By: Brian Keyes
Physical therapy wasn’t for Scott Oliaro, he knew that much. His friends and colleagues sing his praises, pausing during an interview to make sure you recognize just how great he is. How he’s uncommonly communicative and empathetic with the UNC athletes, coaches and staff he sees every day.
But 26 years ago, just months after finishing a brief career playing American football all the way out in Finland, UNC’s current Associate Director of Sports Medicine found himself working in a physical therapy clinic before entering UNC’s graduate school for athletic training.
Sure, the basics of physical therapy are the same as athletic training. One works with people to help regain their range of motion, flexibility and strength. Asking “does it hurt when you bend your right knee? How about the left one? Can you flex both legs for me?”
However, physical therapy wasn’t Oliaro’s passion. He didn’t want to see people walk on their feet, he wanted to see people sprint and fly through the air. When Oliaro played football at Cornell, he had to work every day for months to come back from a strained hamstring. Those moments gave him energy; physical therapy didn’t.
At the clinic, Oliaro once treated a football player who tore several ligaments in his knee. He wasn’t expected to return to football after his surgery, but he worked countless hours with the athletic trainers and on his own to regain the speed and strength he once had. Not only did that player get back on the field, but he also played multiple years in the NFL.
It was athletes like that made Oliaro realize his true calling. He enjoyed watching athletes work back from injury to pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, these individuals went to athletic trainers, not physical therapists.
“People weren’t always as committed to doing the work and putting in the effort to getting better,” Oliaro said 27 years later, reflecting on how he knew physical therapy wasn’t for him. “So I wanted to work with people who were as committed as I was.”
When Oliaro switched professions, no one questioned his credentials and experience, He holds Cornell’s record for single-game rushing yards and remains seventh all-time in career touchdowns. Additionally, Oliaro was inducted to his alma mater’s hall of fame, won an Ivy League championship at Cornell in 1990, and was twice named to the All-Ivy second team.
“I think that’s incredibly important when you’re dealing with kids,” UNC head field hockey coach Karen Shelton said about Oliaro. “Nobody wants somebody that hasn’t walked the walk.”
Ask a random athlete what makes someone a good athletic trainer and they might tell you their trainer needs knowledgable or communicative. Ask Mario Ciocca, the Director of Sports Medicine at UNC, what makes Scott Oliaro a good athletic trainer? His willingness to weather storms. Literally.
Oliaro would take it upon himself during hurricanes or weather-caused university shutdowns to tell his staff to stay at home and check that they were safe before heading to the Stallings Evans Sports Medicine Center to treat the athletes who still had to go through recovery.
“It’s just little things like that,” Ciocca said. He then quickly corrected himself. “Actually that’s a huge thing.”
Oliaro’s other virtues are small tasks but are all incredibly important to build trust with a coach and their players. He texts the men’s golf team words of encouragement while they’re at a tournament and he comforts a field hockey player when he has to deliver the news that she tore her ACL.
“He’s invested in the people that he’s close with, he wants them to be successful, he wants to help,” Andrew DiBitetto, the men’s golf coach at UNC, said. “It’s pretty simple, he’s just an incredible human being.”
Last Sunday, Oliaro was covering a field hockey practice as the team’s head athletic trainer, a position he’s held since 2007. It was a brisk morning, a nice reprieve from the sweltering North Carolina heat and humidity that UNC athletes know all too well during the first days of fall training.
The practice is a brief respite from the confusion that has become Oliaro’s job for the past six months. Working with athletes as an athletic trainer is all about knowable — what was their range of motion before an injury? What about after? Are they able to lift the same amount of weight?
When COVID-19 came, it made Oliaro and the rest of the sports medicine department’s job incredibly difficult. There is no cure or vaccine and the long term effects of the virus are inconclusive.
At that first practice, the feelings of confusion, worrying and vulnerability were present since back on March 13, when the United States declared COVID-19 a national emergency.
Oliaro thinks back to how he would have handled this pandemic had it struck back in his playings days.
“Not well,” he freely admits.
According to Oliaro, he would have felt cheated like something was stolen from him. These thoughts help him understand just how hard this has been for his athletes.
“It’s difficult,” he said with a sigh, taking a moment to collect his thoughts.
“When you get calls from kids who aren’t feeling well or have tested positive, to try and talk with them to make sure they’re ok, try to manage them from a health and safety standpoint, as well as a mental health standpoint.”
Sports at UNC are still happening, for now. Football started last Saturday and the first game of the season for field hockey was on Sunday.
Is he scared? UNC’s Associate Director of Sports Medicine won’t say for sure. He’s unsure about what’s coming next, when the pandemic will end, and what the world will look like when it does.
For now, he’s trying to control what he can, keeping the focus on the athletes who depend on him to keep their bodies strong. So, he tries to keep his spirits high, and with another sigh, he soldiers on into the unknown.
Edited by: Luke Buxton