At top of her field, Falsone humbled by attention

At top of her field, Falsone humbled by attention

At top of her field, Falsone humbled by attention
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With the reigning National League Cy Young winner and the MVP runner-up in the same training camp, the Dodger being bombarded with the most media requests this spring isn't even a man.

New head athletic trainer Sue Falsone is the first female to hold that position in any of the four major sports, and she's become more of a media magnet than Clayton Kershaw or Matt Kemp.

"That's straight insanity," she said, shaking her head. "I really thought this would be my 15 minutes of fame and it'd be over. I had no concept of the story it would become. I'm usually in the background and the athletes are the story."

Maybe a bobblehead night will be next. Since she was named to the post in December, every outlet from CNN to "Physical Therapy in Motion" has lined up for the story of the 37-year-old who shattered the glass ceiling in her field.

From the trailblazing organization that brought us Jackie Robinson, Hideo Nomo and baseball's western movement comes Falsone, who has handled the attention gracefully while staying true to her responsibilities. All interviews are done at the end of the day, long after the last hamstring has been stretched and ice pack unwrapped.

She grudgingly acknowledged she's become a role model to schoolgirls who email or post on Facebook that they want to be just like her when they grow up.

"The write me that they talked about me in class today," she said uncomfortably. "At the Oakland game, a father said his daughter has two pictures in her room -- 'Dre [Andre Ethier] and me. I'm like, 'What?' That's amazing crazy."

She'll tell them the journey to the Dodgers' training room wasn't planned.

"I was a total nerd in school," she said. "I loved to study and was determined to be really good at what I wanted to do. I focused on getting myself better and my skills better."

With a bachelor's degree in physical therapy from Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., and a master's in human movement science and sports medicine from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she realized private or collegiate physical therapy wasn't right for her.

She preferred sports medicine and headed west with a friend, reaching Phoenix in 2001, and landed a job with Athletes' Performance, at the time getting attention for its NFL Combine preparation and gaining momentum as an alternative rehab and conditioning center. That was exactly what Falsone wanted to do.

Stan Conte, now the Dodgers' senior director of medical services, preceded Falsone as head athletic trainer. When the Dodgers launched a program in 2008 to integrate API's performance training into the organization's fitness plan, Conte and Falsone made it work. Conte then hired Falsone as MLB's first female physical therapist. To this day Falsone has kept her affiliation with AP as a vice president of performance, physical therapy and team sports.

"Our approach is to bridge the gap from rehab to performance," she said. "Ten years ago, if your shoulder hurt, we treated the shoulder pain. Now we know the pain is in the shoulder, but the cause could be somewhere very different. We want to know why the pain is happening, and there should be a biomechanical reason. Somebody has knee pain, it might be because of an ankle or hip. There definitely is a paradigm shift to looking at the person as a whole and get the body as a whole to work optimally."

Falsone has an alphabet soup resume: board certified clinical specialist in sports physical therapy (SCS); a certified athletic trainer (ATC); a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association; certified in augmented soft tissue mobilization (ASTYM) through Performance Dynamics; and she's an adjunct instructor with the human movement program at A.T. Still University.

Oh, and did we mention she's female, as is her assistant trainer, Nancy Patterson?

"People ask, 'How does it work, you being a girl? Do you see them naked?'" Falsone said. "Does that bother me? A little. Men have women doctors and women have men doctors. It shouldn't be unusual. It's sports medicine. I don't hang out in the clubhouse. They don't get naked in the training room. It's just mutual respect. Really, it's a non-issue."

It seems that way with the players, too. Nobody understands it better than catcher Matt Treanor, whose wife, Misty May-Treanor, is a legendary volleyball champion and Olympic star. Interestingly for this subject, they met at a sports therapy center.

"At first -- I'm not going to lie -- it's different," Treanor said of the female trainers. "But the ladies we've got in there have earned the respect by their knowledge and the way they go about their business. A lot of PTs are male on the [volleyball] tour. It's very common for my wife to get treatment before or after a match. In fact, one of the guys came to our home in the offseason and worked on her at home.

"It comes down to, take away the human element of the body and being embarrassed and it's about getting the work done. The so-called sexual part goes out the window. As a player, you realize they are professionals. They're not here from a sexual point of view. They are outstanding at what they do and I've been very impressed. One of the first things Sue said is that the clubhouse is our space and she doesn't want us to change the way we are for her."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he couldn't have imagined a woman athletic trainer when he played, but sees no problem with it now.

"She knows what she's doing," he said. "[Women's opportunities] have changed a lot in society in general. As far as women trainers, the players see them all the time in college, in high school. Guys coming up are used to it in the Minor Leagues and it's not a big deal. In my day, you wouldn't have seen it. Today it's just normal stuff."

The Dodgers haven't had a complaint from a player -- or a player's wife -- because they have a female athletic trainer. If anything, they're glad they have her.

"Her reputation precedes her," pitcher Aaron Harang said. "Right after I signed, I got a text from a physical therapist in Cincinnati who said she's one of the best. But I have to admit, I told my wife when I signed that they had a woman trainer."

Ethier delayed his knee surgery last September until Falsone returned from a European trip with the national soccer team because he didn't want to start his rehab without her.

Of course, the stereotypes are hard to shake.

"At FanFest, someone said you could tell we had a woman trainer because afterward they gave us [hand sanitizer]," said Treanor. "But in reality, they just don't want us to get sick. That's attention to detail."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.