Sports medicine keeps Rams in the game

It was freshman year, preseason football camp, third day in full pads, a kickoff return drill. Tylor Fairbanks ’21 got his thumb caught in a teammate’s shoulder pads.

Ouch. Dislocated thumb.

“That’s when it all started,” said Fairbanks. “Loren (Nydegger, head athletic trainer) helped me out right from there. He was very proactive. I went and got X-rays, like 30 minutes later, and that same day I was starting treatments. I got myself a makeshift cast and played with that for the full season. Loren did everything he could think of so I could get back on the field.”

Head Athletic Trainer Loren Nydegger treats football player Demarius Pittman ‘22 in the training room. Photo by Ray Borchert ’24.
Head Athletic Trainer Loren Nydegger treats football player Demarius Pittman ’22. Photo by Ray Borchert ’24.

Many of Cornell’s 350-plus student-athletes can relate to Fairbanks’ story and the quality care provided by the sports medicine staff. The training room is a frequent stopping point for Rams from all 19 sports.

Doors are open for treatment over lunch break from 10:45 a.m.–1 p.m. The big rush comes after class and before practice from 3:15–4 p.m. Of course, trainers are available before, during, and after practices and competitions to tend to their student-athletes.

“We’re here to serve. We want to ensure every student-athlete feels welcome and receives excellent care,” said Nydegger, in his fifth year as head athletic trainer and 13th in the sports medicine program. “The kids we see, they didn’t plan on seeing us. We want to make them feel comfortable, build rapport, and gain their trust. It’s our job together to roll up our sleeves and get them back practicing and competing.”

Nydegger’s dedicated team includes two assistant athletic trainers and a student staff of 16 sports medicine assistants (SMAs) who also play a key role in daily operations. With COVID-19, they’ve reduced occupancy in the training room, opened a temporary training station in the arena, and spent much more time sanitizing. Appointments are now made online. 

Student-athlete traffic is still steady, despite the cancellation of most fall and some winter competitions.

“Right now, with COVID, it’s great to have so many SMAs,” said Lexi Woywod ’21, SMA president. “So many sports are practicing and happening at once. It feels like we’re in a crossover season all the time. But I love being there. Right now I feel like going to work. As different as things are, it feels like something normal in my life.”

Woywod is a kinesiology major who recently got accepted into physical therapy school at Duke University. 

“I think my hours as an SMA gave me an advantage over other applicants,” said Woywod. “I have at least 500 hands-on hours working with athletes. Getting that experience and working under health care professionals like our athletic trainers gave me a head start.”

Assistant Athletic Trainer Marisa Smet joined Cornell’s staff in September. The 2018 Hamline University graduate battled a knee injury as a high school and college athlete that shaped her career path.

“I wanted to give back,” said Smet, who earned a master’s degree in athletic training from the University of Evansville. “I spent a lot of time in the training room for my knee. It was an eight-month process. I was very thankful to have an athletic trainer to push me through it. I had that support system.”

Which brings us back to Fairbanks. Like Smet, the senior defensive back has virtually lived in the training room since that thumb incident three years ago. Fairbanks has also endured a foot fracture, and a dislocation of his shoulder blade and shoulder during his time on the field.

Cornell’s support system has allowed Fairbanks to play in 26 straight games.

“Loren reminds me there’s a bigger picture to see,” Fairbanks said. “There’s always a point where you get to the end when it will get better. You might not see it and definitely might not feel it. But the training staff will get you there and do whatever it takes. You’ve just got to be patient and trust the process.”

The recovery stories are fulfilling for Nydegger and his staff. So, too, are the relationships that form with student-athletes over time.

“As a trainer, you gain a friendship along with taking care of them,” Nydegger said. “When you know you did a good job that carried weight well beyond the practice or game field—that’s probably the pinnacle, the relationships. Meeting kids from all over the nation, if not the world, and hearing their stories. That’s been very interesting and rewarding.”