What’s your physio story?

I grew up in South Africa. When I was 11, I started my own lawn cutting business. One of my five clients was a physiotherapist who treated all of the top rugby players and athletes in the country. I remember thinking, “That’s not really a job, she’s just lucky to do that.”

I moved to Vancouver in 1991 and completed a BSC in Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. At the time, I was training on the national kayaking team. There was a high-performance training centre in Burnaby and most of the athletes studied kinesiology there. We had a good group of athletes and academics. One member of my team became an orthopaedic surgeon, one an oral maxillofacial surgeon and another was

almost part of the Canadian Space Program (ranking in the top eight). I already had it in my sights to be a physio, so I continued my education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

After school, I moved to Calgary and worked as a PT at the University of Calgary Sports Medicine Centre. I became the Director of Physiotherapy there, and eventually made the decision to open up my first physio clinic, Marda Loop Physiotherapy, with Laurie Maffey; I’m still a part owner with Paul Hunter today. I later moved from Calgary to Kelowna and opened another clinic called Wave Physiotherapy. I continue to share my time between Kelowna and Calgary.

Let’s talk Olympics. How did you get involved?

In 2001, I started working with national canoe and kayaking teams, because I knew the sport and had a keen interest in sport physio. It was a natural fit.

Greg working on Canoe athlete at Athens Olympics

How do you go from “I’m interested in helping with elite athletes” to “I’m going to be a physio for the Olympics!”?

The athletes request or put in who they would like to go to the Games and then the sport organization

nominates you to the Olympic team. You basically need to get elected. Once you do, they pay for your expenses. The first Olympics I worked at were the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece. We were ranked as one of the top teams at Athens and we won three medals and took gold at the Games.

Torino Olympics 2006 with five-medal winner Cindy Klassen and Speedskating IST (Integrated Support Team)

Wow; congratulations! What’s your favourite experience there?

We lived on the beach in Greece and it wasn’t one of the toughest of assignments. On the final day, we were invited to Canada Olympic House. The building had a rooftop patio that looked upon the metropolis. It was a very cool adventure to see Athens in a different way than the average tourist.

London 2012 with Canoe Kayak at Eton on Dorney

What’s it like working with Olympic athletes?

It’s very addicting working with such high-level athletes. When they’re at that high of a level and everything is so emotional, you can get some really high highs; you get sucked in. It’s like watching the Olympics on TV and getting excited to watch them compete, except instead of two weeks, you’ve invested 8-10 years of your life with the athletes. It’s even more heart wrenching when they don’t succeed – although even more exciting when they do.

What techniques do you use to help?

Most of the time, we’re using a lot of hands – there are no machines on tour. Manual therapy, intramuscular needling (IMS) and exercise-based techniques. We try to identify weaknesses, strengthen or loosen things up, or increase mobility in joints.

Treatment on Kayak athlete Emilie Fournel at the 2012 London Olympics

So what happened after Athens?

Once you’ve been successful at the Olympics, other teams become more interested in having you work on their teams. I got recruited by Speed Skating Canada. My then-partner of Marda Loop Physiotherapy, Laurie Maffey, was also head physiotherapist of Speed Skate Canada and asked if I could be on the team. I was accepted, and we began work together with elite skate team.

I continued working with the kayaking team. I’ve stayed with them for almost 16 years as now; because one sport was summer and one was winter, I was able to do both.

Then I went to Italy. During the Torino Olympics in 2006, the team won 8 medals; Cindy Klassen won five. It was a big deal for speed skating – they performed amazingly. I think Canada’s speed skating team did among the best out of any sport at these Olympics. It was a thrill walking to the stadium and wondering not whether we would win one, but what colour the medal was going to be. We had a big team there and it was fun to be one of the members helping athletes achieve their dreams.

Are there significant differences between each Olympics you’ve helped with?

It’s different, but it’s also the same. Our role is to keep the athletes going. It’s like being a mechanic on a Formula One car. You’re not rebuilding the engine every day; you’re tweaking it. You might help them loosen something up or help them build on something. You’re there to try to make sure that the machine runs as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.

With Adam Vankoeverden – Gold Olympic Champion. Happy team with Coach Scott Oldershaw

What’s the most exciting role you’ve played at the Olympics so far?

One athlete woke up and couldn’t move her neck. I worked with the rest of the team to get her moving so that she could still medal at the Olympics. She had a wry neck (meniscoid entrapment) and she did medal.

It’s important to understand that when you go to the Games, you’re not the one who’s going to be the Hail Mary hero. That’s the big thing that can be hard to accept. You’re an important ‘cog in the wheel’, but it’s not often that you’re the sole reason that the athletes perform at their best.

What’s a challenge you’ve found from helping at the Games?

My biggest beef (or challenge) is when therapists want to be the hero. We need to know what our role is and make sure that we do our job as well as we possibly can – and not do more than our intended job.

That’s sometimes the hardest part at being at the Games. It’s not very often that a situation will happen where an athlete isn’t able to move their hand and then suddenly you save the day. Your role is to make

sure that you do the best job that you can do and more importantly, make sure that you don’t mess anything up. You can actually hamper performance more than you can be the reason that an athlete will win the gold.

London 2012 with Mark De Jonge (Bronze medal) and coach Fred Jobin

What’s the biggest difference between treating athletes at the Games and treating your everyday patient?

Athletes are high-performing, high-octane machines who you have to almost be more delicate with them than “aggressive.” That’s what I like about working with elite sports; it involves minor adjustments that will make the difference, instead of your average patient where you can make a small mistake or overcorrect something by making it too loose. Working at that elite athlete level takes the skill of knowing to not go too hard and when to stop.

Interestingly, there are some misconceptions with “every day” patients. I get a lot who are initially concerned when they see me. A 75-year-old patient will say “I know that you work with athletes and I was worried you were going to break me.” I have to explain that as a high-level sports physio, we’re trained to treat everyone differently.

I really like the balance of working with athletes and “real people” so to speak. Working with athletes is obviously an honour, but it’s very demanding on work-life balance. Most of the time, it’s a travel-type job; to me, being away is the hardest part. Doing that full time is tough for people who have families.

Have you ever been recruited to help with other athletes?

Calgary is kind of like a Canadian sport ‘institute’. The largest number of winter Olympic athletes probably train in Calgary, including bobsled, luge, skiing and hockey. Because I work in the city, I have developed relationships with many different teammates.

At the Sochi Games, I was the designated physio for Canada’s freestyle ski team. There was an issue and the bobsled therapist somehow didn’t arrive at the Games. I think because some of other PTs knew me, I was recruited to help.

With Adam Van Koeverden – Olympic Champion Athens and four time Olympic Medalist

What have you learned from helping at the Olympics?

Working the Olympics is a fantastic way to see the world. It’s also really interesting to learn from other therapists, not only from Canada, but globally too.

The Olympics is the realm where countries spend unlimited money on health care for their athletes to create that advantage. I feel I’m on the cutting edge of learning about manual therapy from countries like Norway, Australia, and Sweden. Of course, there’s a certain level of “top secret-ness” between countries so you don’t give away your advantage, but there’s also a level of camaraderie and helping people, no matter where they’re from.

Can you communicate with everyone? What if they don’t speak English?

Most countries speak English, but there’s always the universal language of hand signals. Most of the time, you’re able to understand what a physio is doing.

2008 Beijing – Olympic Stadium

You’ve worked in such a variety of sports. What are you interested in doing next?

I liked working with Jessica Zelinka on track and field, because there are different aspects of the sport like hurdles and high jump. From a summer sport perspective, something like a triathlon would be interesting, because there are three facets to it – and three different types of potential injuries.

I would also like to work with athletes who do biathlons, just from the sheer physical demands of the sport combined with that level of trying to stay calm and shoot. There are different positions where they’re shooting from, including their stomach, and then on skis; I’d be curious to figure out where those athletes’ limitations are.

Let’s talk about Rio. What are you helping with for these Games?

I’ll be a supporting physio on the kayak team, but I’ve also been working with the golf team since 2005. It’s golfs return to the Olympics, and I’ve worked with the amateur teams and seven of the professional golfers.

Usually, I do a lot of running around during the Games. Even in Beijing where I helped with one sport, I found myself being asked to work with another. I had been working with some track and field athletes at home who asked me to help, because they wanted that continuity.

What would you recommend to physios who are interested in helping with the Olympics?

Make sure you have the skills needed for the sport you want to support. A lot of teams now require you to have a sport diploma and your manual therapy, IMS or dry needling certifications. Try to work with athletes in the sports you’re interested in. Another important component is being a team player. Know how to work together with coaches and what they call the IST (integrated support team), which is made up of your physio, your sports psychologist, physician, massage therapist, bio mechanist and your physiologist.

Sochi Olympics 2014 with the Freestyle Ski Team

That’s an “elite athlete” health care team!

Yep. I’ve worked with a sports psychologist who was the Dean of the University of Ottawa at the time, which was very neat. It’s great to learn so much from the different members of the team when you’re on tour together.

There’s a lot of down time, so you get this continual focus group of minds problem solving together to figure out ways that will make athletes better in terms of physical performance. They’re always coming up with ideas and testing them out.

Sometimes, the strength of a team is not just that you hire a superstar therapist or doctor, but that you have a team that wants to work together and either solve a common problem or see if you can innovate an ideal performance.

What’s next?

I’m not sure. I feel like I’m experiencing my dream right now. I’m happy to continue doing what I’m doing and being involved with athletes as much as I can and to maintain a balance in my life.