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Not Just a Tape Dispenser : Trainers Help With Conditioning and Recovery, but Not All Schools Can Afford Them


Santa Margarita quarterback Carson Palmer knows the value of a good athletic trainer.

Before the football season started, Palmer was sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot.

"I was just jogging in practice and it was bugging me," he said. "I thought it was my ankle."

Initially, Palmer said, he was expected to miss four to six weeks of his senior season. But trainer Ray Gonzalez, who diagnosed the injury and suggested Palmer get X-rays, helped him speed his recovery.

"Ray was working with me every day," Palmer said. "I was doing weights, riding a bike. Slowly, I started running and getting back into it. I wasn't supposed to be back for four to six weeks, and I was back in three. Ray had a lot of exercises for me to get back into shape to play again."

Palmer, who came back the second week of the season and eventually led the Eagles to the Southern Section Division V title, made the most of the help available. But not all high schools are as prepared with a certified trainer on site when an athlete is hurt.

"There's nothing more valuable for an athletic program than a good, certified trainer," said Robert Rishel, boys' athletic director at Magnolia High School. "Otherwise, people are trained to do nothing more than tape. We need people who are qualified in prevention and rehabilitation of injuries."

Because of budget cuts, school districts have been forced to trim certain full-time positions from their budgets. In many districts, athletic trainers and school nurses work only part-time.

Some nurses work two or three days a week. At some schools, certified athletic trainers are not present at some freshman or junior varsity events.

Take a typical day at a high school. Junior varsity and varsity boys' and girls' basketball teams are practicing, or playing games. Wrestlers are practicing indoors, while the boys' and girls' soccer teams are practicing or playing games outdoors. The girls' water polo team might be practicing. Including freshman teams, there could be more than two hundred athletes participating at the same time of day.

"We have one trainer who's here at varying hours, trying to fit that into his schedule," Marina Athletic Director Larry Doyle said. "We also have a volunteer [trainer] from [a physical therapy clinic in Fountain Valley]."

Magnolia doesn't have a trainer. "We have coaches who tape," Rishel said. "We're in a vulnerable position right now . . . It's a very regrettable situation. But we can't find one."

Many athletic directors cite the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 as the beginning of crucial budget cuts that had a cascade effect. Some courses were cut. Money allotted for on-site medical personnel, such as school nurses and athletic trainers, dwindled.

In the Huntington Beach District, about $35,000 is set aside for trainers for the district's six high schools. But Doyle points out that the trainers at Ocean View and Westminster high schools have held those jobs for a long time, and therefore will make more money than less-experienced trainers at other schools in the district.

At Magnolia, there's about $5,100 per year set aside to pay trainers.

"People cannot live on $5,000 a year," said Rishel, a certified athletic trainer who was on the training staff of the 1984 Olympics. "The ideal situation is what I did. I was a teacher. I had fifth-period conference. That was the time to get the training room ready.

"Sixth period I did taping, assessing injuries. That was the ideal situation. I did that for 17 years at Magnolia. I was getting paid something like $2,000 a year [in addition to his teacher's salary]."

Most high school trainers spend the early part of their day at physical therapy clinics. In the early afternoons, they head to their high school campuses to tape athletes preparing for practice. Sean Higgs, a trainer at Fountain Valley High School, is one of those trainers.

Higgs spends mornings at a physical therapy clinic in Newport Beach. Then he heads to campus, arriving about 20 minutes before school lets out, to prepare the training room.

Along with taping athletes and evaluating injuries, he does some rehabilitation (ice, heat, massage) and has also developed strength programs for various teams.

"We've created funding for trainers," Higgs said. "If you want to play sports [at Fountain Valley], you need a card that proves you're insured, and pay a $20 [activity] fee.

But some athletic directors hesitate to impose steep activities fees, which might be prohibitive is less-affluent districts.

"[The fee] is not an ideal solution to the problem, but now everyone knows I'm here. Second, it creates money for the [trainer] position. I've only had a few parents complain [about the fee], but when I explain to them what we do, show them the [injury] figures, then it's OK."

Higgs, also a licensed physical therapist, became interested in a career as athletic trainer in high school.

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