From November 29 to December 6, 2022, Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) Athletic Trainer Julie Tucker couldn’t be found in her usual spots—the Athletic Complex or fields—but rather in the Caribbean island nation of Grenada. While the certified athletic trainer (ATC) has spent more than 15 years tending to the injuries of middle school through masters-aged athletes—including the last eight years spent at SSFS—this assignment had her on the sidelines of the adult, international, elite club-level Grenada Rugby World Sevens Tournament. And as you can imagine, the view was spectacular.
You might assume that Julie has rugby playing experience—and if so, you would be wrong. “I was a competitive gymnast growing up, sharing gym space with Olympians. I was always injured, and I grew up with the old-school injury mentality of ‘you’re fine.’ I could get away with telling a doc not to cast my stress fracture so I could still compete.” A native of Montgomery County, Julie attended James Hubert Blake High School, just 5 minutes down the road from SSFS, and was a part of the gymnastics team there. However, it took until her undergrad experience for her to realize what the athletic training room at her high school was for!
After graduating from West Chester University in Pennsylvania with her bachelor’s degree in athletic training, she interned at the University of Maryland as Assistant Athletic Trainer for football and Head Athletic Trainer for gymnastics, before joining the ranks of a physical therapy company that served Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The company’s outreach to schools and interest in expanding into Maryland led Julie to become the first full-time athletic trainer at Annapolis and Montgomery Blair High Schools, during which time she worked as many as 17 sports at one school, while earning her master’s in Exercise Science and Health online through California University of Pennsylvania. “It was through a pilot program that these schools had me as their first full-time ATC—one of them was unfortunately motivated to action after a student passed away in preseason football—and I found myself fighting against the old-school mentality of coaches handling injuries,” Julie shares. When the pilot program ended, she heard about an opening at SSFS, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Now in her eighth year at the School, Julie reflects on her role as both an athletic trainer and middle school health teacher. “Being both a teacher and ATC allows me to get to know the kids when they’re young. When I see them again in athletics, I already know them, and I can provide continuity of experience. Being in the classroom creates a closer dynamic with the students. Since I didn’t go to school to be a teacher, the middle school health role is the most challenging part of my job. I want to make sure kids are comfortable with anatomical terms—to remove any shame and embarrassment. I’m really grateful to partner with [Middle School Counselor] Erin Rose, who teaches the social-emotional content and fills in the gaps left by my science-based education.”
From middle school health to pro-level rugby…you might be wondering where the connection lies! “I started working rugby through the Maccabiah Games [an international Jewish multi-sport event held quadrennially in Israel and sometimes referred to as the "Jewish Olympics"], which came on my radar because of my Jewish background,” Julie shares. “In 2013 I had the opportunity to go to Israel as an ATC for Maccabi USA, and since 2017, I’ve been the co-lead ATC (in charge of the entire sports medicine team) for the organization.” This volunteer role is allowing Julie to travel the world, including spending a month in Israel once every four years.
“I learn so much in these professional clinical settings—beyond what I would in continuing ed courses—including Kinesiotaping and even stitching, and I’m always looking for what I can bring back to my role at SSFS.” At the School, her daily focus includes providing guidance to student-athletes about the difference between healthy muscle soreness and injury, as she seeks to help kids figure out when it’s appropriate to push through pain and when to rest or seek treatment.
When a connection Julie had through the Maccabiah Games needed coverage for the Grenada Rugby World Sevens—the longest-running club rugby tournament in the region—she jumped at the opportunity. Julie stepped in to serve as the ATC for Rugby Advantage, a New England-based women’s team for which “open athletes” (those 17 years and older) from all over the U.S. are eligible. “It was so empowering to see these athletes come together, never having spoken—much less played together—before, and watch them perform well and even medal. These were my first games traveling alone (without a physician), and the hospitals in Grenada deal with animals more than people…and don’t take insurance. It was eye-opening as to the different types of health care, and it motivated me to come as prepared as possible.”
If you’re picturing an island paradise, Julie confirms you aren’t far off, but clarifies, “The skies were either blue-bird beautiful or suddenly downpouring, and it was HOT.” There were two days of practice and two days of competition, including a total of seven games. The heat, sudden rainstorms, and short rest intervals between games (from 20 minutes to three hours) meant that the players’ shoes and socks never dried. “The worst issue was blisters! Some people assume rugby has more injuries than other sports…they see hitting without pads—the frequent face lacerations and lost teeth—and completely freak out. There is certainly a high risk of brain injuries for people who haven’t been taught the fundamentals of tackling, but all things considered, rugby is relatively safe. I see more injuries on a football field, and it’s probably busier during a high school track meet than a rugby game!”
Speaking of school, these experiences with amateur and professional-level athletics cause Julie to value her role at SSFS all the more. “My aspirations after college were to work for the NFL, but with the range of sports offered at the high school level—and a certain level of chaos that makes me feel like my head is on swivel—I get a balanced experience: some high-level athletics, plus the wonderful atmosphere of a school.”
“SSFS has deeply influenced how I handle interactions with athletes: I’m more mindful of mental health—especially potential trigger words—when I speak. I’m learning that providing the best care isn’t just about physical health—mental health is equally important, and Sandy Spring has allowed me to put tools in my toolbox that I wouldn’t have otherwise…tools that translate to the professional venues I work in.”
Next up? The Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires over winter break. In the meantime, you’ll find this ATC on Preuss Field.