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The girl factor

In April 2006, New York Mets announcer Keith Hernandez noticed Kelly Calabrese in the San Diego Padres dugout. The long hair threw him off—he huffed and puffed about the idea of a girl in the dugout. “Who is the girl in the dugout, with the long hair?” Hernandez said on air. “You have got to be kidding me. Only player personnel in the dugout.”

The girl happened to be the first full-time female massage therapist hired by a Major League Baseball team. Once Hernandez found out her position, he threw in an addendum to his first remarks.

“I won’t say women belong in the kitchen, but they don’t belong in the dugout,” he said.

This did not go over well. Hernandez’s comments set off a firestorm of criticism, and he later publicly apologized. The Padres’ leadership and players weighed in, arguing that gender was irrelevant when it came to the contribution Calabrese made to team training and performance. Calabrese herself was shocked when she realized she was suddenly the focus of national attention.

“It was my third year being full time, so I don’t know why he just noticed me then,” Calabrese says. “My players were just blown away. They were saying if we don’t care and the manager doesn’t care, why should someone on the outside care? Nobody looks at me as a girl in there.”

It took Calabrese years to get to the dugout. She started working with Cleveland Indians players in 1995, and when those players were traded to the Atlanta Braves, they asked her if she’d still work on them during spring training. That led to connections to other Braves players, including first baseman Ryan Klesko. Klesko had some of the best years of his career in the late ’90s, and when he was traded to the Padres, he asked Calabrese to come with him to California.

“He said, ‘I know you have a huge client list, but I really need you to come with me,’” Calabrese recalls. “Ryan assured me he’d help me get on board here.”

She knew her goal was to work full-time for a team, and so far she’d only been working on individual players. It had been a long and varied line—whenever a team came in to play the Indians, they’d call Calabrese in to work on their players— but she hadn’t been able to become part of the team. Klesko was offering her a shot at that, although it wasn’t even close to a sure thing.

She came out for spring training in 2000, and the head trainer liked her work. She started working parttime, and at the end of the 2003 season, Padres management decided to hire a full-time sports therapist. The choice came down to a male therapist who worked on players at home and Calabrese, who focused on road trips. She got the job.

And she has thrived in it. But she’s the only full-time female therapist in Major League Baseball. Among all the teams in the NBA and NFL, reports suggest perhaps one assistant female therapist in each league. So what’s the deal? Is there a glass ceiling over the Astroturf?

Calabrese doesn’t think so, and an array of female sports massage therapists agrees with her. It’s not easy being the only woman in a locker room, and it may not be for everyone. Massage is a field where relationships and referrals make all the difference, and professional sports massage is no exception. Breaking into the field—and into the upper echelons of a particular sport—takes time and skill. But the timing for women is better now than ever before.

The Playing Field

In part, women’s options have expanded because sports massage itself has seen huge growth in recent years. As massage has become integrated into the training process in professional sports, massage therapists have become valued collaborators regardless of gender. Calabrese recalls that in the mid-90s, when she was first starting to work on pro athletes in Cleveland, massage hadn’t really caught hold yet. It was the rare team that pushed players toward preventative massage—but now it’s part of the bigger picture of performance.

Dianna Linden has worked with professional bodybuilders, including a Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia. She’s worked with athletes—weight lifters, power lifters, martial artists and boxing coaches—for more than a decade.

“I’ve been treated as an important and valuable part of the feedback loop in active recovery paradigms,” she says. “That means getting rid of adhesions or giving a heads-up to both the athlete and coach before the athlete is over-trained, warning when there’s a danger. If I find a problem, I’ll call and say if you back off on the things that involve this muscle and give this kind of rehab, he should bounce back. The coach realizes bodywork provides feedback.”

Mimi Ney worked with professional athletes regularly and at the 1995 Olympic Trials, the 1996 Olympic Games and the 1992 World Track and Field Championships. Her client list is full of Olympic and World champions and record holders, including Michael Johnson and Gwen Torrence.

“It [acceptance of massage] seems to be growing,” says Ney. “Trainers, chiropractors, doctors—the whole health field realizes the benefits of sports massage. It’s a big part of an athletic program, of sports medicine in college training rooms, all the way to the Olympic level.”


Knowing the Sport

The approach of a good sports massage therapist is a combination of knowledge of the sport itself and massage. To be good at what she does, Linden has studied more than classical massage. At one point, while working with an athlete, she realized some of the injuries were caused by too much training. She wanted to understand the implications of that, so she attended seminars from the International Sports Science Association.

“There’s a difference between training for a sport and training for the gym,” she says. “You need to know that difference. And you need to know the sport—if you’re working with weight lifters and you don’t know the difference between a snatch and a clean and jerk, then your knowledge reveals itself as somewhat limited.”

Knowing a sport may not mean studying a book—some women feel the wear and tear of their chosen sports in their own muscles. Athletes themselves, they’ve spent plenty of time on the massage table rather than beside it, and they add their own muscle memory, and history of pain, to their classroom training.

Deidre Vandenbos started out working on track and field athletes and now shares a practice geared toward athletes with four other fulltime therapists in Atlanta. She was a track and field athlete herself, a former shotputter and 100-meter runner. Ney competed for more than 20 years in amateur sports, playing on Atlanta’s first Ultimate Frisbee team.

Since 2003 Elke Brutsaert has served as the massage therapist for the Giant Bicycle Mountain Bike Team, a co-ed professional team. A former professional mountain bike athlete, she competed on the national and international racing circuits for eight years, and was USA Cycling World’s 2004 team manager for the downhill team.

She’d looked at massage school as a way to unwind from years of sports, but an opening came up on the professional mountain bike circuit, and her friends wanted to get her back in the game. She went from competing in the downhill race on the last day of the Mountain Bike World Championship in 2001 to her first day of massage school.

That background not only gives her knowledge—it gives her credibility. If an athlete comes to her with pain and explains how it happens, chances are she’ll know just how it feels.

“Unfortunately, I experienced it myself; I know what hurts,” Brutsaert says. “Athletes know me and respect me as a former athlete.”

The Girl Factor

Any concerns over gender are counteracted by reputation and referrals. If a team member or friend has raved about a therapist’s effect on performance, chances are the client is open-minded by the time he walks through the door.

“So much of it is referrals—people come in with an idea about you already. I never had that problem of gender being an issue,” Ney says. “It was just whether a person was qualified and knew what they were doing.”

But what about sheer strength? Do men assume that a woman will knead like … a girl? Linden described one power lifter who weighed 300 pounds and competitively squatted more than 1,100 pounds.

“That’s a big guy,” she says. “He had an old adhesion, and when he came in after his coach had made the recommendation, he looked at me with terror in his eyes and asked me how much it was going to hurt. His coaches had told him about me.”

Not that strength isn’t a factor— Brutsaert points to the harsh day-to-day demands of sports massage, noting that cardiovascular fitness is more of a concern than strength. With lifting and turning and hard muscle, sports massage is harder on the therapist’s body than the typical massage. And Linden adds that she has met women who were not strong enough in their forearms or hands to work on the kind of dense muscle on professional athletes.

“You can optimize what you can do with leverage,” she says, “but if you have that much beef [to massage], you’ve got to have some strength.”

If there were questions from athletes, these women all agreed that one session was all it took to quell any doubts.

“I haven’t ever had a new player that doesn’t come in and say, ‘Oh no, she’s never going to be able to get in there deep enough,’” Calabrese reports. “Then afterwards they say, ‘Oh, gosh you were better than any guy I’ve had.’ It’s about your touch.”

“We get phone calls saying, ‘I want a male because my experience is women aren’t strong enough,’” Vandenbos says. “Then they’ll come in and say, ‘Wow, I never knew a woman could work that deep.’ [When] we take care of ourselves, we tend to be stronger and have more endurance.”

Ultimately, the work speaks for itself. Athletes and coaches measure success in performance.

“The proof is in the pudding,” says Linden. “If you have something substantial to offer and it resolves an issue for someone, they don’t care what gender you are.”

Calabrese says her gender is no issue— she’s at home in the baseball culture, and the players feel no need to watch how they act or talk around her. She’s in the training room with them: the Padres value massage and its results more than most teams. The training staff all work together in the same room, as opposed to a massage therapist setting up separately from the physical trainers.

“We are still one of the only teams that work together in the same training room,” Calabrese says. “We want [the players] to know they’re going to get the same type of treatment whichever one of us they go to. We’re a very hands-on team, and we encourage players to come in every day.”

The result of all that closeness? “Sometimes it’s like having 25 older brothers,” she says. “It’s not an easy atmosphere for just any woman, but I grew up with an older brother, so it wasn’t a big issue. They feel very comfortable around me.”

Of course, there is a flip side. The gender issue often swings in the other direction.

“The only times we have gender issues are if we have someone who says they don’t want a man,” says Vandenbos. “Sometimes a man doesn’t want to get a massage from a man, and sometimes a woman doesn’t want a massage from a man. For us as women, we haven’t had those issues.”

Calabrese was in the middle of one of the most gender-specific career challenges—training someone to take over for her when she goes on maternity leave. The process clarified for her the most important element of sports massage.

“It’s so hard to teach someone to have your touch,” she says. “I went through a huge interview process and just couldn’t find someone that had my touch.”

She picked a man.

“You have to hire the best person for the job,” she says. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s a man or woman. I went through a whole slew of men and women, and ultimately I have to pick the person who can best fill in as if I was there.”

As for Keith Hernandez, he hasn’t had too much effect on her workday. Actually, he had an effect he probably didn’t intend.

“I can’t tell you how many fan letters I got from little girls,” Calabrese said. “And if they can fulfill one of their dreams, it makes Keith Hernandez’ comments on air totally worthwhile. It’s important that little girls can have a positive role model in professional sports—it teaches them they can cross that gender line.”

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