the program aims to continue its trailblazing legacy as it retires the original 13-month master’s program and transitions to a new, two-year professional master’s program.

The new program, instead of offering advanced education for certified athletic trainers, is designed to prepare students for certification through a rigorous schedule of academic courses and clinical training. The change is part of a larger evolution within the field of athletic training. But to understand where the program is going, you have to understand where it began.

Back in the ’70s, the profession of athletic training was just barely getting off the ground. That all changed largely thanks to one man: Joe Gieck. Gieck, UVA’s first full-time athletic trainer, worked at UVA for a total of 43 years before his retirement in 2005. During that time, he earned two degrees from UVA, established both the original M.Ed. in Athletic Training and the Ph.D. in Sports Medicine, and served as UVA’s director of sports medicine – among a laundry list of other accomplishments. In 1990, he was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) Hall of Fame.

Jay Hertel, current director of UVA’s graduate programs in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine and the Joe H. Gieck Professor of Sports Medicine, said it’s nearly impossible to overstate Gieck’s influence. “Joe was really a pioneer in athletic training,” he said. “He was a leader during a period of tremendous growth within the profession. More importantly, he was a mentor for hundreds of students and student-athletes here at UVA.”

Under Gieck’s leadership, UVA’s program took off – and the field of athletic training itself transformed from an emerging area of study into a highly competitive and well-respected profession. Today, athletic trainers are responsible for managing the full range of injuries and medical conditions in athletes of all ages: from prevention to examination, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.

For that reason, athletic training requires the wide knowledge base and analytical skills needed to work closely with physicians and other health care professionals in a medical setting. But, in order to effectively work with athletes and students, athletic trainers should also be compassionate, adaptable, and good listeners. Ultimately, they cross the boundaries of education and healthcare to serve as experts in human movement and well-being.

Throughout this development, UVA has remained in the top echelon of athletic training programs. In addition to the academic curriculum, the program is a nationally and internationally recognized center for research excellence. It houses the Exercise and Sport Injury Lab, where master’s students work closely with doctoral students and faculty on innovative research in human motion and neuromuscular performance to provide new insight on the prevention and management of sports injuries. The annual Art and Science of Sports Medicine conference, established in 1972, brings expert researchers and speakers to Grounds each year.

In 43 years, the program had only four directors: Gieck was succeeded by David Perrin and Chris Ingersoll, who have both gone on to other prestigious leadership roles in the field. Hertel, who received the Medal for Distinguished Athletic Training Research in 2011, took the reins in 2008. “The strength of the scholarship, the strength of the leadership, the strength of the students has really created a legacy that we think is second to none, and I think a lot of people in the field would agree with us,” said Art Weltman, chair of UVA’s Kinesiology department.

Now, as when the first program was created, UVA is at the forefront of a shift within the field of athletic training as a whole. “It’s where our profession is headed,” said Michael Higgins, director of the new Master of Science in Athletic Training program. In recent years, Higgins said, the governing bodies for athletic training have reached the consensus that a master’s level education prior to certification will be necessary to better meet the future needs of society, athletic trainers, and athletes alike. On a large scale, this kind of change is slow-moving – but UVA’s program leaders aren’t just trying to keep up. They want to set the standard.

While the decision wasn’t easy, Hertel said he and his colleagues are driven by a strong sense of responsibility to the program and its graduates. “I graduated from the program myself and hold its leaders in very high esteem,” he said. “That was really important to me as we were going through the decision-making process. I think we owe it to our alumni base to make sure that the University of Virginia maintains its role as a center for excellence in athletic training education.”

The first cohort of five students began last summer and are set to graduate in May 2019. From now on, the program will be open to anyone who has completed the undergraduate prerequisites. Applicants do not need to be certified athletic trainers or hold a certain undergraduate major. “It broadens the scope of who can participate in athletic training at the professional level,” Higgins said. For example, he said, many college athletes aren’t able to complete the requirements of an undergraduate athletic training degree due to their rigorous schedules. Now, those students can pursue a professional master’s degree in athletic training at UVA.

The new curriculum builds on the strong foundation of its predecessor, with practical clinical experience beginning almost on day one. Each semester, students cycle through clinical rotations in a variety of settings, including college, high school, military and professional. Two additional immersive experiences give students at least 13 weeks of hands-on, full-time clinical experience before graduation. Students also complete regular exams, both practical and written, and a final thesis or scholarly project.

“This program will give you what you put into it,” said Nathan Jones, a member of the inaugural cohort. “So far, I have immensely enjoyed my experience. You have the opportunity to work with high level athletic programs and meet some truly remarkable people.”

In addition to Michael Higgins, the faculty includes Luzita Vela, who serves as the clinical coordinator for the program; Joe Hart, recipient of the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) New Investigator Award and a fellow of NATA and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM); Jay Hertel, incoming editor of the Journal of Athletic Training and a fellow of NATA and ACSM; Jake Resch, recent recipient of NATA and Department of Defense research grant funding; and Sue Saliba, fellow of NATA, former member of the NATA Executive Council for Education and former chairperson for Athletic Training Clinical Education.

Program leaders are adamant that they haven’t built the program all on their own. In particular, they accredit UVA’s athletic department and its leadership, especially Head Athletic Trainer Ethan Saliba. “Ethan has been a tireless advocate for our program,” Hertel said. “The majority of our students get clinical education experiences working with the athletic training staff in athletics, and we couldn’t do it without them.”

In addition, Hertel said that off-Grounds relationships with the local community are vitally important to the program’s success. Many of the program’s partnerships with local school districts and organizations go back decades. Together, the UVA and Charlottesville networks offer a rich ecosystem of opportunity. “The amount of resources our students have available to them – you’re not going to get that other places,” Higgins said.

In many ways, the results speak for themselves. Faculty with decades of experience are well-known and integrated within the profession, serving as editors of prestigious journals and sitting on committees for national and international organizations. A strong network of UVA alumni hold leadership positions across the country. The list of accolades and awards goes on.

It’s a lot of pressure to live up to a reputation like that – but ultimately, program leaders said that pressure is exactly what motivates them to keep pushing forward. This summer, when the last group of post-professional master’s students give their final thesis presentations, all three previous program directors will return to Grounds for the occasion. Together, the program’s leaders, past and present, will celebrate the end of one era – and the beginning of a new one.

“We’re not content to rest on our past accomplishments,” Weltman said. “We’ve been the trailblazers across the country in what a post-professional master’s program looks like, and it’s our commitment to maintain that same standard for this new professional master’s degree.”

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