Aiming for Excellence

As a GWU Track and Field athlete, Katie Spiro knows a thing or two about the importance of an athletic trainer. “My track and field season in my freshman year was crippled by a grade-two ankle injury,” Spiro recalled. “I needed rehab and treatment every day before track practice for about four weeks. The athletic trainers at Gardner-Webb were attentive, accommodating, and flexible with my schedule. I had a great experience in spite of my injury.

”The Gardner-Webb University Athletic Training Program aims to produce certified athletic trainers who are actively engaged in injury prevention, recognition and evaluation, management/treatment and disposition, rehabilitation, and education and counseling. Through classroom education and a clinical component that offers hands-on experience, GWU is producing some of the best athletic trainers in the field. 

In 1990, the American Medical Association recognized athletic training as an allied health care profession. “Athletic trainers are health care professionals who collaborate with physicians to optimize activity and participation of patients and clients,” according to the National Athletic Trainer’s Association official definition. “The field encompasses the prevention, diagnosis, and intervention of emergency, acute and chronic medical conditions involving impairment, functional limitations, and disabilities.” 

In the context of the GWU program, the curriculum has two components: classroom education and clinical experience. According to Heather Hartsell, program director for the educational program, the hands-on experience gives students a chance to apply what they may have only learned in theory. “The combination of classroom learning and practice in the clinical environment fosters application of knowledge,” said Hartsell. “Athletic training students going through this process will learn not just how to look at a problem but how to solve a problem.” 

With a limited number of candidates accepted, the University’s athletic training program is one of the most competitive on campus. A maximum of 36 individuals can be enrolled at one time, which officials say helps generate an ideal environment where the focus is on education. Once students complete the classroom work, they begin working with student athletes as part of clinical training, which is coordinated by Kevin Jones, the director of athletic training. 

“Students begin working with athletic trainers either here on the Gardner-Webb campus or at other off-site locations, including area high schools,” Hartsell explained. “They have to demonstrate proficiency in several different content areas and they receive practical experience in handling emergencies, establishing injury prevention techniques, evaluating and treating injuries and much more.” 

The subject matter is sometimes more difficult than students first realize, but Hartsell believes the support and encouragement from teachers and classmates can help individuals succeed and actually enjoy the challenging material. “We are a caring, close knit group. We’re going to challenge you, but we’re also going to help,” Hartsell shared. “You’re not just a number in our program. Because we’re smaller in quantity, we excel in quality. Students definitely receive more one-on-one time with their instructors and with other athletic trainers.” 

The importance of follow-up and feedback is also discussed as part of ongoing treatment plans for patients. “My athletic trainers still check in on my health two years after my injury,” said Spiro. “I have no fear or hesitation in going to them about an injury or a potential one. The rehabilitation of my left ankle was expedited because of their expertise.” 

Graduates of this program have gone on to work with NFL football teams, other professional sports arenas, colleges and universities, and high schools and physical therapy clinics. After Gardner-Webb many of the athletic training graduates choose to pursue their master’s degree while gaining additional experience within the profession. 

Hartsell is looking forward to the spring semester, when the incoming freshmen that are interested in the athletic training program will be given a chance to apply. “We’ve had some impressive graduates,” Hartsell said. “We want highly-driven, ambitious students.”