Athletic trainers Andrea Taylor and Stephanie Mitchell probably won’t show up in any of the national economic reports, but they were involved in a ground-breaking export program organized through the University of South Carolina three years ago.
The effort sends something the United States is good at producing – athletic trainers – to a country lacking in sports medicine resources.
“There’s a market over there for people to pay for good sports medicine,” said Jim Mensch, director of USC’s athletic training education program. “And that’s the market we’re going for.”
The effort began after USC team physician Dr. Jeffrey Guy worked at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. During his time in China, Guy visited one of the local high schools for international students. He found they had no athletic trainers for their sports teams. In fact, China had few sports medicine specialists of any kind.
Others in Beijing for the Olympics also recognized the need and formed the Institute for Western Surgery, which brings in U.S. specialists several times a year. Guy, for instance, flies to China to repair knees and other joints.
Guy recommended the effort filter down to athletic trainers, the frontline workers in the sports medicine field. Mensch took a trip to China and came back with a plan. He would recruit volunteers among students finishing their graduate work in the USC program to spend one-year internships at high schools in China that cater to the children of workers from other countries.
Four pioneers were selected – Taylor, Mitchell, Christina Haupt and Kate Abdelnour. They had to set up new programs at schools where administrators and athletes had never dealt with athletic trainers. That was easy compared to learning to navigate Chinese culture and communicate using hand signals and a few Mandarin words.
“I never would have thought I’d go over there, but when they presented it, I thought ‘Why not?’” Taylor said.
Mitchell had a similar initial reaction, then she thought: “This would not only be a great opportunity to spread the word about athletic training but a great cultural experience for me as well. ... This type of opportunity does not come around often.”
Taylor ended up at Utahloy International School in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China with a population of nearly 13 million people. Abdelnour went to American International School in Guangzhou. Mitchell and Haupt were assigned to Concordia International School in Shanghai, by some counts the largest city in the world with 23 million residents.
The schools’ athletic teams competed against other international schools throughout Asia, which meant the former USC students also got to experience other parts of the continent.
Many of the school administrators and teachers were from Europe or Asia, where what they call physios serve roles similar to athletic trainers. But they weren’t aware of athletic trainers’ broader responsibilities helping athletes prevent injuries, providing initial evaluation of injuries and aiding recovery.
The USC students had fun setting up the first training rooms at the schools and putting together injury and recovery protocols. Taylor even taught taping techniques to Chinese physios.
“It wasn’t as difficult as you might think (at the schools),” Taylor said, “but everything non-related to work was hard.”
Taylor struggled picking up the language, leaving with only basic taxi and restaurant Mandarin. She never will forget the crazy navigational skills of the taxi drivers nor the amazing food (with nary a General Tsao chicken on a menu).
Most striking to Mitchell was the mixture of old and new culture. “The contrast between old teahouses and some of the largest buildings in the world next to each other is amazing,” Mitchell said.
After her year in China, Taylor returned to Columbia for a six-month program at USC Sports Medicine. She is spending this semester as a contract athletic trainer at Benedict College while considering going back to school to become a physicians’ assistant. She would love to return to Asia as a tourist.
Mitchell enjoyed her first year so much that she signed up for another year working at Concordia and teaching middle school physical education classes.
Mensch was surprised no USC students signed up for the second year of the program in 2011. He opened the process to students from other schools and received more than 100 applications for the three available spots.
There might be more spots to fill in 2012. A new professional basketball training program in China contacted Mensch about adding athletic trainers to its staff. He said several USC students are in the running for the third round of exports this year.
Taylor and Mitchell highly recommend the program.
“I went to a country where I didn’t speak the language and worked for a year and lived there,” Taylor said. “That’s got to be a big thing for whatever job I end up in.”
“I would tell someone to definitely go for it but make sure to keep an open mind,” Mitchell said. “While Shanghai is becoming more Westernized, you’re still living in China, so stay open to learning and exploring new things.”