Under normal circumstances, athletic trainers function behind the scenes. They become highly regarded individuals among peers and student-athletes on the inside of their respective collegiate programs, but recognition from the outside is much less frequent.
In these days of COVID-19, on the other hand, athletic training gurus and their staffs have been leaned on perhaps more than ever — trusted to implement protocols and ensure they’re followed to a T. They’ve been somewhat thrust into the spotlight as they work through schedules loaded with new and challenging tasks.
At the University of Idaho, head trainer Chris Walsh and his assisting personnel certainly deserve acknowledgement, which has come in droves lately.
Walsh and Co. have been a great asset to UI in its goal of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus in Moscow, and Vandal athletics’ handling of the pandemic has provided a framework for conducting on-campus instruction as smoothly as possible.
“Athletics staff members have worked hard over the summer and into the fall to transition student-athletes back to campus in a responsible manner and provide the environment needed for practice, team activities and learning. The university learned a lot from their efforts,” school president Scott Green said in a memo released Monday to the UI community, which announced that no athletes out of 168 tested last week for COVID-19 came up positive.
That’s thanks in no small part to a training staff headed by Walsh. As such, his contributions have been commended aplenty in recent news releases and interviews by Vandal coaches and administrators like Green, athletic director Terry Gawlik and football coach Paul Petrino.
Earlier this month, Walsh was named national trainer of the week by Mueller Sports Medicine, and the flood of praise continued to come in from grateful Idaho athletes via social media.
“I think they know trainers are going through a lot, and working harder than they usually do,” Walsh said. “It’s always cool to be recognized for the work we do. A lot of our profession is behind the scenes, but it’s very appreciated by the staff. And the student-athletes have been great through the whole process. ... They’ve been nothing but supportive and have really taken everything seriously.
“There’s been some key players in this, and my staff in particular worked day and night, and poured so much time into it. There’s only so much I can do.”
Rest assured, combating the coronavirus has become a life-consuming and often frustrating situation for Walsh, the Renton, Wash., native who joined the Vandals in 2014.
Instead of a normal offseason break this spring, he was absorbed with the logistics — helping Gawlik get UI ahead of the curve by discerning how athletes could return safely, and how everyday distancing and sanitation protocols would be sustained.
Walsh was key in the decision that testing must be made available for student-athletes to come back to campus.
“Then you have to manage the actual COVID side of it, because you’re gonna have some positives,” he said. Nine cases among 125 athletes tested were confirmed in August by UI, but the school ultimately fared well in what Gawlik called the “Kibbie Dome bubble.”
“You can’t get thrown off because you have positives, that’s the whole goal of testing. So it was just kinda prepping, and when we hit the go button, all our plans were in action. We brought back smaller groups, spread the days out. A lot of cleaning, screening on a daily basis, and obviously testing.
“Doctors (namely, UI physician Jake Christensen), the staff and I came up with protocols, and if they’re taken seriously, we can pull it off.”
It’s all been a work in progress, and it still is, with advice coming in from multiple angles. UI and Walsh took their initial cue from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s guidelines in April, then built upon that “helpful” bedrock, implementing public health instructions and collaborating with athletic leaders around the country, and Big Sky Conference departments especially.
The central challenge was the uncertainty — the lack of any kind of crash course or set of calculated standards provided by the official higher-ups.
“I wish the NCAA came out with something in March: ‘This is what you need to be trained up on,’ but in reality, that wasn’t the case for anyone, even from a national level,” said Walsh, who serves as the co-chair of the Big Sky’s Health and Safety committee. “Everyone was trying to figure it out all at once. At the same time, it’s kind of nice everyone was dealing with the same issues. The collaboration that’s gone into putting these protocols together and finding a sense of normalcy has been awesome.”
Cooperation within the campus and unity Walsh has seen from the league have been bright spots amid the disorder, and he’s found the mentorship role trainers often embody to be as valuable as ever during a particularly difficult time for student-athletes.
“It’s been really hard on them to upend their seasons and have everything changed up,” he said. “Part of our profession people think is Band-Aids, water and taping, but we’re very involved in the day-to-day lives of student-athletes. We have a foot in the sport, but at the same time our goal is safety and health care, and that includes mental health.
“It’s broad and it can be a lot. But from a mentor side, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job.”
Walsh, a 2002 graduate of Kentridge High School, was molding himself as a leader long before arriving in Moscow. He served active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard from 2003-11. By age 19, he’d already assisted in a drug interdiction, and gotten behind the wheel of a large vessel.
“It was good for me,” he said. “In any branch of the military, there are a lot of expectations and responsibilities, and discipline. I think it’s similar to college athletics. I tell a lot of young students, ‘The expectations you have are not typical.’ The military was my comparison.”
He was stationed in various locales, including Alaska, Seattle — where he met his future wife, Samantha — and Alabama, where he elected to fulfill his long held intent of getting back into school. A family friend happened to be the University of Mobile’s athletic training program director. Walsh enrolled, and was immediately hooked. As a student, he honed his skills at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, South Alabama and local high schools.
He found his professional opportunity when a grad assistant post under NATA Hall of Famer Barrie Steele opened at UI in 2014. Two years later, Walsh had his master’s, and was hired full-time to work behind the scenes as a trainer.
Now, 17 months after taking over for the retired Steele, Walsh's duties have been pushed into the public eye. And deservedly so, the accomplishments in managing the coronavirus on Idaho’s campus have been acknowledged.
“It’s changed everything,” he said. “It hasn’t taken anything away, it’s just added so much to what we do. But you know, this is kinda what we’re here for on the medical side.”
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.