In the world of sports, athletes are oftentimes the ones in the spotlight, on the field making the winning play or scoring the final points on the court. Behind every athlete and team, however, is the frequently unsung hero: the athletic trainer.

With playing a sport comes many risks to the physical well-being of a student-athlete. Athletic trainers are typically the first responders when an athlete gets injured, do everything in their power to prevent injury and help athletes through the recovery process when an injury does occur.

“Some student athletes like to push themselves. Sometimes there are influences from outside factors, whether that be parents or coaches, to maybe try to push their limits,” said Jake Ryan, director of sports medicine. “First and foremost, it’s my job to keep student athletes safe.”

Depending on the sport, Ryan said, athletic trainers are oftentimes faced with a myriad of injuries that they must care for, ranging from stress and overuse to more traumatic injuries.

After being an athlete his whole life, Ryan said he got into athletic training to remain in athletics while also helping and caring for people. Beyond simply treating injuries and helping with rehabilitation, being able to meet and work with a variety of student athletes has been one of the reasons he has stayed in the profession, he said.

In a profession that does have, at times, very long hours with schedules that are frequently subject to change, Kyrsten Henry, a graduate assistant in sports science at EKU said the time commitment is not the only difficult aspect.

“The hardest part of it is having to look at someone and telling them, ‘No, you’re not allowed to play,’ and knowing that you’re kind of breaking them in that moment,” Henry said. “It’s not fun.”

Despite difficulties like those, Henry said the relationship between an athletic trainer and a student athlete is oftentimes just as much about their mental state as it is their physical state.

For athletes, she said, being taken care of physically can build a trust where athletes feel like they can open up with their trainers on a personal level.

Regan Darst, an undergraduate student of sports science at EKU, said building those relationships can bring significance to a job that can also be taxing, both emotionally and physically at times.

The EKU athletic training program, Darst said, is very applied, so students are able to use what they learn in the classroom in the training room as well. Along with that, she said, undergraduate students are able to learn from professional trainers who work alongside them.

“I’ve learned a lot more doing the hands-on stuff than in the classroom,” Darst said, “especially getting the perspective from other sides, not just your professor.”

It’s through that time on the sidelines or in the training room that athletic trainers, whether they be trained professionals or students, are able to use their knowledge to help student athletes achieve their personal victories, Henry said.

“My favorite parts are seeing those milestones in athletes, especially post-surgical, when you’re getting to the points where they’re accomplishing new things again and getting excited about getting to play,” Henry said.

Because of the time spent between the athlete and trainer, there is a strong investment on the trainer’s part in the athlete’s life and success, Henry said, making athletic trainers the first ones off the bench to celebrate their conquests, big or small. Trainers take pride in these victories knowing the hard work they have seen the athlete do away from their playing field, Henry said.

“The biggest piece is you get to see student athletes do what they want to do – whether that’s the last guy on the bench… or if it’s the player that plays 40 minutes each game,” Ryan said. “Helping people achieve what they want to achieve, or at least get them the opportunity to try to achieve what they want on the court or on the field, that’s special to me.”

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