This summer the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games descended on Toronto. Over 6000 athletes from 41 countries gathered in Southern Ontario to compete for beautiful gold medals in sports ranging from archery to handball to table tennis to wresting and everything in between. There were over 23,000 volunteers on hand for the games and I was happy to be one of them.
Since I grew up riding and competing in horse shows, I heavily hinted in my Pan Am application that I would be the happiest if I was placed at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave. I was thrilled to be placed at the Equestrian Park for all 8 of my shifts including one shift at the Will O’Wind farms for the cross-country jumping. I couldn’t believe my luck! I was going to be able to provide physiotherapy to athletes that I had been looking up to since I was a teenager. That being said, I had absolutely no idea what my role would look like at the games…Here’s a glimpse of what it was like to be a part of the medical crew at the games.
First and Most Exciting: The Athletes!
Equestrian is special because the horse and rider compete as a team. Every country travels with their own vet and the horses are kept in a lovely airy-looking barn with security guards at every door and more security dispersed throughout the barn. The last part I don’t know firsthand, I just heard from someone who heard from someone, but apparently “doping” is a huge concern. The riders themselves were lovely. Since we were always stationed at the warm up arenas they would ride by us frequently and would say hello or nod. Some would even just stop to chat and ask about our role. Very few of them were aware that there were physiotherapy, massage therapy, athletic therapy and chiropractic services available to them at the medical trailer. Once word started to spread among the riders many of them dropped in for treatment. They were friendly, appreciative and willing to answer all of my questions about their horses and riding history. I was surprised to learn that some never had physiotherapy before – there aren’t many other sports where athletes make it to this level of competition without a certain amount of therapy!
The Daily Routine
Since I was on shift at the Caledon Equestrian Park for 6 days in a row it started to feel like home. Here’s an outline of my daily routine as a medical volunteer:
6:45am – Begin the commute to Caledon from Toronto
7:50am – Arrive at the venue, check in (scan my accreditation, get my meal tickets for the day) Apply generous amounts of sunscreen.
8:00am – Arrive at the medical trailer and meet any new team members. At this time we would go over scenarios in the case of a rider being thrown or a horse falling on a rider. Radio check. Since the park spans a large area radios were indispensable in our communication with the rest of the team and with the Emergency Medical Services on site. We were encouraged not to approach the athletes for photos or autographs while in our volunteer uniforms. Also, we were asked not to go into the stables and not to take photos or video of the warm up ring.
8:30am-6pm – Rotate through positions at the medical trailer, warm up rings and competition ring. We always travelled and worked in partners. If an athlete or anyone else at the venue came to the trailer seeking medical aid we would shuffle positions to ensure the right professional could provide the best care. Somewhere in this time period we would get a break for lunch and dinner.
6:00pm – Begin the commute back to Toronto
The Other Professionals
Equestrian is a high-risk sport so we had at least three medical doctors on staff daily. One was the lead medical doctor who was accompanied by the team lead for equestrian medical. Our two team leads (one was a physiotherapist and the other an athletic therapist) were tireless in their organization of the schedule, liaising with event organizers and making sure we were all well fed (thank goodness!). Since we spent all day with our partners, I really got a chance to get to know each therapist that I was partnered with. People came from as far away as Manitoba and Nova Scotia to volunteer! I made new friends and got the opportunity to get learn from and share with the other professionals. I learned some killer massage techniques and other treatment approaches as well. Each of the volunteers I met were just as passionate about the same things I am; people who are motivated, forward thinking and inspiring! I learned that when things go sideways on the field of play you have to use confident leadership to make quick decisions and most importantly you have to be able to trust that your team is there to support your decisions.
Watching the horses and riders was amazing! Being outdoors all day was a treat. But by far the biggest perk of volunteering at the games was the connections I established with the other health professionals on my team!
If you ever get the chance to volunteer for a big sporting event like this I would highly recommend it! You get to work behind the scenes, learn about a whole different world and meet likeminded people. You get to see firsthand the focus and determination of the athletes. You get to be a part of something big, exciting and historic. I am so grateful for this experience. Viva Pan Am!
Written By: Heather McNeil – RPT