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The Road to Rio: Perspective of a U.S. Rowing Team Physician

Dr. Jo Hannafin in Rio for 2016 Olympics

People often ask what it is like to be a physician that works with U.S. Olympic athletes. To begin to answer that question I need to go back in time over thirty years.

I was a college freshman in the year of Title IX and walked on as a member of the inaugural women’s rowing team at Brown. That was the beginning of a 30 year+ involvement with a sport, which shaped my work ethic, my approach to team work, my involvement in sports and the ultimate choice of a career in orthopedic surgery.  Following college, I continued to train and compete on a national level until I began my orthopedic residency. Rowing brought me focus, fitness, goal setting, athletic success and a family based in sports. Rowing career highlight: Silver medal in the lightweight women’s double at the 1984 World Championships

Flash forward ten years when I was first invited to serve as a physician for the US Rowing team. I began by covering World Championship events and subsequently had the honor of working at the rowing venue at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games where I cared for athletes from around the world. I also experienced the joy of witnessing Team USA’s lightweight women’s double win a silver medal at the Games.  This was the first year of inclusion of lightweight women at an Olympic Games … just ten years after my participation in the first international competition for lightweight women in 1984.

My experiences as an athlete have clearly shaped the way that I educate and treat athletes from all sports and of all ages. Experiencing competition at that level, understanding the sacrifices made to train as an elite athlete helps me to manage the athlete expectations, disappointment associated with injury and the joy experienced with recovery and successful return to competition.

In 2004, I was a physician with the United States Olympic Committee for the Olympic Games in Athens where I covered multiple sports ranging from rowing to Greco Roman wrestling, marathon, cycling and a variety of other sports.  In addition, we cared for athletes from all sports in the USOC medical clinic within the Olympic Village and the approach was always the same:  understand the history leading to injury, make a diagnosis and formulate a plan that ideally allowed continued competition.  There were circumstances where that was not possible based on the severity of the injury which was devastating for the athlete at the pinnacle of competition.  I was also able to witness competition in multiple events which was absolutely incredible!

Along this path I was appointed to the Medical Commission of FISA, the international governing body for rowing which broadened my horizons and has taught me how to work with athletes, coaches and medical personnel from around the world at World Championship and World Cup events.

I write this from Lucerne Switzerland, where I have been for the past week with the US Rowing team.  Some athletes are here to battle through the last Olympic qualification regatta in order to gain a spot at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  Others are present to participate in a rowing World Cup where they will race against athletes from around the world … an early taste of the competition that they will face in August in Rio.  The competition is intense and stress levels are high.  Fortunately, the athletes are all healthy and there is minimal need for my services as a physician.  For physicians who are used to busy days, solving problems with appropriate diagnoses, non-surgical treatment or surgery as most sports medicine orthopaedic surgeons are … this is an unusual situation.  Quite honestly the goal as a physician at the Olympic Games or World Championships is to be “medically bored”.  This type of medical coverage is a marked change from our normal lives, but if we are busy as physicians that is generally not good news for the athletes or the team.  We are here to serve the athletes in support of their athletic success.

As I approach my 4th Olympic Games as a physician, I am as honored and excited to participate as I was twenty years ago. Despite many years providing medical care for professional baseball, women’s soccer, women’s basketball and rowers at the World Championships, the Olympic Games are just different!  The world is watching and it is the ultimate goal of these athletes to become U.S. Olympic champions.  It is my goal to keep them as healthy as possible as they move toward this goal. Go Team USA!

Dr. Jo A. Hannafin is board certified in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine. She is an Attending Orthopedic Surgeon and Director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. She is a Professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the Head Team Physician for the WNBA New York Liberty and a Team Physician for the United States Rowing Team.

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