Award-winning athletic trainer Deb Willardson is retiring from her post at the University of Utah this May after 36 years of dedication to the school. After graduating from Utah State University in 1975 with a degree in PE and health education, Willardson was the first woman accepted into the athletic training program at Utah and then became the first female full-time athletic trainer hired by Utah in 1977. In addition to being the trainer for the women’s basketball team and supervising training for the women’s volleyball team, Willardson is the associate director of sports medicine, works as an adjunct instructor in the College of Health, and has worked at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Deseret News reporter Sarah Thomas caught up with Willardson to ask her some questions.
1. Why did you choose to go into athletic training?
I was headed toward a career in education. I was playing basketball and volleyball at Utah State, and I had a stubborn case of shin splits. I had them for years. Someone suggested I go see the head athletic trainer (James Riley III) and he gave me something that helped. My teammates asked me to ask him about their injuries so he gave me some materials to read, and I started helping the team with injuries.
(Riley) asked if I had any interest in going further with the training because Utah had just opened its trainer to women. I took the Allied Health Professionals Test (which was replaced by the GRE) and I was the first woman accepted. As soon as I graduated, I was offered a job.
2. What are the greatest changes you have seen in athletics over the years, particularly in women’s sports?
Accessibility has improved immensely. (At Utah State in 1975) women were not allowed in the training room during normal hours. We had to go early in the morning or late for treatment. The supplies are better. We used to get the leftovers or what was thrown away. I still use the tape down to the end because I could tape for weeks on what (the men) threw away. Equipment has improved, too. When I first started women bought their own shoes and got one pair a year. This year, I think they got eight pairs.
3. What is the most memorable event or athlete from your 36-year career at Utah?
Going to the Elite 8 in 2006 and the WNIT championship this year were both memorable. It’s just so fun to play so far into the season. The longer you play, the more bonding there is among the team. Sports teach you about so much more than physical abilities.
4. What have been the greatest challenges of your career?
Sports are year-round. There is no off time and there is increased pressure to succeed. During the summer I am off weekends and I think I had four days off at Christmas, but strength and conditioning goes on year-round.
5. What have been the greatest rewards of your career?
Watching an injured athlete return and excel, and know that you had some part in that, is incredibly rewarding, and I don’t think that will ever change. Or to work with an athlete who has never been pushed past their comfort level and see them realize they can do more than they ever thought.
Despite the long hours, working holidays, weekends, it is an exciting environment and people are motivated to work hard. I have had the opportunity to travel all over the country and to Europe with the university.
6. After 36 years at Utah, what is next in store for you?
I am a huge fan of fly-fishing. I plan a trip to a new place every year with a friend, and I want to fish the Green River in the fall, which I haven’t been able to do with work. The University of Utah gave me a fly-fishing trip to Montana in August, which I am looking forward to, and I want to continue to travel.
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.