Pittsburgh Steelers athletic trainer Sonia Gysland with Tom Kaminski (left) and members of the UD Student Athletic Trainers Club.

Beating the odds

Pittsburgh Steelers athletic trainer shares pioneering story


10:38 a.m., April 15, 2013--Sonia Gysland isn’t offended when people question her suitability as an athletic trainer (AT) in the NFL.  “I thrive on people doubting my abilities as a female,” she told an audience of more than 75 athletic training students at the University of Delaware on Thursday evening, April 11.

Gysland, who is assistant athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is just the second female AT in the NFL. “I don’t view myself as a big deal,” she said. “I’m just another trainer taking care of athletes the best I can.”

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She began the story of her personal journey by crediting other pioneers who paved the way for minorities in professional sports, beginning with Ronnie Barnes, an African-American who was named head trainer of the NFL’s New York Giants in 1980.

Gysland herself learned at an early age that hard work pays off. After losing all of her races in her inaugural track season as a fourth grader, she began to run more seriously — and never lost another race again.

A love of sports and a passion for helping others drove Gysland in the direction of athletic training as a career. “An ‘Intro to Athletic Training’ course opened my eyes,” she said. “I knew it was my calling.”

Gysland cited five key traits for success in athletic training: tolerance, mental toughness, work ethic, physical fitness, and professionalism.

She also shared with the students her typical day as a trainer in the NFL, as well as the team’s monthly and year-round schedules. Although the NFL season is only 17 weeks long, the remainder of the year is filled with post-season surgeries and rehab, camps, physicals, off-season conditioning, the draft, and a variety of other activities. There is little downtime for trainers in this world.

Although Gysland admitted that it can be difficult when players she has worked with move to other franchises, she said, “I have to remember that I work for the team, and my job is to keep the current players as healthy and fit as I can.”

Gysland advised the students to take advantage of opportunities that come their way. “Someone just needs to give you a chance,” she said. “Once they open the door, it’s all up to you.”

She also urged them to always to leave their mark wherever they go. “The advice to leave the place better than you found it isn’t just about making it tidier,” she said. “It can also mean making a program better.”

Tom Kaminski, professor of kinesiology and applied physiology and director of Athletic Training Education at UD, has witnessed a surge in female students in the program over the past several years.  “It was great for all of them to hear Sonia’s story about her rise to a prominent position in a male-dominated sports world,” he said.

Gysland’s visit was sponsored by the UD Student Athletic Trainers Club.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

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