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Behind the Scenes: Athletic Trainers Go Above and Beyond for the Penn State Gymnastics Programs

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By Madeleine Balestrier, Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - According to the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), athletic trainers are health care professionals who provide prevention, emergency and rehabilitation services for injuries and other medical conditions. The athletic training staff that supports the Penn State men and women's gymnastics teams embody NATA's mission by going above and beyond for the athletes representing the Blue and White.


"They are just completely instrumental in our success there's no question," men's gymnastics head coach Randy Jepson said. "I mean every guy right now has something and they put in hours beyond hours and deal with each guy and give them the utmost care. They do just a great job."


Meet two of the most pivotal pieces to the Penn State gymnastics programs: athletic trainers Sarah Thompson and Ally Roark.


For the past three years, Thompson has been the primary trainer for the female gymnasts who come to Penn State to compete in Rec Hall. This season Thompson treats all 14 gymnasts representing the Blue and White.


"It's amazing that we're able to have a full-time, certified athletic trainer with our sport all the time," first year women's head coach Sarah Brown said. "The amount of work that she does, especially behind the scenes, is unmatched to the amount of work any of us do. She puts in more hours than anybody, and she does it with a smile on her face, and she loves it."


Thompson is present for every practice, strength and conditioning session, off-day treatment and rehab stint. She also helps ensure hydration and dietary needs are met for each individual gymnast at home and away meets.


"I try to make sure they all know that I'm here for them 24 hours a day with regards to anything," Thompson said.


Thompson's dedication to the Penn State women's gymnastic team and her connection with the gymnasts stems from her own experiences as a gymnast at the University of Pittsburgh.


"One of my favorite parts of the job and the reason why I do this is because when I was an athlete I got injured a lot and was really close with my trainer and having them go through the whole process of getting injured and seeing them go through those ups and downs and getting them back to eventually competing and what they love to do again is the most satisfying feeling," Thompson said.


Thompson's understanding of such a physically and mentally demanding sport also helps her to connect and to gain the trust of her athletes.


"I just make myself available all the time, and I try to just be myself," Thompson said. "I don't try to be someone that I'm not, and I think they respect that and that's important to them."


Her ability to develop these relationships enables a smoother progression of rehabilitation when athletes land devastating injuries. When junior gymnast Amber Autry injured her knee, Thompson not only worked with Autry's physical needs, but also her mental setbacks that follow with any significant injury.


"She's literally our second mom and our best friend, all at the same time," Autry said. "We tell her everything that we need to, when we're having problems, and she always helps us through every struggle that we have, and she's always there."

Although her main focus is treating injuries, Thompson finds the most reward in her ability to watch athletes grow and evolve beyond physical setbacks and the mental obstacles that come with being a student-athlete at such a highly-regarded program.

"Every time we get back on the floor after we've been off for a little while, she's one of our number one cheerleaders on the sideline for us, so excited to finally see us be able to do everything we've been wanting to do all season long," Autry said.

Like Thompson, Roark provides the same dedication and support to the men's gymnastic team as the primary athletic trainer for the team of 19. For the entire training year, she is a staple in the gym, at meets, at physician appointments, and throughout any coaches' meetings.

For Roark's daily routine with the team, communication is essential for the highest level of success and production between all parties involved. She provides a platform of moderation between the athletes, coaches, and physicians that visit once or twice a week or even during scheduled appointments where she provides the transportation.

"They correspond with us about all the stuff that is going on a daily basis and they are just a regular part of the staff," Jepson said. "You know there is a lot of decision making that goes on that includes our coaches but always includes our training staff because what they have to say is primary in the welfare of our athletes."


This emphasis on communication proved vital throughout the rehabbing process of junior Michael Burn's Achilles. When Burns tore his achilles tendon, he not only went through an exhaustive rehabilitation process, he also experienced the emotional impact of sustaining his first major injury. Roark was there every step of the way.

"Gymnastics is a really hard sport," Roark said. "Especially on your body so seeing them go from an injury to progressing through that and being able to go out and compete and seeing them do really well, it's very rewarding knowing you had a part in that."

Roark's dedication to the Penn State men's gymnastic team did not go unnoticed as Burns took it upon himself to pen his athletic trainer a long thank you note for helping him through a difficult setback in his career.

"After nine long months of recovery, I was able to compete full routines on four of the six events," Burns said. "That never would have happened if Ally hadn't been there to keep me on track, I know that would not have been the case. I just wanted to make sure she knew that I appreciate everything she has done for me throughout my recovery."

From preventative exercises months before the season, to rehabbing throughout meets and practices, Thompson and Roark are the glue and stitches behind the scenes that uphold the athletic legacy of the Blue and White that their athletes represent every season.

"They come in freshman year and you see them grow and change and mature, and then they graduate and go onto bigger and better things," Thompson said. "It's just nice knowing that you had such a huge role in that development and growth."

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