Stretching muscles to the limits, Olympic athletes turned to therapeutic sports massage in 1996 when it joined the Games’ official medical services.
In Atlanta, Spokane massage therapist Gary Schwander was there to work on top-ranked tennis players. He was one of 130 therapists chosen as medical services volunteers, from 2,000 applicants. They provided pre- and post-event massages and assisted with injury recovery.
Since July 23, Schwander has watched the Tokyo Games at home while knowing massage therapists are entrenched among physicians, athletic trainers and physical therapists. He also worked at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, New York Mets rehabilitation center and for the Shock football team.
“Massage therapists had gone to the Olympics before 1996, but they were brought by individual teams or individual athletes,” Schwander, 66, said. More athletes wanted the service, and research backed its support in recovery.
The practice requires understanding athletes’ needs and what muscles they tend to use for specific sports, he said. The needs of a marathon runner differ from those of a 100-meter sprint runner. A runner’s massage would differ from what’s done for a tennis player, he said.
Pre-event massages help to increase circulation and bring more blood and oxygen to muscles “so they work more efficiently,” he said. But they’re done with the right mix.
“In pre-event, it’s done at a faster pace and more rhythmic, so we actually want to help them get pumped up and psyched up for the competition without over pumping them up,” Schwander said.
“A lot of times before competition, they’re anxious and nervous – so it’s a fine line of getting them prepared to compete and mentally focused, but not too pumped up or too calmed down. That’s where it’s helpful communicating with the athletes.
“Post-event, we’re helping them recover, relaxing the tight muscles, increasing the circulation, bringing more oxygen in and nutrients, helping to flush out any metabolites that might have built up in the muscle and then also assessing them for any injuries or for, depending on the event, if they are overheated or have hyperthermia. Mainly, we’re helping them recover and reducing soreness to get back to their training and competing sooner at a higher level.”
The sports massage therapist also talks with other caregivers and with the athlete to understand the competitor’s goals and any problems in the body. It requires knowing the length of any injury and recovery or if the competitor has overused muscles.
After an injury, and depending on where the healing process is, there can be buildup of scar tissue affecting the muscle’s circulation and function, Schwander said.
With tearing of muscle fibers, one of the body’s responses in repairing is to send collagen fibers into the area and make scar tissue, which “kind of binds muscle fibers together to repair the tear.” However, it’s sent in a random pattern and can adhere to the fascia surrounding muscle and to other structures in the area, he added.
“We can get in and actually help mold the scar tissue, so it becomes more in line with the muscle fibers and help break up any adhesions between the scar tissue and other nearby structures. The scar tissue is still there, but it’s more functional. … It’s not adhering to structures, so the muscle is able to contract and stretch more efficiently.”
“A lot of it is getting in and increasing the circulation – realigning the muscles when you do have scar tissue.”
One Atlanta athlete he supported, Leander Paes of India, won a bronze medal in singles competition. Paes later became a top doubles player.
“I worked on him quite a bit every day he played. He’s not a big name, but in the tennis world, he was ranked high as a doubles tennis player. Andre Agassi won the gold medal; I worked on his arm once.”
In addition to helping Olympians, Schwander said what he most remembers about Atlanta is the excitement. He arrived almost a week before opening ceremonies as athletes came to train and get used to the climate and facilities. In time off, he bought tickets to some events and enjoyed seeing how fans from other countries participated.
He helped the tennis athletes from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “My roommate worked at the swimming venue and was sometimes there at 6 a.m. and not back until after midnight; he gave me a hard time, that I got the country club venue.”
Between Atlanta and Salt Lake, Schwander noticed heightened security first brought on by the July 27, 1996, bombing at Centennial Olympic Park. One woman was killed and more than 100 injured when a nail-laden pipe bomb exploded during a free concert. On that day, Schwander was working outside of downtown Atlanta, so he didn’t hear the news until the next morning.
“Of course, that changed the whole atmosphere,” he said. “After Centennial Park opened up again, the first night, Santana did a concert, so a bunch of us went there because we wanted to show we weren’t scared or intimidated, but with the security, you had to go through metal detectors and show your ID, where that wasn’t the case before.
“At that Santana concert, he was so gracious and grateful to be there knowing he was restarting the fun and festivities, so that was a fun experience.”
Just months after 9/11, the 2002 Winter Olympics had more security, he said. “We had to park in a certain area, show IDs, get into a bus, and they drove the bus into a big tent. Military guys came on the bus, checked us all and the bus, then we drove into another area and went through metal detectors. The security was way more intense.”
Around 2004 to 2006, he helped athletes at the New York Mets rehabilitation clinic in Port St. Lucie, Florida, when he lived there. Some of his patients were major league players at spring training. Schwander only worked the two Olympics, but he’s kept a tradition of watching the Games each time they air on TV.
He and his wife moved to Spokane about nine years ago when he took a job at Carrington College. He taught massage therapy students, and Carrington had an arrangement for them to provide massage support for the Shock, he said. Schwander also worked on some of the Shock’s higher-level athletes from about 2012 to 2014.
Five years ago, he changed jobs to instruct at the Therapeutic Connections School of Massage in Spokane for new students and continuing education for licensed therapists. Today, he also runs a massage therapy practice out of his Spokane Valley home where a majority of clients are runners, cyclists and other fitness fans.
With a 32-year career, he has no plans to quit that work while staying in shape with yard work, working on clients and skiing. “I teach entry-level and still do clinical work and love it,” he said. To his friends asking about retirement, his response is set: “When I stop loving this or my hands fall off, whichever comes first.”