The 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, is remembered for some high moments—such as the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team beating Russia to win the team gold medal—and an extreme low moment, in the form of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
For the massage therapy profession, the Atlanta Olympic Games is most significant as the first time massage was officially featured in a high-profile manner for athletes.
The man behind that feat—and many other accomplishments that have shaped modern sports massage—is Benny Vaughn. An athlete, practitioner, educator and international presenter, Vaughn is celebrating his 40th year in practice as a sports massage therapist.
Massage as Medical Service
Vaughn is a pioneer, someone who because of his combination of experience as an athletic trainer and all his years’ experience in massage, “got his foot in the door where just a massage therapist couldn’t have done it,” said sports massage therapist and owner of the Central Florida School of Massage, Mike McGillicuddy. “And then when he got in, he sold massage.”
Back in 1996, Vaughn was on the staff of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, working as a medical liaison for the Olympic Stadium and helping organize medical services for the more than 10,000 athletes at various Olympic venues.
Although he had earned an athletic training credential, Vaughn knew the benefit of massage therapy provided by a massage therapist trumped other types of health professionals’ touch.
“What it looks like when you see an athletic trainer doing massage doesn’t look like a massage therapist doing massage,” Vaughn said, “because they haven’t had the training in massage that a massage therapist has.”
So, Vaughn decided to include massage in the Olympic Games’ medical services, meaning massage therapists would receive all the rights and privileges afforded the other medical volunteers, including osteopaths, physicians, chiropractors, nurses and athletic trainers. Now, massage is part of the Olympic Games—an integral aspect of the medical services offered to athletes.
Vaughn’s recollection is straightforward: “I included massage because it was the most requested service by athletes,” he said. “I just did it independently, [knowing] there was practical support from other administrators in medical [services at the Olympic Games], and that there was no one that I knew that would be against it.”
Despite that humble recollection, it would be a mistake to think Vaughn arrived at the moment of that decision easily, or by favor or chance. Instead, it was arrived at after more than 20 years in sports massage, certification as an athletic trainer—and before that, many years as a competitive athlete.
“Anybody Can Do That”
As a teenager, Vaughn was Georgia’s state champion in the half-mile, mile and cross-country events, and ran on the state championship mile relay team. In 1969, he enrolled at the University of Florida on a full track scholarship.
Vaughn never received massage as a college athlete, because back then massage was simply not recognized as beneficial to an athletes’ health or performance.
Vaughn left the university in 1974. He didn’t yet know that massage schools existed—but when he read an article in an athletics magazine by the director of the Olympic training center, it changed the course of his life.
“[The author] talked about how massage was a critical element of helping athletes and how massage was incorporated and used in Europe, but not in the U.S.—and how he thought a difference could be made with athletes if you massaged them,” he said.
Vaughn enrolled in the American Institute of Massage Therapy in Gainesville that year—later, the school would be named the Florida School of Massage. He earned his massage therapy license in 1975, and by 1985—the same year Vaughn earned an athletic trainer’s credential—had succeeded in having sports massage therapy incorporated into the athletics program of the University of Florida.
But the road to acceptance of massage wasn’t without its twists and turns. Vaughn recalled: “When I first began, I can remember going to a track meet in Los Angeles to do massage on some athletes I worked with, and I remember how professionally segregated the athlete treatment area was. It was like the athletic trainers and MDs were down at one end of the tent and everybody else had to be way over there somewhere. There wasn’t much interaction—there was this discrimination, like, ‘[massage] is just a vocation, you’re just rubbing people, anybody can do that.’”
It’s different now, Vaughn said. “You see interaction between athletic trainers and massage therapists, and between medical doctors, chiropractors and massage therapists,” he said. “You don’t see people thinking they’re better than [massage therapists].”
This difference is thanks to Vaughn and other sports massage therapists and educators—Jack Meagher (1924–2005), George Kousaleos, Bob King (1948–2013), Jim Hackett (1950–2014), Michael McGillicuddy, Whitney Lowe, James Waslaski and others—who have elevated massage by communicating its benefits and effecting appreciable change through hands-on work.
It’s also thanks to the coaches, trainers and, importantly, athletes, who have come to realize the performance-enhancing benefits of massage.
Sports Massage is Necessary
Olympian DeeDee Trotter won gold medals as a member of the 2004 and 2012 4×400-meter relay teams in Athens and London, respectively; and a bronze medal in 2012 for the 400-meter. She also an Olympian during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China; and was a 2004 NCAA champion, a three-time world champion in the 4×400-meter relay, and two-time U.S. champion in the 400-meter event, in 2006 and 2007.
By the time Trotter was enrolled at the University of Tennessee in the early 2000s, massage was a common part of college athletes’ treatment plans, and she had access to massage therapy throughout her college career.
When she began competing as an Olympian, she was introduced to Vaughn, who had begun working with the U.S. Track and Field Team, starting in 2003 at the World Championships in Paris, France. (He would go on to provide massage at the 2004 (Athens), 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) Olympic Games with that team.)
“I have several therapists I would consider valuable in my care—but Benny stands out, as he has gone above and beyond to bring health, wellness and performance enhancement to my life,” Trotter told MASSAGE Magazine. “He’s more than just a massage therapist, he is an extraordinary person and I am grateful to have had him as part of my career for over a decade now.”
During the course of her career, Trotter has battled a knee injury and surgery, and many thought her career was finished after the 2008 Olympics. She counts massage therapy as part of her recovery and continued athletic success.
“Massage is absolutely necessary to have the opportunity to perform at the best level you can,” she said. “With the all the work we do on a daily basis, it’s important to treat your body with massage therapy [and] incorporate massage into your weekly regimen when preparing for training and performances.”
Like the athletes he massages, Vaughn goes the distance.
An Athlete at the Table
For Vaughn, running a massage therapy practice, as he does in Fort Worth, Texas, is analogous to a track-and-field event. “You run the preliminary and run the event, or two events in the same day,” he said. “You’ve got to get your mind right, get your body right, and you’ve got to get prepared for it.”
Athleticism has made him able to maintain his work schedule, Vaughn, 64, said, describing a workload that might make the most experienced massage therapist do a double take.
“I see eight people a day,” he explained. “I start early, and I’ll see someone at 8:00, 9:00, 10:30, 12:00, 1:30, 3:00, 4:30 and 6:00.” He maintains this schedule four days a week. The fifth day, Friday, he tries to keep his schedule down to six clients.
“I’m not recommending that massage therapists have the kind of schedule I have, because it’s pretty grueling,” Vaughn said. “When I get home at 8:30 in the evening, it’s been a full day for me, and there’s an energetic component that goes on here as well— some clients drain you, and you’ve got to be able to bounce back and run the next round.”
To carry that schedule, Vaughn walks, rides a stationary bicycle, lifts weights and does a lot of stretching. It’s the mental component, though, that keeps that job fresh for him, he said.
“The engine that drives that longevity is, I am still curious,” he said. “When I drive to work each day, I’m just excited to get here, and every day that I come to my office, I am excited about the people I’m going to see and the cases I’m going to have … curiosity generates a high level for energy of me.”
He said he wants the difficult cases, the most challenging issues.
“I want people who have already seen three orthopedists, four chiropractors, have had MRIs, bone scans, and X-rays, and they’ve all been told there’s nothing wrong, even though the people still have pain and tightness,” he said.
Those are the clients he loves the most, he said, because, ever the competitor, those cases challenge Vaughn to come up with the best assessment and strategy.
“I love being pushed out of my comfort zone to figure it out,” he said.
Vaughn conveys that passion in his classes. He is a sought-after instructor at conferences and seminars, and the therapists who point to Vaughn as a teacher, mentor and friend include top massage educators and therapists.
“Benny is one of the best teachers I have ever encountered,” educator and author Whitney Lowe told MASSAGE Magazine. “His attention to detail on elements of instruction in the classroom is outstanding.
“He has a great combination of dynamic engagement with each person and the capability of inspiring them to really recognize the magnificence of what we do with massage,” Lowe added.
Massage educator James Waslaski has worked at sporting events throughout the world, including the 1996 Olympic Games, and taught at the Olympic Training Center in Australia. But in the early 1990s, Waslaski was “struggling at the YMCA, doing relaxation massage” and feeling ready to give up a career in massage therapy altogether. Then he took a class from Vaughn.
“Once I studied under Benny, I knew sports massage was my passion,” Waslaski told MASSAGE Magazine. “Benny continues to inspire me, and has changed this profession in more ways than he will probably ever realize.”
Massage therapist Mark Dixon, C.M.T., took a class from Vaughn in 1992, when Dixon was a new therapist. “Here’s what has made him such a valuable teacher to me,” Dixon recalled. “The power of his presentation and skill as an instructor push his personality so far into the background that one is undistracted, thus able to fully absorb the material. His interest is not in seeking approval, or in entertaining.”
And over the last 25 years, whenever he has called Vaughn for advice, Dixon said, “he has given me laser-focused attention, as though responding to me was the most important thing he could do at the moment—[and] I expect he is like that with everyone who seeks his counsel.”
Lowe said he continues to be inspired by Vaughn’s example and generosity of spirit. “I owe a tremendous amount of my professional success to the time he spent coaching and nurturing me as a clinician and as an educator,” he said. “He has been absolutely selfless in sharing time, information and his experiences with me, and his generosity has helped shape me both personally and professionally.
“What he has given to me has benefited so many other massage therapists as well,” Lowe added. “I have tried to model his selfless means of sharing knowledge and experience and put each student and practitioner in the forefront of importance.”
The Long Haul
The Benny Vaughn Athletic Therapy Center, which operates out of a new building that opened in 2014, is encased in copper “to create an energetic peace,” Vaughn said. It features 30-foot ceilings with skylights. All the treatment rooms contain electric high-low massage tables used by the six massage therapists who work for Vaughn as independent contractors.
He is married to photographer Joan Carroll, Ph.D. They met in college. He describes her as “very cool.” They live with two rabbits, Herbie and Miss LaRue.
“My wife is a big piece of making things tick,” he said. “We travel all over the world together … she does her photography and I do massage.”
At a time in life when many people are dreaming of retirement, perhaps taking up a hobby or playing a few rounds of golf, this is where Vaughn sees himself in 10 years:
“I’ll be 74, and my plan was to [continue sports massage] to 70, because the next Olympics I’m interested in doing are Tokyo in 2020, so that would put me at 68,” he said. “Then after Tokyo, I’ll spend two more years in my practice, and then at 70 I’ll just teach, mentor, train massage therapists with the systems and strategies that I’ve learned over the past 45 or 50 years.”
But then in the next breath he said, “I’m still curious—and until I’m no longer curious about what goes on with people’s bodies, I’m probably always going to do a little bit of bodywork.”
That is excellent news for Vaughn’s clients—and for the massage therapists for whom Vaughn is an example of the pinnacle of massage and an indomitable ambassador of touch therapy.
“The thing about Benny is, he is the most articulate, professional massage therapist I’ve ever met,” McGillicuddy said. “I’ve never seen him speak when he wasn’t right on target with what he was saying, and promoting massage therapy like nobody else I’ve ever seen.”
Dixon echoes this impression. “Benny, I expect without being at all conscious of doing so, sets an example of what this profession can rise to,” he said. “Whether teaching, treating clients or traveling to international events, his quiet confidence and depth of knowledge speak volumes—and he really makes the profession look good.”
Why is Vaughn still in the massage game? “Because of the enjoyment that results from helping people who are in pain, discomfort and experiencing fear,” he said.
“Touch is a powerful, powerful vehicle to help people in any of those situations, because touch allows people to experience caring—and so many people don’t get to experience caring,” Vaughn added. “I love it. I just love what I do.”
Vaughn’s in the game of massage to win it—for all massage therapists.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She has also served as MASSAGE Magazine’s editorial assistant, managing editor and editor. Menehan has reported and edited for additional publications and organizations, including Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.
Benny Vaughn, A.T.C., L.M.T., C.S.C.S., wrote “Market Sports Massage” for the October print issue of MASSAGE Magazine.