It’s not every day you get to watch international track athletes compete on a world stage, let alone treat those athletes for heat stroke or a muscle strain. But that’s just what Katie Owen did this summer when she served as a member of the medical team at the World Athletics Championships (formerly IAAF) in Eugene, Oregon.
This summer was the first time the world championship, equivalent caliber to the Olympics, was held on US soil, with more than 200 countries represented. The event presented a unique opportunity for a Bellingham athletic trainer to attend.
Owen, a teacher and athletic trainer for Bellingham High School, applied for the position last November and was completely thrilled to be chosen. Owen isn’t new to top-shelf competition. She worked at last year’s Olympic trials, also held at Hayward Field in Eugene, where she proved herself a capable medical team member. Even so, she says, it’s not easy to earn a spot at an event the caliber of the World Athletics Championships. “Typically, people who work at these events have been doing it for 20 or 30 years,” she says.
Over the 10 days of the championships (July 15-24), Owen saw and treated a variety of situations. Each day, she arrived with other team members about two hours before any competition started. The medical tent was staffed with athletic trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists, chiropractors, doctors, and an ultrasound technician. The team prepared ice baths and took medical supplies out to the field. Then during the competition, Owen and her colleagues stood stationed at different spots around the track to provide immediate emergency care should the need arise. That might range from an ankle sprain, muscle strain, or collapse from heat stroke. Eugene can get hot in the summer, 100+ degrees, and heat exhaustion or stroke were not uncommon with athletes pushing themselves to the max, Owen says.
“You have to recognize the situation,” she says. “So, when we were watching races for heat stroke, we were looking for an athlete who was warm, red, and looking confused or disoriented. One tell-tale sign is they’re not sweating.” They might collapse or even fall unconscious before the medic team could get there. Owen’s goal—with the help of other team members—was to stabilize the athlete with an ice bath to bring their core temperature down before transporting them for further medical care. “We had a couple of instances of 106+ degrees. It’s very important to get them stable before transporting,” she says.
Working trackside also allowed for thrilling one-of-a-kind highlights. “There were so many world records set,” Owen says. She witnessed American Sydney Mclaughlin obliterate her own 400 hurdles world record. “She was just so far ahead of everyone else and it just looked effortless,” Owen says. Another special moment was watching Allyson Felix run her last world championship race (4×400 relay) before retiring. “We’re the same age, and I’ve watched her since I was in high school, so watching her run her last world championship race… I had goosebumps,” Owen says.
Besides watching world records fall, Owen says the championships offered unique professional opportunities to learn. “The medical team was pretty tight, and everyone wanted to learn from one another. It was what are you good at, and I’ll show you what I’m good at, and then maybe we can teach each other something.”
Also “being in the position of having an athlete’s life in your hands is really unique,” she says. “It’s a true test of your knowledge and skill.” Many of the team had also worked at the Olympic trials, so the championship was something of a homecoming for Owen. She got to spend time with last summer’s new friends and develop deeper bonds. The team was housed in one of the University of Oregon’s sorority houses.
Owen is in her fifth year at BHS. She has worked for 14 years as an athletic trainer in medical settings and high schools. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked for a hospital system in Montana and did contract work with a high school there. In Phoenix, Arizona, she worked at a concussion clinic where she treated Formula One racecar drivers, major league baseball players, umpires, and hockey players.
At BHS, besides serving as the athletic trainer, Owen teaches Sports Medicine One and Two and Medical Terminology, and is department chair of Career and Technical Education. One benefit of attending an event like the World Athletic Championship is she’s able to talk to her students about the experience and demonstrate what’s possible in the athletic training profession. She’s also able to apply what she learned in our own district. “It’s not every day that a high school athletic trainer gets the opportunity to provide world-class care to elite athletes and then come back and offer the same skillset to our high school student-athletes at Bellingham High School,” Owen says.