Sports massage not only loosens tight muscles, it helps athletes stay in overall best shape physically and mentally for for high-performance events.

Dustin Nabhan, USOC Director of Clinical Research and Multidisciplinary Care, Elena Pirozhkova, two-time freestyle wrestling Olympian, and Dr. Bill Moreau, USOC Vice President of Sports Medicine, chat together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo Credit: USOC Communications

Volunteer massage therapists are a cornerstone of athletic health at the world’s largest sporting event, the Olympic Games.

Sports massage not only loosens tight muscles, it helps athletes stay in overall best shape physically and mentally for for high-performance events.

Massage became an official component of athlete care beginning at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. By now, you’ve seen the photos of massage therapists at the Olympic Village or posing with a world-class athlete—but how exactly can you work with Olympic athletes?

There are actually three routes to Olympic massage: volunteering at one of three U.S. Olympic Training Centers; being part of the medical team that works in the Olympic Village; or working with a specific athletic team or athlete. We’ll explore each route here.

Work at an Olympic Training Center

Thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), athletes have access to full-time volunteer medical staff for integrated health care services during the Olympics and while training at US Olympic Training Centers.

Since the late 1970s, the USOC Sports Medicine Division has offered volunteer opportunities to massage therapists looking to assist athletes in achieving maximum performance. Working alongside chiropractors, physicians and physical therapists, massage therapists are an integral part of a highly-esteemed team focused strictly on Olympians.

The program is open to qualified providers interested in offering two weeks of their time to work with athletes at one of three Team USA Olympic Training Centers. Locations include Chula Vista, California, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York, where athletes train daily.

Massage therapists looking for a training experience in a highly competitive environment may consider applying for the prestigious volunteer program.

Any massage therapist with a thirst for knowledge should consider applying for the USOC’s Sports Medicine Division, said Jenna Street, A.T.C., an athletic trainer health care service provider for USOC.

“We are a very manual therapy-heavy clinic,” said Street, who is based out of the Colorado Springs clinic. “We do a significant amount of manual therapy.”

Throughout the year, Street accepts applications from therapists with a minimum of three years of professional experience. Applicants who meet the pre-qualified requirements are automatically accepted.

On average, Street estimates she receives between 30 and 50 applications from massage therapists yearly. The cost is $35 to apply, which includes a detailed application requiring an established curriculum vitae.

The most successful candidates are those with experience working with athletes before, during and after sporting events, Street said.

Usually within a week of applying, applicants hear back and are sent a list of open dates for each of the three clinics.

“Even though it’s a volunteer program, we try to give enough notice to allow for adequate planning for applicants to get here,” Street said, noting room and board are provided on location.

Monday through Friday, the team works with athletes for about 10 hours a day, weekends are shorter workdays. Massage therapists assist athletes in 30-minute sessions to focus on areas of concern, including injuries. Volunteers should be ready to handle a variety of orthopedic and general health complaints from U.S. Olympians and Paralympians.

Massage is a respected part of the athlete’s regimen at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers as it helps with injuries and assists in speeding up the rehabilitation process, Street said. Because sports massage is crucial to pre- and post- training, some lucky therapists are able to go to the Olympic Games as well.

Work with an Olympic Team

To work with a specific team, a national governing body may make a selection—based on word-of-mouth referrals—of a massage therapist to take with them.

In recent years, massage has become an “accepted and expected” part of an Olympian’s care during trials and competitions, explained Kathy Flippin, C.M.t., B.C.T.M.B., owner of Dynamic Touch Massage in Orange County, California.

Flippin has been the volunteer massage therapist for the USA Swimming National Team since 2001.

She’s the first to admit she was lucky when opportunity came knocking nearly 20 years ago.

“I was just at the right place at the right time,” said Flippin, who was the therapist on duty when an agent for a pro swimmer called her workplace looking for a sports massage therapist. “I was just eager, young and trying to get work,” she said.

She flew herself to the 2000 Sydney Olympics and offered services to athletes who could get her on the swim deck. Passes to actual events are difficult to come by, but Flippin’s patience paid off. She continued to network with sources after the 2000 Olympics, and eventually earned the respect of coaches and athletes to be asked to come back—again and again.

She was open to working for free to some extent, and she believes that is what continued to land her opportunities to travel around the world, including to the 2002 and 2012 Olympics.

Kathy Flippin at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Summer Olympics 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Um Mundo Novo means A New World.

“I did it at first to build my résumé—to get experience and because it was one of the hardest things [as a massage therapist],” said Flippin. “I wanted to raise myself to that level. I do it now because I love it. I love being around these so-motivated people.”

Another massage therapist, Jo-Ann Wilson, M.Ed., director of Wilson Meagher Sports Therapy, in Camden, Maine, has seen first-hand how massage allows Olympic-bound equestrians and equine athletes alike to function better.

Wilson recently served as a sports therapist for the US Eventing Team for Horses and Riders at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

While her role is paid—she’s contracted with the federal equestrian team—she encourages therapists to consider USOC’s volunteer program.

For her, seeing the healing power of touch and working intimately with athletes and their horses is reward enough. She has no doubt other Olympics massage therapists who take the role seriously would feel the same, even if they weren’t paid. “A fraction of an inch can make the difference between scoring a 10 or scoring an eight,” explained Wilson. “I could give them greater range of motion. The looser they were, the better they performed.”

Injuries are almost nonexistent at that level of competition, thanks to massage, Wilson said.

“The massage was prevention of injury,” she said. “Sports massage was critically important.”

Work at the Olympic Games

Once finished with a clinical rotation at a U.S. Olympic Training Center, volunteer names go into a selection pool for upcoming games, including the Olympics and Pan Am Games.

“It’s a very small number [that is selected], but the opportunity is there,” Street said.

Therapists who excel at the volunteer level may also be contacted through personal referrals; governing bodies may select a therapist to take to the games as well.

Beyond helping athletes, the experience is also a great résumé builder and professional opportunity, Street added.

“This is a great opportunity to get exposed to those nontraditional sports and come in and get ready to work as a team,” said Street. “I would encourage anyone to apply.”

Sports Massage Therapists, Expect to Work Hard

From the moment volunteers arrive at any of U.S. Olympic Training Centers or at the Olympic Games, it’s go-time.

Wilson calls it an “electric environment” that is a lot of fun, but also demanding. From the start of the day, all Olympic team members are told what to do, including what to wear, when to eat and when to work, she said.

In the Olympic Village, Flippin agreed it’s a different environment than a day at one’s massage practice.

“When it’s the Olympics, everybody’s on showtime,” she said. “Everyone’s expected to bust out something special at the competition.The staff works even harder.”

For therapists, that means never lying down on your own massage table, Flippin joked.

The one time she did, she had been on her feet for hours, and she was dog-tired. She laid down for a moment with her chin propped up on her hands, and Michael Phelps strolled by and plopped down next to her.

She was mortified because the cameras were always on Phelps, and her one moment of weakness was caught live. Flippin laughs now, but felt embarrassed at the time, she said.

Stay on your toes at all times, she advised.

Keys to Success

To improve chances for multiple Olympic invitations, both Wilson and Flippin agree a can-do attitude is a must.

That means doing menial work.

“Nobody’s job title is beyond a job,” said Flippin. “The MDs take out the trash.”

For Flippin, witnessing high-caliber volunteers in action has changed her hiring process.

“When I bring somebody onto the team, what my standard of hiring is that I want to be able to take them with me to a high-level sports event and walk away and know that they can be okay,” she said.

Apply and Try

Is the idea of working on Olympic athletes intimidating?

Wilson’s directive is go for it.

Fear shouldn’t hold anyone back, even in a cut-throat environment like the Olympics, Wilson said.

Attending the Olympics and Pan Am Games are favorite memories during her 25-plus years as a massage therapist.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “It’s the greatest honor I could receive.”

Flippin’s sentiments are the same. She’s even seen a customer increase because clients are impressed by her résumé.

“Everybody looks at my bio and wants to go to the massage therapist who’s been to the Olympics,” she said. “And there’s a long line of people that want to volunteer, so I feel privileged to be selected as a volunteer.”

About the Author

Seraine Page is an award-winning journalist based out of Southwest Florida. She enjoys writing about health, wellness and travel. Her work has been published in Discover Kitsap, AAA Journey Magazine, DAYSPA Magazine, Bainbridge Island Review, and others. She wrote “Oncology Massage Brings Pain Relief to Cancer Patients” and “U.S. Veterans’ PTSD Helped with Massage,” among other articles, for MASSAGE Magazine.

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