Alumna Profile: Pittsburgh Steelers Asst. Athletic Trainer Sonia Gysland
Sonia Gysland (BS 2007) could hear the crunch of the collisions coming from the other side of the field as if they were right in front of her.
The intensity of that football game in Miami left her with memories she would never forget from her graduate assistantship as an athletic trainer at University of North Carolina (UNC).
"It was one of the hardest hitting football games I have ever witnessed. It was exciting because injuries were happening left and right. But we were taking it all in stride – attending to this player here and taping that player the next minute; making this player go through functional exercises to determine if they were able to return to play that day; and communicating with the coaches,” she said. “All of this was going on, and I'll never forget I had this moment where time stood still for a second in this organized chaos and I was thinking ‘this is why I love what I do’.”
The team ended up winning the game after coming from behind in the fourth quarter and the athletic training team was presented with a game ball for contributing to the win, Gysland said.
The experience and skills that Gysland honed at UNC, eventually drawing attention from the Pittsburgh Steelers – where she now serves as one of two assistant athletic trainers – began with her education at UW-Madison.
(Photo left: Gysland tapes the arm of Pittsburgh Steeler Doug Legursky during a game. Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers)
The Kinesiology Department requirements and the Athletic Training Education Program (ATEP), specifically, gave her an edge in the intensive master’s program in athletic training at UNC, she said.
For example, while the anatomy cadaver lab was new to other master’s students at UNC, Gysland said it was review for her so she was able to use the class to master the knowledge she already learned at UW.
“Having that foundation helped me in the long run,” she said. “Compared to a couple other university undergrad programs I have seen, the UW program with its college and high school rotations was unique and well-rounded.”
Gysland also credits those clinical rotations for getting her hooked on football.
Prior to her acceptance into the ATEP, she played soccer, ran track and cross-country, and was a “big sports fan” in general, though not of football especially.
She discovered what happens behind the scenes to help a high-profile team like Wisconsin and picked football as her focus. “Being part of a team makes you become a fan," she said.
She picked football, not just because the work is rewarding but because the work is exhilarating – more players means more injuries to overcome and more opportunities to help prepare players to perform their best, she said.
“I enjoyed football the most because you're busy at any given time – you're never sitting still,” Gysland said.
Athletic trainers are the ‘unsung heroes’ behind great teams, she said – quoting a documentary film about athletic trainers.
“It really is like that. We do so much behind the scenes that so many people don't realize,” she said. “I like doing the little things that have a big product in the end and help the team win games - getting the athletes back on the field and getting them back to their livelihood.”
She credits her mentor, the head football athletic trainer at UNC, with giving her an initial foot in the door to the Steelers, where she now serves as an assistant athletic trainer.
“After my first season working UNC football, he asked if I would consider an NFL internship (with the Steelers),” she said. “I had never even considered it – I wasn't sure if it would fit with my grad assistantship, ‘but if he thinks I can do it, I'd love the experience’.”
Two years later, when the Steelers’ first female athletic trainer left for Oregon State University, they tapped Gysland for the job. Her predecessor paved the way for her as a female athletic trainer in the male-dominated field of professional football. So much so that she is rarely reminded of it and is, in fact, used to it after several years of working in college football, she said.
“You don't really think about gender, just like female doctors that treat males all the time – and there are also several female physicians in the NFL," Gysland said. "When it comes down to it… I'm a health care professional treating an athlete.”