It was Kathy Levandoski's freshman year at Wisconsin-Whitewater when the three-sport athlete first became familiar with a training room.
"I had a bad ankle sprain and I was in there every single day," she said. "I'd never seen one in my high school days at Valpo. We didn't have one."
In a way, the injury served as a catalyst to Levandoski's career in the field, which dates to 1986, most of them at Valparaiiso.
"It's kind of cool. I had a love of athletics and medicine and it combined the two," she said. "I was sold from then on."
March is National Athletic Training Month, recognizing the impact of professionals like Levandoski, and her story isn't that different from others in the field.
"My mom was a psychiatric nurse so I always had an interest in it," said Mary McDonagh, a seven-year certified athletic trainer with Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers in Merrillville. "Once I got into college, I realized my true passion was sports medicine."
Transplanted from the northeast, McDonagh is contracted to Calumet College, where she serves as the sole athletic trainer for 17 sports.
"The great part is having a hand in all aspects," she said. "I'd call it a cross between an EMT, a physical therapist, strength and conditioning, a nutritionist here and there and a teacher as well. A lot of people don't see behind the scenes ... understand that we do all aspects. The more we can educate athletes that we're not just the water boy, the better off we'll be."
While the ice bag and roll of tape stereotype still exists, the job has greatly evolved.
"Sometimes, people don't see the whole picture," said Annie Gonzalez, a colleague of McDonagh's at Accelerated who works at Merrillville High School. "We're not personal trainers. We don't just wrap ankles and fill coolers. It's become more and more intensive. We prevent, treat, a whole spectrum of things."
Certified in 2004, Gonzalez worked for five years at Boone Grove, where she also taught a class.
"I'd say probably the last six, seven years, most schools are seeing the true value of having athletic trainers," she said. "It's important to have somebody who didn't just take a class in college. The smaller schools, the (Porter County Conference), don't have a full-time trainer. I think the day is coming, sooner than we think, where it will be a requirement, out of necessity and liability."
Levandoski is proud that Indiana ranks well above the national average of high schools with trainers that is around 50-50.
"Everybody is so aware of everything," she said. "I'm glad we are helping make decisions."
The profession has also seen a trend of fewer trainers also teaching at schools like Levandoski.
"I think it's such a blessing to be at the school," she said. "I'm there all the time. I can see kids before school without them making a special trip. Knowing a lot of teachers, I can check with them on how somebody's doing in class. If they're sick or injured, I can call right away to get them seen so it may not disrupt practice or a game. It's fun to see kids in the hallway and it's important to have an extra set of eyes, ears and hands around."
A shot put-discus thrower in college, McDonagh never sustained a major injury until three years ago, when she suffered three bulging discs lifting a cooler. It was initially misdiagnosed and she went eight months before it was treated properly. After visiting a doctor at home in Massachusetts, McDonagh was able to recover through rehab, and ran her first marathon a year later.
"I practice what I preach," she said. "We do a lot of education with athletes, especially transfers, a lot of pre-hab, helping develop programs that are in tune with what they need. I love to be out working with athletes, seeing the payoff, them working their tail off in the room to get back on the field."
No matter the emphasis, the nature of the job is not 9 to 5. McDonagh estimates seeing more than 500 athletes a season.
"There are only so many hours and so much you can do," she said.
As competition heightens, athletes are developing at younger ages, and the result is more injuries.
"I'm seeing young kids in physical therapy," Gonzalez said. "That's something you would have never seen five, 10 years ago."
Large schools like Valpo have 20 sports.
"We keep adding coverages, who knows where it's going," Levandoski said. "Everybody seems to have gone year-round with sports. We're scrambling to cover everything."
In the end, getting athletes back in the game in a safe, timely manner is what it's all about, and a little appreciation goes a long way.
"I wouldn't say I've come across a parent who wasn't extremely thankful," Gonzalez said. "Once in a while, they might question you, but when the dust settles, it's usually thankfulness."