Hero in a White Coat



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Mary Vacala with the Olympic team before the opening ceremony.

Savannah native's passion to help others has extended to the Olympics where she's been golden.

Do you know the difference between an Olympic athlete and a Paralympic athlete? The answer is not as obvious as you might think. “The difference [between Olympians and Paralympians] is how they get out of the bed in the morning,” said Mary Vacala, a local Savannah physician’s assistant (PA) and Olympic athletic trainer for over 37 years. “Once [Paralympic athletes] get out of bed, they have to walk to their legs or get in their wheelchairs. But they train just as hard, if not harder than Olympic athletes, and they do not take anything for granted.” Vacala recently returned home from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio after serving as the head athletic trainer of the U.S. Paralympic men’s basketball team for four years. Her team of Paralympians took home the gold medal, and to say she is proud does not do it justice.

 

Mary Vacala with the Olympic team posing with the gold.

“By far winning that gold medal – there’s nothing like it,” Vacala said. “Everybody wants to win gold. But getting there is certainly not easy.” With a pedigree and career as lengthy and impressive as Vacala’s, the proof of her Olympic success is in her professional pudding. She has four degrees: two Bachelor’s degrees in Health and Athletic Training and Medical Science, and two Masters Degrees in Exercise Physiology and Physician’s Assistance. Vacala is a full-time PA at Chatham Orthopaedic Associates and also a part-owner and PA at Urgent Care of Berwick, both in Savannah. And she has volunteered as an athletic trainer for 37 years – yes, that is a volunteer position, but one in which she is honored to serve.

"By far winning that gold medal – there’s nothing like it. Everybody wants to win gold. But getting there is certainly not easy."

Her Olympic career began in 1993 when she joined the U.S. Olympic committee as an athletic training volunteer for the USA cycling team during the Olympic festival. And from there her involvement only increased. She was heavily involved in the planning of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, traveling to the city every other Wednesday and co-authoring the medical guide for the Olympic Games that year. She also managed the eight different events that took place in the World Congress Center, a hub for Olympic activity during the Atlanta games.

 

Left: Mary Vacala and Trey. Right: Vacala during pre event prep.

 

After the Atlanta Olympics, Vacala traveled for a year with the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team as their athletic trainer, helping those athletes prepare for their competitions and work through any injuries they had. “I waited for my invitation to Sydney [with the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team], but the invitation was actually for the Sydney Paralympics with the U.S. women’s Paralympic basketball team,” Vacala said. And for Vacala, the experience was eye-opening. “It was my first time working with a Paralympic sport, and I was in awe of these athletes,” she said. “It was a whole new arena of injuries and medical problems, and I had to learn a lot really quickly. But it was amazing educational experience for me, and I knew that this was a new area of athletics that I wanted to be a part of. I felt like these athletes were neglected and I needed to help.”

To read the full article, subscribe now or pick up the December/January issue of South Magazine.

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Events Calendar

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    7:30 AM - 10:00 AM @ Mount Pleasant Towne Centre

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Scenes of the South

10th Annual DineSouth Celebration

The 10th annual DineSouth celebration presented by Virginia College in Savannah was one of the best events of the year. Guests gathered at Savannah Station on Oct. 12 to sample food, network, and listen to live music. String lights hung over the long, winding red carpet, which led to an area where visitors were greeted by a photo booth, drinks and live music. Cranford Hollow played all their hits on stage while patrons relaxed on bales of hay provided by Hunter Cattle Company.

Lowcountry Annie Oakleys Charity Clay Tournament

The third annual Annie Oakley's Charity Clay Tournament and After Party took place on September 29. The event benefited the Dwaine and Cynthia Willett Children's Hospital in Savannah. The day began at 11:30 a.m. with the driven bird flurry contest. Later that afternoon, the shotgun start kicked off the 100-shot tournament. The after party that evening was open to non-shooters alike, where cocktails, drinks and hors d'oeuvres from Cotton & Rye were served.

Johnathon Scott Barrett Book Signing

Locally renowned Savannah author, Johnathon Scott Barrett, signed books and stood for photo opportunities with many guests at the Gingerbread House on September 26. Food and drinks were served while guests wandered around and picked up copies of Cook and Tell: Recipes and Stories from Southern Kitchens edited by Johnathon Scott Barrett.

John Davis Florist Grand Re-Opening

John Davis Florist finally moved back into the new shop and everyone celebrated with food, drinks and live music on September 28 at the new location at 2430 Abercorn St. Guests also be celebrated the 30th anniversary of John Davis Florist! The day consisted of fun, sips, nibbles and flowers while the shop displayed Savannah's only Flower Bar.

Dancing with the Stars Benefitting CASA

The 10th Annual "Dancing with Savannah Stars" was held on September 28 at Lucas Theatre for the Arts. Many from all over the community turned up to watch the beautiful performances and support Savannah Chatham County CASA.

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Men, women, and pets alike gathered Sunday, September 24 for the Distinguished Gentleman's Ride. The DGR brings over 70,000 well-dressed gentlefolk in over 600 cities together on stunning motorcycles. The ride is to support men's health across 95 countries. The goal for 2017 was to raise awareness and $5 million for prostate cancer and men's mental health on behalf of charity partner the Movember Foundation.

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Guests arrived at the 1540 Room grand opening at The Desoto in style. They were greeted with champagne at the door and listened to live music as they walked around greeting others and admired the art. The night was a huge success. Each guest had a wooden token that they could use to vote for their favorite food out of the several samples that were available.

Craft Brew Fest 2017

Craft Brew Fest was a day to remember...or not remember depending on how many drinks you sampled. There were several breweries from near and far showing off their crafts on Saturday, Sept. 2. Craft Brew Fest was held inside the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center. Keystone Postcard performed live while the beer was flowing. People danced and sung as the night went on. Many lined up to get a photo at the South Magazine photo booth where a red carpet and backdrop made everyone feel like a celebrity.

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The Desoto debuted a private preview of their restaurant, 1540 Room, which will be officially open to the public on September 21. Many gathered on the last day of August to celebrate the accomplishment. The new chef, Kyle Jacovino, prepared samples of the food that will be served in the restaurant. The DeSoto reigns as “Savannah’s hotel,” a beloved landmark that has played gracious hostess to presidents, local personalities and visitors since 1890. Treasured period details, including original crystal chandeliers and terracotta tiles, mix seamlessly with contemporary art, creating a thoughtful juxtaposition between history and modern-day style. 1540 Room will open to the public on September 21.

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Hundreds of Savannah visitors, neighbors and long-time residents attended the 98th Birthday Celebration of famous, Leopold's Ice Cream Shop, closing down the block in front of the Broughton Street location for the afternoon. Attendees devoured the delicious ninety-eight cent scoops of the delicious ice cream while enjoying live music and performances throughout the event.