For the second straight season, the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis, Wis., is hosting the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for long-track speedskating. The best speedskaters from around the country will compete for their spot on Team USA ahead of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. These elite athletes dedicate their lives to training for this event, with the support of the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine team.
Caring for Elite Athletes
For an elite athlete to achieve peak performance and maintain a lengthy and healthy career, the “team behind the team” is crucial.
Julie Carpenter, LAT (pictured above), a Froedtert & MCW licensed athletic trainer, will go to Beijing with the US Speedskating team for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. She trains members of Team USA and helps prepare them for competitions around the world. The speedskaters who work with Carpenter train year-round at the Pettit, instead of in Salt Lake City, the only other location in the country with an Olympic-size indoor oval long track. Carpenter has been training the speedskaters since 2009.
Carole Vetter, MD, is a Froedtert & MCW orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine physician. Dr. Vetter serves as team physician for US Speedskating and is the medical director for the 2022 trials at the Pettit. As team physician, Dr. Vetter is available around-the-clock to evaluate and diagnose team injuries, consult on medical decisions and provide hands-on care. Her role as the medical director for the trials is a separate responsibility. As medical director, she ensures all protocols and policies for the International Skating Union are followed, secures emergency medical personnel and ancillary medical staff for the event and coordinates with them in the event of an emergency.
Common Injuries for Speedskaters
Elite athletes put extraordinary demands on their bodies and push them to the limit. The physical demands of their sport combined with rigorous training regimens can be difficult to endure.
“There is an extra level of intensity for athletes at the professional level,” Carpenter said. “An elite speedskater usually trains anywhere from six to eight hours a day.”
Muscles strains are one of the most common sports-related injuries, and they are often caused by muscle imbalances. For speedskaters, low back injuries, hip flexor, groin and hamstring strains are particularly common because of the body’s position while skating, which involves a deep squat while leaning forward.
“Many of these muscle strains are based around the pelvis,” Carpenter said. “When there are core imbalances, movements such as cutting, pivoting and changes of direction put athletes at risk for injury. It is also common for athletes to be more quadricep-dominant rather than optimally balanced, which can lead to injury.”
Long-track speedskaters tend to experience more overuse injuries, while short-track speedskaters experience more acute injuries, such as lacerations and concussions, as a result of falls on the ice.
Injury Prevention for Speedskaters
Staying healthy is a priority for all athletes, but for elite speedskaters, whose sport is only featured on the world stage once every four years, injury prevention leading up to the important events, like team trials, is critical. During training sessions, Carpenter keeps track of the speedkaters’ range of motion, strength, mechanics and stability. She tailors each athlete’s training program to their needs and focuses on identifying areas of asymmetry and pain, which can increase the risk of injury.
“I can get a lot of information about how a skater is feeling based on their skating position,” Carpenter said. “If they appear fatigued, and I can see them pushing forward into their knee, resulting in knee pain, I know we need to work on developing their glutes and hamstrings in order to get the foundational strength they are lacking that will allow them to sit back into their squat more.”
An important component of injury prevention for any athlete is recovery, and Carpenter prioritizes it for the speedskaters she trains.
“Because of a speedskater’s inherently awkward body position — being so flexed forward with their trunk and sitting so deeply into their squatted position — there is decreased circulation to their lower extremities,” Carpenter said.
Full leg compression boots that inflate and squeeze are a useful tool for the speedskaters to improve blood flow. The boots create intermittent compression starting at the feet and up through different compartments to the full length of the leg and the hips. Other recovery methods include myofascial release through manual therapy, electrical stimulation, cupping, dry needling, massage and foam rolling.
As a licensed athletic trainer, Carpenter is clinically trained and can provide medical services, which means her expertise extends beyond the level of other types of fitness professionals. An athletic trainer’s background in injury prevention, assessment and rehabilitation is also helpful when referrals to specialists are needed.
Experience Treating Elite Athletes
If a speedskater on Team USA is injured, Dr. Vetter’s role as team physician is to evaluate, diagnose and create a treatment plan. She also consults with physical therapists and athletic trainers, like Carpenter.
“If we’re dealing with an overuse injury, I’ll do an exam and we’ll discuss how to progress together,” Dr. Vetter said.
Dr. Vetter has worked with US Speedskating for more than a decade, but she is also experienced with treating elite athletes on a number of professional sports teams, including baseball and soccer and basketball; Dr. Vetter is the team physician for the Milwaukee Bucks. Her network of medical professionals in the professional sports world is extensive and can be a helpful resource. Her unique experience, knowledge and connections benefit all of her patients, athletes or not.
“Because I work with all of these different athletes, I’m constantly exposed to not only the more common sports injuries, but also the ones that might be harder to diagnose or treat,” Dr. Vetter said. “Plus, practicing at an academic health network, we have a research mentality, which means we are always challenged to know what’s ahead and offer leading edge treatments.”