In December at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, alpine ski sensation and two-Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin claimed the gold in the super giant slalom, or super-G, making her the first and only alpine skier ever to win all six ski racing disciplines. Last week, she took first place in the super-G again in Are, Sweden at the 2019 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships – earning the super-G World Champion title by just .02 seconds and her fourth gold medal at the world championships, adding to her ever-growing list of accolades at the age of 23.
Shiffrin’s physical therapist, Regan Dewhirst – a physical therapist at VASTA Performance Training and Physical Therapy in South Burlington – was there for it all.
“Last spring, I got an email from Mikaela Shiffrin’s team asking if I would be interested in working with her for the 2018-2019 season,” Dewhirst said. “I knew Mikaela when she was younger, but once her ski career took off, I never expected to cross paths again. They asked if I wanted to attend a spring training camp in Mammoth, Calif. to essentially try out.”
From an early age, Dewhirst knew that she would be in the healthcare realm. With a zest for helping people, a keen interest in science and sports, and both parents in the medical field, she was primed for a career in physical therapy.
In her senior year of high school, Dewhirst worked with a physical therapist after she was told she would likely need surgery and nine months of recovery. Her physical therapist showed her that, with proper care and persistence, anything was possible. She claimed that “he was able to get me stronger than I was before,” and she was able to avoid the surgery.
“I was energized by the teamwork of the clinical staff and continually inspired by their ability to motivate and foster confidence,” she recalled. “I hoped that I could someday help athletes reach their goals just as they did for me. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a PT. It was a career that would allow me to care for people, integrate my love of coaching, apply knowledge that I gained through years of athletics and share my passion for sports.”
Dewhirst went on to attend the University of Vermont, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise and Movement Science in 2013 and subsequently her doctorate in Physical Therapy in 2015. Concurrently, she was also a four-year member of the varsity women’s soccer team.
Following physical therapy school, Dewhirst’s goal was “to build a sold, evidence-based foundation of manual techniques and evaluation skills.
“I wanted to find a clinic with passionate colleagues who valued excellence and continual development, and I hoped to surround myself with people excited by the latest research,” she said. “I wanted to have fun, and I wanted to learn from the best. VASTA had it all.”
Per the recommendation of one of her professors and mentors, Sonya Worth, Dewhirst met with Jeff Albertson, owner and director of physical therapy at VASTA Physical Therapy, to explore the opportunity to pursue an orthopedic residency program. She was the first to go through VASTA’s program and dedicated herself to advanced didactic work through Arcadia University while also spending hours with Albertson co-treating patients, practicing manual techniques and reviewing complicated cases. Though not required to become a physical therapist, a residency program serves as exceptional hands-on experience after passing the licensing exam.
“During my time at VASTA, Jeff spent hours observing (and grading) some of my treatment sessions,” Dewhirst said. “He guided me through complicated patient management and helped me refine key manual techniques that I now use on a daily basis. His feedback allowed me to treat complicated patients more efficiently and our discussions ultimately gave me the confidence to transition into this high-performance setting.”
Albertson has equally high regard for Dewhirst as a valuable asset to both the VASTA team and Team USA.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have had Regan as our first resident and to now work with her as a coworker and friend,” Albertson said. “Regan is an incredibly smart and skilled physical therapist, and, just as important, she is truly loved by her patients. During her time with us, she has developed a real following. In every way possible, Regan is a world-class person. The U.S. team is lucky to have her!
As Dewhirst continued building her skills and established herself at VASTA, she received the aforementioned email about working with Shiffrin, a Burke Mountain Academy alumna. At the training camp in California, Dewhirst provided medical coverage on snow in the mornings and attended strength sessions and provided treatment in the afternoons. Her expertise – paired with her experience as a youth ski coach, former alpine racer and collegiate athlete – all added up to a job offer, which she accepted and began in August 2018.
Since then, she’s been on the go. Dewhirst left Vermont on Oct. 9, 2018 and has been traveling ever since. The Alpine FIS World Cup has brought her through Europe, Scandinavia and North America, tallying up to over 13 countries.
Dewhirst admits that, “the travel can be tough, but it’s incredibly rewarding when all of the hours of training, travel and management come together, and (Michaela) is able to perform at her best on race day.”
So, what does a typical day look like working with the youngest racer ever to reach 50 World Cup victories?
“A typical day with Mikaela starts with a morning warm-up before training to get the muscles and central nervous system primed for activity,” Dewhirst explained. “This includes time on the bike, some manual therapy to address any abnormal joint stiffness, and a few selected ‘prehab’ type exercises to make sure her core and stabilizing muscles are activated.”
Dewhirst said once they hit the slopes, she helps the coaches maintain the course, provide snacks, carry whatever is needed, and offer any insight to help manage the stress and pressure of competition.
“After training, if we have access to a pool, we will do aquatic therapy for recovery followed by table therapy, which usually includes mobilizations, soft tissue work, balance training, core conditioning, mobility drills, and motor control exercises,” she said. “I spend most of my day analyzing her movement patterns and assessing her body position so that I can program and adjust our therapy sessions accordingly.”
While the team keeping Shiffrin in top order has its rewards, it is demanding and requires a lion’s share of confidence.
“A lot of Mikaela’s training depends on how her body feels, so I’ve had to slowly earn the trust of each of the coaches,” Dewhirst explained. “I regularly communicate her physical needs to the team, and I advocate for plans to manage load and stress.”
Dewhirst returns to her home in Waterbury on March 18, and she looks forward to spending the off-season in Vermont with friends skiing, mountain biking, hiking, playing tennis and spending time on the water. Until then, there’s more work to be done and more medals to be won as they gear up for Shiffrin’s giant slalom and slalom competitions on Feb. 14 and 16.