When a skater glides across the rink, throws his partner into the air, spins and catches her before she falls to the ice, the audience erupts in applause. Rusty McKune breathes a small sigh of relief.
“One slip-up, and you can have some significant injuries,” he said.
McKune is in charge of the medical team at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the CenturyLink Center this week. The 128-person volunteer staff is prepared to treat everything from minor cuts and scrapes to head and neck injuries.
There's a spineboard, trauma box, neck brace and emergency oxygen rinkside, but "knock on wood," McKune said, it's collecting dust. They've gotten more use out of athletic tape and Band-Aids.
Each day, 30 to 40 skaters see the medical team, which includes athletic trainers, physical therapists, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, orthopedic surgeons, pharmacists and student trainers. Figure skater Jonathan Cassar, who is competing in the senior men program, visited the athletic training room this week complaining of tendonitis. It has been bothering him on and off since the summer.
"It's nothing I'm too worried about, but I like to take the precautionary steps so I don't cause any more damage," he said as McKune taped his right ankle.
McKune, the sports medicine program coordinator at the Nebraska Medical Center, said fortunately the skaters haven't suffered anything serious enough to prevent them from participating.
“We're at the national championships. Sometimes those injuries that might sideline them, don't,” he said. “They're mentally tough. They push themselves to their limits, which at times means skating through the pain.
“A lot of it boils down to how much they can tolerate.”
There isn't one injury that plagues figure skaters, said Peter Zapalo, the director of sports science and medicine at U.S. Figure Skating. Falls turn into bumps and bruises, and training too much can lead to lower-body injuries like stress fractures. A missed landing or collision with the rink wall could lead to a concussion, sprain or broken bone. The more complex the move, the greater the risk.
A handful of high-profile athletes are not at the national championships this year because of nagging injuries, including Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek, three-time national champion Johnny Weir, two-time national champion Alissa Czisny and John Coughlin, half of last year's gold medal-winning pairs team.
The flu, upper respiratory infections and strep throat also have taken a toll on the athletes at this year's championships, said Dr. Monty Mathews, an event volunteer and physician at the Nebraska Medical Center. They treat those illnesses with different medications than they would in their offices, though, because of the sport's drug policies.
Volunteers, who are affiliated with the Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, UNMC Physicians, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and independent athletic training offices, work in shifts. The first starts at 7 a.m., and the last ends some 16 hours later. Now and then the office is empty. Other times the staff is too busy to notice the clock move.
The volunteers will log 1,100 hours by the time the national championships end on Sunday. They split their time between the training room and a spot just outside the rink.
It's one of the best seats in the house, Mathews said while a few feet from the ice. He just hopes a collision doesn't pull him any closer to the action.
“There's some people who go to car races and want to see wrecks,” Mathews said. “I don't want to see an accident on the ice.”
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