On a recent fall afternoon, football players stood in a hallway at the regional high school, waiting for athletic trainer Tania Laslovich to arrive. They needed ankles taped, wrists taped, shoulders braced. They wanted current injuries checked and potential injuries assessed, and most of all, they wanted to get on the field and play.
“Tania, I got my cast off,” one said as Mrs. Laslovich opened up her office door. It has been a particularly injury-plagued season for the Vineyard, and the cast coming off was a small end-of-season victory. But the player was still concerned.
“I can’t move it,” he said, looking at the injury.
“You will. You’ve been in a cast; it’ll take time,” the trainer said. She turned to another player.
“How’s your knee? How’d it go on Friday?”
Two more athletes came into the office. Another hopped in on crutches. Mrs. Laslovich asked how he was doing and then indicated an anatomy chart on the wall, breaking down his injury and showing where each hurt ligament was.
“Anything can walk in,” she said later. “You can have just a scratch,” she continued, indicating a player who had just come in with a trickle of blood running down his arm. “Or you could have something life-threatening.”
“You have to be ready for every little thing.”
Mrs. Laslovich’s job entails being part diagnostician, part clinician, part therapist, part cheering squad and part buzz kill. The hardest thing is having to tell an eager athlete they can’t suit up or have to be removed from a game.
“I would much rather see the kids on the field,” she said. The goal is to make sure her charges “have healthy, comfortable, active years coming up . . . that they don’t ruin everything right now.”
But she understands that feeling of wanting to play. Mrs. Laslovich was an athlete herself growing up — basketball, softball, tennis and karate (her father, a second-degree black belt, trained in the same studio as Chuck Norris). That stalled in college. During a semester off, while testing for a job with Utah ski patrol, she tore her ACL and damaged every other ligament in her knee, as well as the cartilage. Four surgeries later, the former accounting major had her eyes opened to the world of physical therapy. She changed her college plans.
As it turned out, though, it wasn’t physical therapy itself that held the greatest appeal, it was the sports medicine element of her new program. Working with athletes was a natural fit.
“It was enlightening to have that open up for me, and it was perfect,” she said. “It was just what I wanted.” She graduated from California State at Fullerton with a bachelor of science in physical education, and continued the process of becoming a licensed trainer with the National Association of Athletic Trainers. She worked at Fullerton for a time, with side jobs at an Anaheim Angels baseball summer camp, where she worked with professional athletes, and Mount San Antonio College, where she worked with Olympic track athletes. She and her husband eventually moved to the Vineyard to be closer to family, Mrs. Laslovich started work at the high school in 2005.
All athletic trainers must complete a lengthy licensing program, which continues throughout their career. Every three years, they are required to put in 75 hours of continuing education, which can come in the form of conferences, online courses or additional college classes. They study anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and psychology, among other subjects.
Mrs. Laslovich tries to pass on that knowledge to the high school athletes.
“I want them to learn about their bodies, the anatomy and structure, so hopefully they can come out of an injury with some information,” she said. “And they do, because other kids will get hurt and their friends will say ‘Tania, you have to check out this kid.” She’s noticed that students are particularly good at sending in friends for concussion checkups.
“I think everybody knows that we tape ankles, but that’s such a small part of what we do,” she said.
Not that taping ankles is insignificant. One player estimated that there are more than 10 different kinds of athletic tape in Tania’s office, each with a different function, each offering varying levels of stability. “You couldn’t even count them,” one player said. Taping is both a preventative measure, safeguarding weak ankles and wrists, and a stopgap to stave off worsening an injury.
At away games when players are treated by other trainers, “they just tape it totally wrong,” said Joe Turney, a senior athlete who plays football and runs track. “You definitely miss Tania.”
Fellow senior Tony Breth, also a two-sport athlete, agreed. The athletes at the Vineyard high school know they’re in good hands.
“I know I’ll get a confident answer,” said Tony Canha, who plays football and lacrosse.
Breth said he’s seen lines “out the door, around the corner,” to see Mrs. Laslovich. Fall is the busiest season, Turney said, with everyone getting back in shape.
Preseason brings dozens of overuse injuries and plenty of blisters, Mrs. Laslovich said. It also brings an extraordinarily long work day. She is on the fields at 5:30 a.m. when the morning practices start, and spends the day processing paperwork and doing baseline testing for the school’s concussion program, which she initiated in 2007, far before the state-mandated testing began. She takes a few hours for a midafternoon break and then is back to prep athletes for practice, supervise afternoon practices, and finally charting and documenting all the day’s work while making follow-up calls to physicians and parents.
If hell week (preseason) is the busiest week, winter is the longest season, since many basketball and hockey games take place at night. Mrs. Laslovich is on hand for all of them (on the nights when basketball and hockey games take place simultaneously things can get a little tricky and involve many trips across the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road). In fall and spring, she uses her electric golf cart to drive between ongoing practices and games. After practice, there are icing and post-workout exercises to supervise.
“You’re there for the athletes,” the trainer said. She works with school nurse Linda Leonard during the school day so both know the status of any hurt hockey player or high jumper.
“I still have kids who’ve been in college, and they get hurt and they call me,” Mrs. Laslovich said. One star athlete once told an off-Island newspaper he was thankful for Tania, for all the time she had put in to help him back into the game. “I swear, I was just in tears,” she recalled.
She nodded at the football players hanging out in her office, watching their teammates get treated.
“To see any of these guys come out better because of this, that’s what I love about my job,” she said.
She’s passed on that love to a new generation as well. Daughter Alyssa, a student at Salem State University, plans to be an athletic trainer (“I told her to be a nurse,” Mrs. Laslovich laughed). Alyssa’s goal is to work “more on the surgical side,” which entails additional certification and will most likely lead to work in clinics.
The trainer said she can’t imagine being anywhere else. “I just love the fact that I get to go outside,” she said, although she admits that being outside watching games was a little easier when she was working in California.
More important, she said, “I love that feeling, of being on a team, the butterflies before a game.
“I still get that because this is still my team.”