U.S. women's eight won gold in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
When a rower takes her seat, straps into her shoes and grasps her oar, she must surrender herself as an individual, conferring mind and body to a 64-foot Kevlar hull. Because the moment the United States women's rowing team pushes off the dock at M.W. Caspersen Rowing Center in Princeton, N.J., all eight athletes must function as one, summoning synchronized power to overcome headwinds and to power through currents. One person’s weakness or injury can affect the whole boat. No one knows this better than physical therapist Marc Nowak ’84MSPT, who will accompany the team to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England.
By day, Nowak is staff therapist at Sports Physical Therapy Institute (SPTI) in Princeton, N.J., where for the past 20 years he has treated patients of all ages, promoting range of motion, reducing pain, restoring function and preventing disability. But outside of his regular patient schedule, Nowak serves as physical therapist for the U.S. Women's National Rowing Team and Princeton University's masters and junior rowers, providing manual treatment, modalities, and therapeutic exercise to treat the musculoskeletal system.
Nowak is on the cutting-edge of therapeutic practices and research but considers his familiarity with the unique function and movement of each individual patient to be of equal importance. He has developed a maintenance program for select athletes to help them maintain optimal function, minimize the effects of repetitive stress or disability and reinforce wellness.
“The more I see a patient, the better I get to really learn how their body works,” says Nowak. “This helps quickly discern if the problem is new or an extension of an ongoing problem, and more importantly, how serious it is.” And though the members of the U.S. Olympic Rowing team function as a unit, they are certainly no exception.
On Being Part of a Team
Nowak explains that rowers are prone to repetitive injuries, which tend to affect a wide range of joints, bones and soft tissues. These injuries are similar, if not identical to the injuries he treats in his everyday patients. However, because of the Olympians' rigorous training schedule and the repetitive motion on which their sport relies, these injuries tend to develop much more quickly.
“Most of the athletes are training on-site at Princeton for several years—many of them I’ve been treating since 2008, some since 2006. I’ve gotten to know everything about them, every nuance, every weakness.” This aspect of Nowak’s care, familiarity, which he translates to immediate and accurate care, are crucial to the team, especially as it vies for gold in London this summer.
“I don’t have to be at practice to know exactly what is happening in the boat,” says Nowak. After 10 years of providing therapy to the U.S. Olympic Rowing team, Nowak has become a marine mechanic of sorts, specializing in joints, bones and soft tissues, rather than propellers, water jets or sails. “Just by listening to their symptoms, I can tell when they’re breaking in a new boat or new shoes, if they’ve changed the rigging system, whether they’ve switched from an eight to a pair.”
Nowak can even see how one person's injury affects other members of the team, who are forced to compensate. That’s why, in addition to technique and form, therapeutic maintenance is crucial to avoid the strain it creates in the members of the boat.
Nowak enjoys the problem-solving aspect of his job, which often requires quick and creative thinking. Unlike athletes whose biggest equipment adjustment is a pair of cleats, rowers are constantly adapting to new shoes, ergs, rigging arrangements and more. To help, Nowak has to understand and adjust the equipment.
Recently, Nowak worked with a Princeton-based rower who was experiencing severe back pain due to an inch-and-a-half leg length discrepancy. To “square her up,” Nowak adapted her foot plates and rowing machine, using a jumbo paperclip and a piece of wood.
“The guys at Lowes have gotten to know me,” laughs Nowak. “They help me troubleshoot when I get stuck.”
Making a Commitment to Olympic Athletes
In 2003, when the United States Olympic Committee licensed the Finn M.W. Caspersen Rowing Center as an official Olympic training site, SPTI became a haven for sore or injured athletes. Nowak and his colleagues established long-term care with the members of the team, providing swift and personalized attention. So when it came time for the pre-championship races in 2003, Nowak was asked to join the team in Milan.
“It just made sense to be there for the rowers when they needed care,” he says. “So we set up a program with them year-round, so we would be available to meet their needs within 24 hours of onset. I could be treating a different thing every day—one day I could be treating a rower for lower back pain and the next I could be treating the same rower for complaints in their knees. Over time, dealing with individual insurances requires a lot of time, paperwork and maintenance.”
Eventually, Nowak and his practice made it official. They approached the U.S. Olympic Committee with a contract, whereby they agreed to provide uninterrupted care, anywhere in the world to the Olympic Rowing Team for a flat fee, including traveling expenses for all therapists.
Since 2003, Nowak has traveled to Germany, Greece and most recently Switzerland for the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta. And as Nowak packs up and heads to London with the women’s team he’s not concerned about their performance.
“This team looks great,” he says. “We’re returning to Eton, where, in 2006, our women’s boat broke the record for the 2K during a heat. They seem to like the gloomy weather and choppy water in England—it just seems to motivate them more.”
On Risk and Reward
When Nowak first came to Arcadia University 30 years ago, he never dreamed that a degree in Physical Therapy would take him all the way to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. In fact, for Nowak, who as an undergraduate at La Salle University always envisioned himself in medical school, pursuing a master’s degree from Arcadia’s brand new, and, at the time, unaccredited program, seemed like a gamble.
“PT wasn’t a big thing back then,” he says. “Sports medicine was a fledgling field, and was just becoming an accepted specialization. Beaver College’s program was also fledgling and tiny. But I was interested to see how Sports Medicine would progress and how it would develop the way that athletes approached sports. So I said the heck with medicine.” The gamble paid off.
Today, U.S. News and World Report ranks Arcadia's Physical Therapy program among the top 15 PT programs in the nation. Additionally, the program is the first in Pennsylvania to offer both the entry-level and transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees.
“It was a great education to get started in my career. It was headed up by a small group of wonderful and conscientious professors, such as Dr. Carol Oatis, Jan Tecklin and Dr. Becky Craik, who set me off on the right foot. I left with confidence, both in my knowledge and evaluative skills—I knew how to handle myself.”
Nowak says that it’s his inquiry-based education that inspired him to stay active in research and publication. Nowak recently began a new study on surveymonkey.com regarding rib stress injuries, with which he hopes to develop a reliable, reproducible and highly specific “quick screen” to rule in, with a high probability, rib stress injury and shoulder complex pathology in the rowing population.
“Ideally, testing should involve college freshman students, so they can be followed during all four years of their rowing careers,” he says. “The more we know as a professional community, the more we’ll know about the injury and how to prevent it. I think it’s really important to get people thinking about the problem and open an active dialog about prevention.” Read more about the study.