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Physio Profile: Making a difference

Making a difference to the quality of people’s lives is what motivates Kara Thomas. In her sports work, the pleasure is in contributing to better performance. “We make better athletes, allowing them to succeed.”

In more general physiotherapy, “I can help them do all the little things that make life worthwhile. Little activities of daily living they were afraid they’d never be able to do again – like dressing themselves, or walking to the letterbox.”

She’s just come back from the Youth Olympics festival in Sydney, where she was one of four physios attending 153 young people. Busy, but a lot of fun.

Two jobs, with plenty of variety

Rowing New Zealand and New Zealand High Performance Sport employ Kara part-time as one of the physios for the New Zealand rowing team. She works about twelve hours a week with the team in the initial stages of the training programme at Lake Karapiro, Cambridge, then more and more as the time to travel approaches. She goes out with the coaches to observe the athletes while they’re rowing, looking for any technique or compensation pattern that might prevent them from doing their best or cause injury. She works with them in the clinic to overcome any difficulties she’s seen on the lake, and when they’re back on the lake she checks them in action to see whether they’re carrying over what they’ve practised in the clinic. Of course she also treats any injuries, and teaches self management to avoid further injuries.

Kara travels with the elite team for competitions. This year they’re going to Europe, Australia and Korea. Sometimes they can be away for one to four months, but the most they’ll be away this year at one time is a month. The physios are part of a large support staff team including a massage therapist, nutritionist, physiologist, sports psychologist, life support coach, and biomechanic.

Kara also works part-time at a private physiotherapy clinic in Hamilton, where she specialises in sports medicine. “But I do everything,” she says. Luckily her boss is supportive about her need to travel with sports teams. “I have a very lovely boss!”

The physios In her general clinic specialise in different areas, such as breathing, chronic pain, lymphoedema, the elderly, and sports. They also service a private hospital, treating patients after operations (often on hips, knees or back) and those with heart and lung conditions in the cardiothoracic unit.

How did she get to this point?

Kara (Ngā Ruahine, Ngati Manuhiakai, of Te Aroha (o Titokowaru) Marae) always wanted to be a physio. “I thought it was a really cool job.” This was mostly because of her interest in sports, but during her training she came to understand how much more there is to physiotherapy.

After graduating in 2004 from AUT University School of Physiotherapy, Kara went straight in to working for a private physio practice in Hamilton. She had a passion for working with sports teams, working her way up through different levels. She’ and her family had always loved rowing, so when a job with Rowing New Zealand came up she applied, and was delighted to be accepted.

Would she recommend physiotherapy as a career?

There’s no doubt about it. “Yes! It’s an exciting profession, with lots of diverse opportunities. The physiotherapy scope of practice offers so much variety.”

More about life and work on tour

“Last year I was based in Europe from mid-April: first with the Olympic qualifying team, and then from May onwards with the Olympic team. Our tour was broken into two touring groups, one accompanied by me and one with lead physiotherapist Craig Newlands for training blocks. The two tours joined back together for racing events.

“While we’re travelling overseas, our physiotherapy time is spent managing injuries and working to prevent new injuries and avoid existing injuries flaring up over the period of training and racing. The majority of rowing injuries are gradual process overuse injuries – but also the athletes are like everyone – they fall off bikes, hurt their necks in different beds etc.

“We work closely with our two massage therapists who also travel and most athletes have a weekly massage both in New Zealand and on tour.

“While we’re not treating the athletes we spend time at water trainings, biking up and down the rowing course with coaches and other support staff - listening to technique advice, training and racing routines.

“Our job doesn’t only involve physiotherapy-specific roles. While on tour we do things like driving athletes to and from training and appointments, working with coaches and staff towing boats across Europe (last year we drove from Belgium to Serbia and return taking turns to drive the vehicle), fixing bike tyres for the athletes, coaches and staff to ride, working with the manager and the nutritionist back home to ensure the meals are up to standard at our hotels, filling ice baths, sourcing large volumes of ice from every shop in small villages to fill the ice bath, packing gear to transport across the country between venues...

“During the training periods we tend to have a day off training most weeks. If no athletes are injured or sick and have no appointments we do manage to get away, often with the coaches, to a local village or shopping/coffee – just to get away from the hotel and have a change of scenery. This is essential for a break from the full-on training schedule and time out from the pressures of tour. “



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