Life After Hockey

Karen Thatcher reaching delayed grad-ification in physical therapy

Karen Thatcher
Karen Thatcher was ready to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery when she got the call to represent Team USA. On the other side of that fulfilling detour, she had a new preferred position in the field of medicine. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)

Karen Thatcher does not hesitate to initiate a change of course if she sees the need. She transferred from one Division I hockey program to another in both her playing and coaching endeavors. In between, she modified her preferred landing spot in the healthcare sphere on the fly.

So when, at age 26, the 2010 U.S. Olympian sensed that others were pushing her retirement clock too quickly, she took action.

The proverbial war of attrition that was the tune-up tour and culminating Vancouver tournament left Thatcher in need of spring back surgery. As she transitioned to her rehabilitation regimen that summer, a chance to upgrade her silver medal to gold in 2014 was the obvious beacon.

Obvious, that was, to her. Not so much to her first physical therapist.

“I like to say that he helped me rehab back to my mom’s life, but not to mine,” Thatcher told Pucks and Recreation. “I could have worked a desk job and walked around the block, but I was not prepared to play hockey. It was very frustrating and upsetting.”

With that, she effectively fired her therapist and found a replacement who agreed to collaborate with her strength and conditioning instructor. The move, not unlike the prolonged detour on the ice that precipitated her injury to begin with, cemented another new long-term aspiration.

“The teamwork of care I received that finally helped me recover was inspiring, and quite literally changed my life,” said Thatcher, who had previously planned to pursue a career as an orthopedic surgeon before her big break with the national team.

“I vowed to study physical therapy so that I could help bridge this gap between athletic training, strength and conditioning and physical therapy to help all athletes recover and pursue their dreams to the best of their physical ability.”

Thatcher, who will turn 33 at the end of February, is now three months away from obtaining her doctorate at The Ohio State University. She intends to shuffle to a position in sports medicine next year while continuing to chase a Ph.D. in health and rehabilitation sciences at the same school.

With her dual degree, she hopes to take to her new field what she had brought to the rink earlier this decade. That is, the energy to practice and preach the game simultaneously.

Persistence produces new passion
Raised in Douglas, Mass., a suburb of Worcester, Thatcher tallied numbers and accrued accolades that inevitably exuded top-notch potential on the ice. In 2002, she finished her scholastic career at Noble and Greenough School with 222 points. That same year, the Boston Bruins bestowed the John Carlton Award on her as the region’s top girls’ player.

When she arrived at Brown University, the Digit Murphy-led program had just seen three of its four 1998 Nagano gold medalists return for the second women’s hockey Olympic tournament in Salt Lake City. The Bears were also coming off their first (and still only) NCAA tournament bid.

Thatcher would stick to the Ivy League institution for one season, posting a 4.0 GPA all the while, before transferring crosstown to Providence College, which had produced an unmatched seven 1998 and four 2002 U.S. Olympians. As a junior, she posted a college career campaign with 58 points and piloted the Friars to their fourth consecutive conference postseason pennant.

She topped the team charts again as a senior in 2005-06, good for a share of Hockey East MVP honors and Patty Kazmaier consideration. Nonetheless, she presumed nothing in the way of a long-term international or lucrative professional playing gig.

Karen Thatcher

A top-notch performer as an undergraduate student, Thatcher intends to stay within an academic setting through a Ph.D. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)

With her eye still on a career in orthopedics, she joined the British Columbia Breakers semipro team with intent to fill a gap year before launching her graduate studies. But fortune broke a friendly grin that fall when she was placed on the national team.

“I decided to put my academic aspirations on hold while I pursued my athletic dreams, knowing that I could always return to school but I could only be an elite athlete for so long,” she said.

Three nomadic, back-and-forth seasons between the international ranks and the Western and Canadian Women’s Leagues culminated in regular action at the Vancouver Olympics. America’s 2-0 gold-medal loss to Canada, followed by the effects of her back ailment, only whet Thatcher’s appetite to rerun the four-year sequence.

“I felt very strongly that I could not retire while injured, because that would be giving up on myself,” she said.

In late May of 2010, the Colgate Raiders brought Thatcher closer to home through an assistant coaching vacancy. She would last barely 12 weeks there before pouncing on an equivalent opening at her alma mater.

Between her return to Providence and the concurrent advent of the CWHL’s Boston Blades, Thatcher prolonged her formal involvement in the game for three more seasons. Serendipity had extended her playing days. It had allowed her to reunite with head coach Bob Deraney at PC and with her former Brown bench boss, Murphy, in the Hub.

And it laid the groundwork for her next change of heart.

Thatcher admitted that, over time, orthopedic surgery “felt too impersonal to me, and, more importantly, I discovered I don’t really care for the operating room.”

Conversely, she continued, “Through the many injuries sustained over a 25-year career in hockey, I discovered a love for physical therapy. I loved learning about how the human body moves and how to manipulate this movement to facilitate recovery.

“Each time I sustained an injury, it was always my physical therapist that helped me heal both physically and emotionally. I knew this was how I wanted to help others.”

New schools of thought
The last of Thatcher’s injuries aborted her bid for a passport to Sochi one year ahead of the 2014 Games. In a Blades road bout with the Calgary Inferno, she endured what she characterized as “the third time I had sustained a concussion where I lost consciousness.”

Two months later, the Olympic team began its first phase of preparation by assembling its candidates for 2013 summer tryouts. When Thatcher got the call that April, she reluctantly declined the offer.

“It’s been four years since that concussion, and I still notice lingering deficits,” she admitted. “While I never wanted to retire while injured, I didn’t feel that I could take that risk with my brain given the new information begin released regarding concussions and long-term consequences.”

Having procured more money as a personal trainer and as a nanny after leaving her two-year coaching stint at PC, Thatcher eased into the off-ice life she had resolutely resisted in 2010. By the time her ex-teammates were resetting after yet another Olympic heartbreak, she was answering her revised call to Columbus.

Eight years removed from leaving Providence with an undergraduate degree in biology and Summa Cum Laude distinctions, Thatcher chose OSU’s DPT/Ph.D. dual degree program as her next academic challenge. Students complete their clinical degree in a three-year period, then carry on with the longer road toward certification to teach the field at a university.

Karen Thatcher

Of her missed bid for a second Olympic journey, Thatcher says, “While I will never know whether or not I would have made that Olympic team, I am able to look back and know that I did everything I could and that I gave all that I had. This means everything to me..” (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The latter will be Thatcher’s primary focus after she finishes the former in May. As the department’s website explains, “It requires you to conceive and successfully complete an original investigation to develop original knowledge in your field. At the completion of the PhD, you write a dissertation, which may be the equivalent of a few published research articles. Hence, the PhD prepares you to become an independent scientific investigator in your field of study. In our program, it also prepares you to become a leader and effective teacher in your profession.”

Critical thoughts are already brewing in what will soon be a patient-turned-therapist and student-turned-master’s head. A more assertive pitch for the profession is at the forefront of her agenda. Behind it, she hopes to help unearth more methods of healing that can substitute for surgery.

“As Americans, we tend to want the quickest and ‘best’ fix, and we have come to believe as a society that for many musculoskeletal injuries, this must be a surgical procedure,” Thatcher said.

“However, I’ve learned over the past three years that surgery isn’t always the answer. An appropriately administered course of physical therapy can often help individuals avoid surgery. I’ve come to really value the ability of physical therapy prior to surgical interventions to alleviate pain, correct abnormal movement mechanics and potentially avoid surgery.”

‘…an incomparable preparation…’
The what-ifs from the journey to Russia that never was still roam around Thatcher’s quarters like a pocket-size pachyderm. The unfulfilled mystery loiters, but she values the existing gains as they apply to her new ambitions.

“After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I felt I had more hockey in me,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t done yet. It was my dream to complete my hockey career in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and it is still disappointing that my concussion in 2013 kept me from competing for that opportunity.

“While I will never know whether or not I would have made that Olympic team, I am able to look back and know that I did everything I could and that I gave all that I had. This means everything to me. To be able to move forward in my life with no regrets, knowing that I gave everything within me to work toward my dreams.”

To that point, other IIHF jamborees in China, Finland and Sweden sandwiched her 2010 Olympic excursion. She credits those opportunities with prolonging the pleasure of full-fledged hockey involvement while expanding her interpersonal horizons, which she will value in her next occupation.

Ditto the knowhow on how to handle “working in a fast-faced team environment” and “the intangible characteristics of determination, hard work and enthusiasm which high-level sport cultivates.”

She added, “Couple all of this with an intense appreciation for physical activity and the capabilities of the human body, and my career in hockey provided an incomparable preparation for my career in physical therapy.

The 2011 and 2012 Four Nations Cup, where the Americans took first place in Scandinavia, proved to be Thatcher’s last go-around in the Star-Spangled Sweater. But they were also part of the extension on her playing days she had proactively ensured by changing the personnel on her rehab regime post-Vancouver.

As she nears her clinical certification, she is itching to return a favor to the next athletic generation. When she relives the restoration scenario on the other side of the partnership, she aims to get the objective right the first time.

“It is imperative that patients trust their physical therapist,” she said. “With my background as an athlete, I am able to empathize with my patients, which helps them trust that I truly do understand how they may be feeling and thus trust my treatment a bit more.”

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