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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Greatest Kids 2019

Nominate your kid this year and tell us why he or she has to be the winner of our South's Greatest Kids contest. Don't be shy — this could be your year!

Greatest Chefs 2019

Behind every good meal is a great chef; they are the invisible artists, working behind the scenes. Nominate your favorite chef for South magazine’s Greatest Chefs contest!
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Events Calendar

  • SS Savannah (1819-2019)

    May 23, 2019
    10:00 AM - 5:00 PM @ Ships of the Sea Museum

    2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the SS Savannah's groundbreaking trans-Atlantic crossing.  In recognition of this monumental achievement,...

  • "Portrait of the Artist" Exhibition at Telfair Museums

    Aug 03, 2019
    12:00 PM - 12:00 PM @ Jepson Center

    This exhibition brings together several photographic portraits of recognizable creative individuals from Telfair’s permanent collection....

  • Georgia Bridal Show

    Aug 18, 2019
    12:30 PM - 5:00 PM @ Savannah Civic Center

    You’ve been online searching wedding ideas and trends. Now it’s time to see all of this come to life at the Georgia Bridal Show at...

  • Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince

    Aug 18, 2019
    2:00 PM - 3:30 PM @ Yamacraw Center for the Performing Arts

    The Little Prince: A Magical Opera is in two acts based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. After being forced to land his plane in the...

  • MAGNUM OPUS - 2019 ARTS ON THE COAST ANNUAL EXHIBIT

    Jun 27, 2019
    5:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Deep South Photopoint

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  • French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950

    Jun 15, 2019
    All Day @ Consumer Museum of Art and Garden

    The biggest names in French art such as, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir will be showcased...

  • Oak Island Farmers and Artisans' Market

    Jul 15, 2019
    8:00 AM - 1:00 PM @ Middleton Park, Oak Island

    At the Oak Island Farmers and Artisans’ Market,  discover fresh local produce, homemade jams, cakes and diverse homemade goods ranging...

  • ENCORE: Santiago Ballerini in Concert

    Aug 20, 2019
    7:00 PM - 8:30 PM @ Charles H. Morris Center

    Beloved VOICE alum and celebrated international tenor, Santiago Ballerini, is returning to the Festival to sing a special benefit concert...

  • Yappy Hour Event

    Aug 22, 2019
    5:00 PM - 7:00 PM @ Peacock Subaru

    WHO: Peacock Subaru and Renegade Paws Rescue WHAT: Yappy Hour Event WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 22, from 5-7 p.m. WHERE: Peacock Subaru at...

  • Brews for a Cause

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    5:30 PM - 7:00 PM @ Husk Savannah

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  • Forgotten Victims Support Group

    Aug 22, 2019
    6:00 PM - 7:00 PM @ Demere Center for the Living

    A joint project of The ELLA Foundation and Hospice Savannah's Full Circle Grief and Loss Center, the Forgotten Victims Support Group is a new...

  • Girls' Night Out: "Poms"

    Aug 22, 2019
    7:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    Ok, ladies, this is the feel-good movie of the summer! You’ll walk out of the Theater exhilarated and ready to take on the world. And it is...

  • Savannah VOICE Festival's Come Together Master Class

    Aug 23, 2019
    12:00 PM - 1:30 PM @ Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus

    Great music is made when great musicians come together. This unique master class, featuring Georgia Southern Voice Students, explores the...

  • Chuck Courtenay at Coach's Corner

    Aug 23, 2019
    6:30 PM - 9:30 PM @ Coach's Corner

    A regional star with a top-notch Nashville backing band, singer and guitarist Chuck Courtenay finds inspriation in the work of iconic honky-tonk...

  • Friday Concert Series

    May 03, 2019
    7:00 PM - 12:00 AM @ Historic Courthouse, Downtown Blairsville on the S

    Come enjoy live music every Friday Night from the first Friday of May through the end of October. The Historic Union County Court House will host...

  • Forsyth Farmer's Market

    Jun 29, 2019
    9:00 AM - 1:00 PM @ South end of Forsyth Park

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  • Eastman Gun Show

    Aug 24, 2019
    9:00 AM - 5:00 PM @ Savann Civic Center

    A large selection and competitive prices on all the firearms and accessories with the best dealers from all over Georgia gathered in one location...

  • Southern Roots Fest

    Aug 24, 2019
    2:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Garden City Town Center

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  • "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable"

    Aug 25, 2019
    7:00 PM - 9:00 AM @ Tybee Post Theater

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  • Encourage Health Series

    Aug 27, 2019
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Scenes of the South

Savannah Downtown Business Association Luncheon

The Savannah Downtown Business Association held its monthly luncheon on Aug. 14

Brews for a Cause in July at Churchill's

This Thursday, Churchill's was packed as we celebrated another successful Brews for a Cause ! We joined Southern Eagle and The Ronald McDonald House of The Coastal Empire. Southern Eagle provided great craft beer and the silent auction was a huge success. All the proceeds from the silent auction benefited The Ronald McDonald House of The Coastal Empire.

Bohemian Hotel 10th Anniversary

The Bohemian Hotel celebrated their 10th year in business with an incredible night of cocktails and appetizers. Guests ventured up to the stunning rooftop deck overlooking the Savannah River to celebrate the hotel's decennial anniversary — reveling in the scenery with a glass of champagne.

Stonewall50 - A Legendary Block Party

The Stonewall 50 block party, held on June 28th outside the LGBTQ Center on Bull Street, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Protest — one of the most important moments in LGBTQ history and the catalyst for the gay rights movement.

Pelindaba Lavender Savannah Grand Opening

Pelindaba Lavender Grand Opening was this past Thursday, June 28th! This fun night included ribbon cutting, product sampling, lavender refreshments and special prizes! During this festive evening 10% of sales benefitted the good work of Coastal Pet Rescue. Stop by the store at 112 E Broughton St, Savannah, Ga to see the many products they offer!

Sonja Griffin Evans Gullah Art Exhibit

The Sonja Griffin Evans Gullah Art Event in Hilton Head displayed several paintings featuring the culture and heritage of the African-American Lowcountry. Sonja Griffin Evans paints with bright vibrant colors — while also incorporating materials such as tin and wood — to emphasize the traditional Gullah style, evoking an emotional response by bringing to life historical and cultural events.

JCB MudRun 2019

Participants hit the ground running at this year's JCB Mud Fest, climbing through tough obstacles in either the 5k or the 5 mile run. At the end of the race was a long slide where, upon finishing, contestants found themselves in the Party Pit. Winners from various age groups were presented with trophies, and all the proceeds from the JCB Mud Fest benefited the Lady Bamford Center for Early Childhood Development.

Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum's 200th Anniversary!

This past Wednesday, May 22, we celebrated with Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum for for the 200th anniversary of the SS Savannah's historic trans-Atlantic crossing — the WORLD'S FIRST oceanic voyage under steam! On this year's Maritime Day, Ships of the Sea celebrated the Savannah's 200th anniversary with a commemorative ceremony provided by the PROPELLER CLUB, where Robert Morris unveiled two eight-foot paintings. The evening also included an amazing performance by the Parris Island MARINE BAND, complimentary hors d'oeuvres and celebratory beverages!

Brews For A Cause at Top Deck

This past Tuesday, May 21 we celebrated another successful Brews for a Cause at Top Deck Bar! We joined up with Southern Eagle and a great group of like minded people to benefit Two Hundred Club of the Coastal Empire in their efforts to provide financial assistance to the surviving families of local law enforcement officers and firefighters who lose their lives in the line of duty. It was another memorable night in the South filled with great people and even greater crafted beer! This month's Featured Craft Beer: Island Coastal Lager Sponsors: Island Coastal Lager, Two Hundred Club of the Coastal Empire, Southern Eagle, South Magazine

Brews for a Cause at Churchill's

This Thursday, Churchill's was pack as we celebrated another successful Brews for a Cause at Churchill's! We joined Southern Eagle and The Coastal Heritage Society. Southern Eagle provided great craft beer, Sista Rae Rae performed live, and the silent auction was a huge success. All the proceeds from the silent auction — including a diamond necklace from International Diamond — benefitted the Coastal Heritage Society.