By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun
As a newly qualified athletic therapist in 1996, Chris Bulley got his first job working with the Toronto Raptors. He was with the players constantly, helping them recover from any injuries they had sustained.
Kirsty McKenzie, an athletic therapist and director of the Athletic Therapy Clinic at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, treats patient Peter Dobbin.
"I did this job for a year. I travelled with the Raptors. It was a lot of fun. It was also an enormous amount of work and (an enormous) time commitment. We worked 70 or 80-hour weeks and there were no days off because players who are hurt need to be worked on," he says.
In 2001, Bulley opened a private clinic called The Canadian Institute of Sports Medicine in Etobicoke, Ont., where he treats different type of athletes -- "weekend warriors", marathoners and young people injured in sports accidents.
But for people who are passionate both about sports and health, being a therapist for the pros is a dream job, and teams like The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Toronto Blue Jays and those competing in the Olympics need qualified therapists to keep athletes in top form.
Athletic therapists specialize in orthopaedic rehabilitation and their training is similar to that of physiotherapists.
"If a hockey player goes to a physiotherapist, they will treat all hockey players the same way. But we rehabilitate a defenceman differently than a forward because their needs are different. We are also there on the field in case there are emergencies," Chris Bulley says.
And when a player is hurt in a game, the athletic therapist will decide whether he can return to the field. This is a huge responsibility, because coaches need their players, but sending a player into the field when he's not ready could be dangerous.
Here in Toronto the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning offers a BA in applied health science in athletic therapy. Kirsty McKenzie is the director of Sheridan's athletic therapy clinic where students practice their skills.
"The program started 30 years ago with a two-year program. Then we moved on to a three-year diploma course. Now we're phasing that out and we have a four-year bachelor of applied health science in athletic therapy," she says.
Sheridan is one of six educational institutions in Canada where students can study to be athletic therapists. Still, applicants outnumber the seats available in each program. Last year Sheridan had 550 applications for just 36 seats.
Those who make it in often have a year or two of university sciences behind them and will have a minimum grade average of 65%. Additional requirements include 100 clinical and or field experience, a resume, and current first aid and CPR certification.
Many will be keen athletes themselves and will have volunteered on a local team as a coach or trainer where they learned the rules of the games and understand the different physical demands on different players.
During the course, students accumulate 600 field hours and 600 clinical hours of experience. Once they've graduated, they will take written and practical exams that will allow them to practice as an athletic therapist.
"It takes a strong person mentally and physically," Chris Bulley says. "You have to be strong-willed and say "no" when coaches try to pressure you to allow players back into the game too early. You have to think on your feet and you have to be dedicated."
And is the career as glamorous as it looks? Kirsty McKenzie has worked with provincial and national rugby teams.
"There are days that you stand outside in the pouring rain and don't get to treat any injuries and that's not very glamorous -- but at the same time that's part of the excitement too," she says.
(Reach freelancer Susan Poizner at (email@example.com).
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