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Working Hard to Improve the Image of Massage : San Diego Sports Team Puts Accent on Athlete Health

February 15, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Kate Montgomery is tired of the image of massage. She's tired of people seeing massage as something sleazy, something gamy, something for the street. She's especially annoyed that to get a license to practice massage, she had to be cleared by the vice division of the San Diego Police Department.

She is hardly alone.

Montgomery is part of a team--the San Diego Sports Massage Team, one of about a dozen such groups springing up across the country.

High Visibility

She and her teammates are working to clarify the image of massage, mainly by being visible. They set up and give massages at the finish line of just about any participatory athletic event--10-kilometer runs, half or full marathons, bicycle races, "iron man" triathlons and swim meets.

Though most team members work full time and charge between $40 and $50 per hour for a massage, the cost is only $5 at these sporting events. The therapists' mission is to rub legs and feet--getting out the stiffness and soreness, priming runners to run again--in a quicker, more comfortable way. Also on the team are podiatrists, nutritionists, chiropractors and a sports psychologist.

The director of the team is Wain Pearce, a 52-year-old full-time practitioner of massage and an advocate of holistic medicine.

"We really like working on athletes," he said. "Nowadays, so many are concerned with holistic medicine as a way to improve--to be the best. When I say holistic , I'm not trying to frighten people by a label. I'm merely talking about people who care about diet, training, (massage) therapy, all phases of conditioning."

Pearce said as long as people keep running, swimming, biking or trying to be athletic, muscles are bound to get sore. All massage does, he said, is relieve the strain of muscles, helping athletes get better.

Peter Francis, an associate professor of physical education at San Diego State University and a nationally known expert on exercise-induced injury, said massage has well established benefits and comparatively minor risks.

Francis noted that the most serious athletes--especially cyclists and dancers--rely on massage because it has the ability to reduce muscle fatigue after strenuous exercise. How this occurs is not completely understood, Francis said, but it is thought to be related to circulatory benefit derived by the blood vessels from the gentle rubbing of an experienced therapist.

Though it is unlikely that massage could do serious physiological harm, Francis said, an incompetent massage might aggravate a previously undiagnosed bone fracture. But complications are highly unlikely and the benefits of massage far outweigh the theoretical risks, he said.

Growing Trend

Peg Angston, editor-in-chief of American Fitness magazine, the journal of the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America, sees sports massage as a growing trend, one that's apparently here to stay. However, she offered this word of caution:

"Recently, I've received a lot of manuscripts," she said, "from people describing themselves as, say, the official masseuse of a certain sports team. They talk of treating not so much acute injuries but chronic inflammation. Even in that area, problems are posed."

Kate Montgomery, 35, one of the team's key therapists, shares those concerns. She feels her medical background as respiratory therapist helps her treat an injured body. Sports massage therapists are, for the most part, she said, serious practitioners working to undo a negative image of massage in general.

She disdains the term masseuse or masseur , saying they're catchwords. Her clients say she and other members of the team are on the edge of the newest trend in sport--massage as a means of healing after injury, and of bettering performance.

Like most of the 2-year-old team, which includes 12 therapists, Montgomery works with the group on weekends, and the rest of the time massages on her own.

The team has the goal of working at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada (winter), and Seoul, South Korea (summer). Montgomery said massage "really came of age" at the '84 Games in Los Angeles, but Pearce noted that for the 1,200 U.S. athletes competing in Los Angeles, only 35 massage therapists were available.

Psychology Background

The team is a versatile one. Montgomery works with one Olympic-quality athlete--decathlete Tony Allen-Cooksey--while Meg Sterling, 49, does a lot of work on car-crash victims.

Sterling likes the positive, go-get-'em attitude of athletes. "My (academic) background is in psychology," she said. "I try to do a lot of basic counseling and therapy with people--to get them feeling better about themselves and their bodies. And, usually, they do."

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