Astros' strength coach blazing trail as female

Balkovec hired by Astros to oversee Latin American conditioning program

Astros' strength coach blazing trail as female

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Rachel Balkovec was so eager to prove she was the most qualified candidate for a job as a strength and conditioning coach in baseball that she once altered her resume, spelling her first name "Rae" to make her name sound more gender neutral.

Balkovec's experience and resume were impeccable, but getting a baseball team to hire a female for a role previously only occupied by men proved to be more challenging. She eventually landed an internship with the Cardinals in 2012, becoming the first female strength and conditioning coach in the history of professional baseball. The Astros hired her this winter to serve as the team's Latin American strength and conditioning coach.

"I had one team tell me to my face this isn't going to work out because of one reason or another, because you're a female," she said. "There was definitely a bunch of rejection."

Balkovec, who speaks Spanish, knew she had the skills and desire, and has persevered. She's assisting with all the players in Major League camp and has blended seamlessly into the organization, including with the players.

"Gender didn't even come into the equation," said Bill Firkus, the Astros' director of sports medicine and performance. "It was more we're looking for a certain type of person -- open-minded, forward-thinking, incredibly skilled, passionate to get better every day, and she fit the bill."

Balkovec, 28, was a catcher at the University of New Mexico and received her master's degree in sports administration from LSU, where she served as a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach. A recommendation got her the position with the Cardinals, and she later was the volunteer strength and conditioning coach with Arizona State. She spent the previous two years with the Cardinals as their Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator.

With the Astros, she'll work as the strength and conditioning coach for their Gulf Coast League affiliate and will travel to the team's academy in the Dominican Republic six or seven times a year to supervise the three strength coaches that are down there. And she'll be blazing a trail along the way.

"The outside perception is I'm just walking around and 'Oh, [the players are] hitting on me and they're doing this.' It's so seamless," she said. "It seems very easy for me to get to know the guys. I never had a huge issue with that in any way, shape or form with any team that I've been with, and it's like that in college, too. I worked with male athletes in a college setting as well before I even got to baseball.

"I think the younger generation, especially with Title IX being so old now, it's like there's so many female athletes everywhere. If they went to a college, there's going to be a ton of female athletes. ... I think the biggest challenge I had personally was more the older generation of baseball, the people who were involved with hiring me, the people who were in the front office. When they were going through and being in the game, there weren't women around. It was very hard for them to conceive it would be possible for men to respect women."

Balkovec has other goals, too. She wants to be a Major League strength and conditioning coach. She recently started a public speaking initiative directed an empowering young female athletes to reach back into the community. She's starting a Ph.D in biomechanics. And she wants to be a professional volleyball player.

As for her current job, Balkovec said getting to work with younger Latin American players, who primarily make up the Gulf Coast League, is rewarding.

"Sometimes there's this perception of the machismo attitude and how do they deal with women, and I find it to be completely opposite," he said. "Sometimes the most important person in their life is a woman; it's their mother. I've had this easy, easy transition with them. I care about them. I care about them learning. I care about them really having a smooth transition. Once they find out your care about their careers, you invest in what you're doing for them, then that's all they really care about."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.