Swifter. Higher. Stronger.
Logan’s Melissa Engelson, DC, spends three weeks training athletes for the 2014 Olympic Games Citius. Altius. Fortius. No longer does it seem coincidental that Melissa Engelson wrote these three Latin words on the front of her high-school backpack. Back then, she simply liked the way the words sounded and had little indication of how this inscription would translate in her future.
Fast forward to October 2012, when the now Dr. Engelson arrived at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Lake Placid, N.Y. And, there they were. Dr. Engelson stood staring at the words “CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS.” This time though, they weren’t on her backpack. The words—meaning swifter, higher and stronger—were displayed in the training center as the motto for the Olympic Games. At that moment, Dr. Engelson experienced her world coming full circle.
An athlete herself, Dr. Engelson always revered the Olympics. Now, as assistant director of BIOFREEZE® Sports & Rehabilitation
at Logan’s Southfield Clinic, she would train Olympic hopefuls. Her selection for a three-week sports medicine rotation would lead her to Lake Placid where athletes are performing at the top of their games.
“I had done other sports medicine rotations, but never with the Olympics,” she said. “They were looking for volunteers and I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
No. 1 Is the Athlete
Six months after Dr. Engelson applied for the rotation, she received word of her acceptance.
Although Dr. Engelson has dedicated her education and career to serving the athlete, nothing could have prepared her for the challenges that waited in New York. Unlike the patients she treated on and off the playing fields in Missouri, in Lake Placid she now faced the hazards of Olympic winter sports, such as the luge, skeleton and bobsled. All she knew of these sports and their perils is what she had seen on television.
“Friends who had completed rotations at other Olympic facilities told me to be prepared to do anything and everything, and be willing to go the extra mile,” she recalled. “They said the athletes can tell if you are really there for them. My goal heading up to Lake Placid was to do all I could to get them to their highest levels of performance.”
The first day of her rotation, Dr. Engelson spent time meeting the sports medicine staff, touring the center and training sites, and familiarizing herself with the equipment and available supplies. Then, she immediately began work at the training center, performing adjustments, soft-tissue work and rehabilitation to help remedy athletic injury and provide maintenance care.
Dr. Engelson said as she learned more about each sport, she was able to better direct her care. “If I knew where an athlete was sitting in a four-man bobsled, I could better determine which areas of the body would need attention,” she said. “ For instance, it is common for the brakemen to have a tendency to strain a hamstring since they are sprinting full speed, not only forward, but downward. For skeleton athletes, we focused on neck and low back, and for luge athletes we concentrated on neck, mid-back and hamstrings. For example, if an athlete can’t reach far enough forward, due to a low-back injury or even just as simple as hamstring tightness, they can’t push as hard, which means they lose power.”
That may not seem like a big deal, but from a time trials standpoint—where speed and strength mean everything—losing five-hundredths of a second off your race time could cost your team a medal.
“The athlete still has to perform and have a clean run, but from a biomechanical perspective, we can help make up a small fraction of a second by getting their bodies to their highest functioning level,” Dr. Engelson said. “If they can get better hip flexion or, perhaps, a few more degrees of extension through the hip and pelvis, they may have the potential to generate the power needed to make up that fraction of a second. It is our job to help get the athletes to the best level of performance they can achieve.”
At the training center, Dr. Engelson learned that the National Governing Bodies for each sport determine the level of care for the athletes though, most of them, she said, have been well-educated by the current OTC staff and demonstrate a solid commitment
“The athletes I got to know well were those in the training center every day, working on some part of their treatment plans,” she said. “Their discipline is unparalleled to what I have experienced thus far in my relatively short career. “There, athletes are also taught that everyone’s time is valuable. When it is their time, it is all about them. If they are late, it’s considered unfair to the athlete who is signed up and on time. From the patient care side of things, one of the great things about serious, elite athletes is their level of compliance.”
Achieving the Best Level of Performance
During the second week of Dr. Engelson’s rotation, she moved from the training center and to the sliding track, which provided a new perspective on these athletes’ performance.
“Clinically, it increased my knowledge about their sports by leaps and bounds,” she said. “Watching the athletes hunched over their sleds, sprinting full speed down a giant sheet of ice and then smoothly loading gave me better insights into how to approach their care when they visit the training center.”
The curse of outdoor winter sports, Dr. Engelson said, is that you are at the mercy of the weather. The sliding track, used for bobsled, skeleton, and luge, can stand up to any one harsh element. But more than one weather event will shut down the track for fear of ruining the ice or harming the runners on the sleds.
Still, the risk of injury always remains high. Ice burns, stiff necks, swollen ankles and head trauma are all common crash-related injuries. As an observer, the crashes gave Dr. Engelson the opportunity to see firsthand how the injuries occurred. “I witnessed how they were positioned and how long they were in that position,” she said, adding that emergency medical technicians are the first ones onsite after an accident. On one occasion, she watched a four-man bobsled crew crash during a turn and slide down the track for nearly three-quarters of a mile. During another incident, she saw an athlete on the skeleton enter a series of turns incorrectly, tip the sled and hit her head on the ice wall. While she finished the run, she was still monitored for a concussion.
As grisly as some of the accidents were, Dr. Engelson concentrated on helping the athletes return to their training, learning all she could from the experiences.
Sharing Best Practices
While the three-week rotation went by quickly, the knowledge and experiences gained will never leave Dr. Engelson. “Going into this, I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it was going to be good,” she said. “For my first experience at an Olympic training center, I can’t imagine it getting better than this. The team works so well together, and it’s such an amazing environment.”
One of the things Dr. Engelson loves about interdisciplinary environments is that you get to see how different people practice. She said on days when the track was closed due to weather, it gave the staff time to teach each other how they train and treat athletes.
“The chiropractor on the OTC staff, Celeste, and I shared different adjusting styles and techniques, while another staff member, Karen, and I were able to trade knowledge on different soft-tissue therapies and modalities,” she said. “And from Peter, manager of the Sports Medicine Clinic of Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, I was constantly learning how to fine-tune my skills to best serve the athlete.”
Dr. Engelson said she not only enjoys sharing best practices used at Logan, such as her approach to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction and the use of decompression, but also passing along the lessons she learned from the training center’s staff to her Southfield interns. Given the opportunity, Dr. Engelson said she would certainly go back, though she would also enjoy the opportunity to work at the other U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs, Colo., and in Chula Vista, Calif.
“I am honored to have worked with this staff, and I’ll always be grateful for this experience,” she said. “Without my family, friends and colleagues at Logan College of Chiropractic/University Programs, working at an Olympic training center would not have been possible at this stage of my life.”