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February 13, 2019

For a student who loves science, sports and helping people, Rehabilitation and Movement Science provides an excellent career path. And if that path leads to an opportunity to accompany alpine ski racing champion Mikaela Shiffrin to slopes in Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Italy and France, it’s a dream come true.

It’s reality for Regan Dewhirst, Exercise Science ’13, Doctor of Physical Therapy ’15. She travels with Team USA in Shiffrin’s entourage, serving as personal physical therapist and athletic trainer to the three-time Olympic medalist and reigning World Cup champion.

Dewhirst’s mission is to keep Shiffrin injury-free and prepared for arduous training with her coaches. She develops daily exercise regimens and guides Shiffrin through gym routines. On the race course, Dewhirst leads Shiffrin through warm up moves, balance drills, deep breathing and visualization. In each new training or race location, she creates a medical plan that includes local hospital access and ski patrol contact details. She stays on the hill with Shiffrin, observing the skier’s movement patterns and remaining vigilant to act quickly if the skier requires physical assistance.

“As the ‘physio,’ I get to do a little bit of everything. I am constantly problem-solving and modifying the ‘off-hill’ plan so that she will be prepared for the next discipline and able to work towards her goals in all events.” Dewhirst said. “I assess her daily posture and movement patterns to develop a plan for maintaining mobility, motor control, balance, strength and agility. I communicate her physical and medical needs with each member of the team.”

By “team,” Dewhirst means Team Shiffrin: Two dedicated coaches, a service technician to manage Shiffrin’s equipment, a publicist, Shiffrin’s mother and Dewhirst. The Team USA women’s head coach also checks in regularly. Dewhirst appreciates the interprofessional collaboration.

“Working with Mikaela’s coaches is fun. I go to all of her strength and conditioning sessions and observe her movements. The coaches rely on me to control how much physical stress we put on her and plan appropriately for weight load and volume,” she said. “I feel lucky to be part of this traveling ‘family’ and there’s nothing more satisfying than everyone coming together on race day and watching her perform at her best.”

Making Connections

This is Dewhirst’s first season with the team. She was working full-time at VASTA Physical Therapy and Sports Performance in South Burlington, Vermont, when the opportunity arose via email from Team Shiffrin, shortly after the 2018 Winter Olympics at which Shiffrin won two medals. The message cited Dewhirst’s education in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at UVM and her advanced orthopedic residency at VASTA. Dewhirst speculates that Shiffrin encouraged her team to contact her.

Shiffrin’s parents and siblings know Dewhirst’s, and the children skied, played tennis and went sledding together in New Hampshire when they were in elementary school. The girls raced for the same club in Lebanon, New Hampshire, before Shiffrin moved to Burke Mountain Academy in northeastern Vermont. As Shiffrin’s ski career took off, and Dewhirst got more involved in soccer, ice hockey and tennis, the girls went their separate ways.

Although she admits to feeling nervous initially about taking on this new adventure, Dewhirst felt prepared for the job, thanks to her experience and education at UVM. She refers to her books and notes from classes in neuroscience, human performance and ergogenic aids and fondly recalls her experience studying abroad in Australia, where she honed skills in manual therapy and clinical decision-making. She also relies heavily on knowledge gained in a sports psychology course she took with Professor Jeremy Sibold, now the Associate Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

“On race days, I use more sports psychology than any other skills. I look back on those notes often,” Dewhirst said. “I have to determine how to get Mikaela in the right mindset. As I’ve gotten to know her better, I’ve learned to use sport psychology principles and tailor my communication to help her find the optimal mental state.”

Transferrable Skills

While at UVM, Dewhirst played four years on the UVM Women’s Soccer team and worked as a part-time assistant coach with the Green Mountain Valley School Ski Club at nearby Sugarbush Resort. These experiences shaped her understanding of competitive athletes’ needs.

“I’ve always loved science and sports, and I knew early on that I wanted to go into health care,” Dewhirst said. Throughout high school and college I spent a lot of time in the gym working to improve my strength and foot speed and I had a few strength coaches who became mentors for my career. I hoped that I could someday help athletes reach their goals just as they did for me.”

Last summer, Team Shiffrin invited Dewhirst to a 10-day ski training camp in Mammoth, California, to meet the team and become familiar with what her new job would entail.

“It’s so different than working in a clinic” Dewhirst said. “Instead of working with many patients on a rehab level, I now work with one person, scanning her body movements all day and constantly changing what to tweak for injury prevention.”

The post is seasonal, tracking 90 Alpine Skiing World Cup races on three continents. Dewhirst started in October with Giant Slalom race in Austria, and she’ll finish in March in Andorra. The itinerary included stops in Bulgaria, Norway, Canada and Killington, Vermont. She plans to return to VASTA when the season ends.

“There are days when I miss home, but every place I go I make connections with alpine skiing and medical professionals. I’ve met physical therapists from all over the world. It’s fun to see how physios from different countries prescribe exercise and see how it relates to my own patient management,” she said. “The biggest dream come true is getting to work with an athlete who is so focused and motivated, but also kind, funny, and super fun to be around. It’s been a wild ride and an amazing experience.”

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