BEIJING - The old adage “It takes a village to raise a child” has shifted somewhat over the years. Now, people will say “It takes a village” to refer to anything involving a community banding together to get things done.
At the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, “It takes a village” takes on more of a literal sense when thinking of the time spent in the athlete’s village. And perhaps some of the unsung members of Team USA’s village are the support staff of Dr. Mike Uihlein, athletic trainer Mike Cortese and equipment manager Jake Visser.
Those three would rather not be in the spotlight. If they stay out of the spotlight and the limelight, it means they are doing their jobs and things are going smoothly. Still, there is no way to understate the importance of the group to make the operation run smoothly.
“They are absolutely crucial. We're very fortunate to have great coaching, but if it wasn't for the support staff, we'd be in a world of hurt,” said general manager and director of sled national teams, Dan Brennan, who is in charge of finding the support staff for the team. “They make sure our players are healthy and they make sure their equipment is always ready to go. Anything can happen with the sleds. Our equipment guys almost have to have like a degree from Home Depot because they deal with so many different things throughout the game. But our support staff are absolutely crucial to our success.”
Yes, in practice you will often see all three of them taking on various tasks to make sure practice runs smoothly. Whether it is fixing or replacing skate blades, tightening up sleds, or even opening doors during flow drills, the three members of the support staff are crucial to the everyday operation of the team.
Another important factor to consider is that aside from Brennan and Visser, who are taking time from his normal full-time job working for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, none of the staff are full-time USA Hockey employees. They are all taking time out of their everyday lives and making a significant commitment to being involved with this team.
“Our head coach, David Hoff, is a school teacher to Corey Gorder, our assistant coach, works in the mental health industry. And then we have our two medical people. The family time that they give up is unbelievable. But, similar to myself, they're very fortunate in that they have great wives that are very understanding.
“I think everybody from the inside out understands what a joy it is and what a tremendous opportunity it is to be able to give back to an unbelievable group of young men.”
So how did these three get involved with the sled team? Let’s start with Uihlein. 2018 Paralympic head coach, Guy Gosselin, who was helping coach the team back in 2014, asked Brennan if they needed a full-time doctor. Brennan felt like it was time to get one. Gosselin just so happened to be coaching a pretty good doctor in an adult learn-to-play hockey program. Uihlein splits his full-time duties between the emergency department and the adaptive sports clinic at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center and is in his ninth season with the team.
“They met up as friends and he recommended Doc to me.” He jokingly said that he felt Uihlein’s niceness was phony. “And the funny thing was, is that's really who he is. He's one of the most caring, sweetest people that I've ever met. And, you know, if you're in Beijing, just like he was in PyeongChang, it's not only our team it's the other teams. It's the volunteers. Everyone knows Doc. He makes it a point to care about everyone that he interacts with, and it goes a long way and players love him. We love him.”
For Cortese, his relationship with Brennan goes back to their days at Colorado College.
“He's our Swiss Army knife. I mean, anything needs to be done he can do it. He could have easily been a doctor had he chosen that profession. He runs a rehab center in Boynton Beach, Fla. But he can do it all. He can sharpen skates, he can take care of the medical side. He’s a true professional, and we’d be absolutely lost without him.”
Visser has worked a couple of Para Hockey World Championships and has been a fantastic addition to the staff, according to Brennan.
“He’s top shelf, very professional, and adds a lot of fun with a great sense of humor. When you get to the rink, you know the locker room is going to look immaculate. His care factor is through the roof and the players love him. As a fellow staff person, he’s really great to be around.”
It’s one thing for the team leader to give glowing recommendations, but when it comes to on the ice, the players will echo those sentiments. Brody Roybal is now competing in his third Paralympics and has had the opportunity to be around all of the support staff for a long part of his career. He sees the care factor as well, and could not speak more highly of the group.
“Oh my gosh, the support staff means the world to our team. They’re part of our family through and through.”
Even when they are not at the rink, Roybal knows he can call them if he ever has an issue, concern or just to chat.
“They've essentially just taken on a second full-time job being a part of this team. And they do it out of the kindness of their hearts. And we owe them the world for it. There have been times when I’m at home and I’ll call Doc or Cortese and they are able to help me out even over the phone.
“They’re committed to this team, and they’re just some great guys.”
When watching the team compete in the semifinals on Friday, look behind the bench. You’ll see dedicated people hard at work, making sure things run smoothly and helping a group of 17 players try to reach their dream of claiming Paralympic gold.