Hero in a White Coat
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.
“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.
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.
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.”