REIGNING OLYMPIC SKI CROSS CHAMPION, HOMETOWN HERO and UBC Okanagan star student Kelsey Serwa jots notes as the physiotherapist slowly extends the patient’s leg.
Serwa, who recently announced her retirement from professional sport and has set her sights on becoming a physiotherapist, is at Back in Action Physiotherapy in Whistler Village for her practicum, a fourth-year requirement for her degree in human kinetics at UBC’s Okanagan campus (UBCO).
Serwa chose to attend UBCO partly due to its proximity to Big White, the hill her grandfather co-founded and where she grew up skiing. But it also had to do with the quality of the human kinetics program.
In 2019, the QS World University Rankings listed UBC third globally for sports-related topics. Another testament to the calibre of the UBCO human kinetics program is a growing list of nationally and internationally acclaimed athletes to its alumni, including ski cross racers Ned Ireland and Ian Deans.
Asked how she found time for university studies at UBC while literally dominating the sport of ski cross — not only is she the current Olympic champion but a two-time X Games gold medallist, as well as a National and World champion — Serwa responds: “Every time I was injured, I came back to school.”
Watch her wild crash across the finish line in the 2011 winter X Games to win gold and it’s easy to understand not only why ski cross is often called roller derby in the snow, but the sheer grit Serwa brings to everything she pursues.
Two ACL (knee ligament) reconstruction surgeries and an osteoarticular transplant surgery over the course of her ski cross career served as ‘downtime’ to return to her studies.
Greg duManoir, senior instructor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences, says Serwa made the most of this.
“These athletes are performing incredibly well in their sports but they also have it together in other areas of their lives,” says duManoir, “Kelsey was just one of those outstanding students, always reading ahead, actively contributing in the classroom and excelling at exams.”
These are important habits to maintain given the trajectory of learning in the human kinetics program. As duManoir explains, the program moves quickly from knowledge acquisition to experiential learning. And while it’s not designed specifically to lead to careers like physiotherapy, it provides students with a broad base of knowledge to apply to any number of possible professions.
Athletes in the program are quick to apply what they learn to their sports but all students are given the opportunity to learn experientially, says duManoir.
“At the end of year two and the beginning of year three, there are more applied courses. Exercise prescription, advanced functional anatomy and courses that deal with health and behaviour change,” says duManoir. “Students are in the lab and testing their fellow students. And when they move into their fourth-year, knowledge acquisition moves to experiential learning, whether that’s in a practicum or in a research study.”
The School of Health and Exercise Sciences has 80 students working in communities around BC and Alberta at any given time. Students complete a range of experiential learning, from high-risk oncological practicums to community program exercise interventions.
Today, Serwa is on the other side of the physio table in the final days of her practicum with Team Canada ski cross physiotherapist Mike Conway.
Conway is working on Serwa’s former ski cross teammate and ‘podium buddy’ Brittany Phelan, silver medalist from the 2018 Olympics.
As Conway slowly bends her leg, Phelan says, “I’ve had two pretty solid crashes in the past week.” Also a competitive mountain bike athlete, Phelan is quick to champion the role of physiotherapy in their Olympic victories.
“Neither of us would have been on the podium without Mike keeping our bodies together,” says Phelan looking over to Serwa, who is still jotting notes. “I think we both got treatment the night before the race.”
As Conway gently and deftly handles Phelan’s knee, slowly bending and extending the leg, he asks, “How does that feel?”
There is an art to this work that comes across in Conway’s movements and the calming and confident tone of his voice. With a long list of degrees — including three master’s degrees, all in different areas of physiotherapy — Conway definitely knows a thing or two about the body. But it’s the ability to effectively communicate what he calls “the narrative of the injury” that’s critical for a world-class physiotherapist.
Looking at the field of human kinetics holistically, duManoir agrees.
“The human kinetics program is a strong pre-professional degree,” says duManoir, “in part because it is a really solid sampling of the theoretical knowledge, interpersonal skills and communication.”
“I often get asked ‘what do I do with my degree,’ as there’s no terminal job,” says duManoir. “You go to nursing to become a nurse…you go to engineering to become an engineer…and, of course, there are many different kinds of nurses and engineers. But there is no one job waiting for you when you finish a human kinetics degree.”
While students go on to a wide range of careers, the ability to communicate is perhaps the most essential skill they learn in the program, he says.
Conway agrees. When he first secured his position as a national Olympic team physiotherapist, “I thought it was just about being a good physiotherapist that gets you these roles. But it’s so much more than that,” he says.
Conway stresses he quickly learned how “it was more to do with the ability to communicate and create rapport with athletes and coaches.” In sports physio, what you don’t say is often more important than what you do, he adds.
It doesn’t have to be said that Conway clearly holds both Serwa and Phelen in high esteem. It also becomes clear how winning at the Olympics is a team venture and that physio plays no small role.
“Seeing you go through two ACL reconstructions — one just before the Sochi Olympics — and to come up with silver after just seven months…I always say that was my Olympic highlight,” says Conway, motioning to Serwa.
“Most people just return to sport in six to nine months after an ACL reconstruction. Kelsey returned to racing and won a silver medal.”
“It’s been a ride. A lot of amazing comebacks, especially with Kels,” says Conway, with pride for her and indeed their accomplishments resonating in his voice.
Looking up from her notes, Serwa, who has been quietly listening, pipes up: “Can I share a story?”
It was the 2018 Winter Games and Serwa was literally moments away from what would become the crowning achievement of her career.
“I remember the race was started. I was in the last heat. There were seven rounds of heats that went out before me. I’m kind of watching the rounds and doing my warm-up and I bend down a little quick and feel my back totally spasm and seize up.”
Hoping the pain would go away, Serwa didn’t mention it at first.
“I was like, ‘I’m not even going to tell anyone about this. It will just go away. It has to — we’re at the Olympics!’”
Serwa recalls standing in the start gate and feeling things out, telling herself, “You’re good, you’re good. Don’t worry, you’re good.” She completed the first heat. But when she went to take off her skis at the bottom, she couldn’t even bend down.
“I saw my coach and I said, ‘Stanley, I don’t know if I can keep going, my back is so bad.’ And he asks, ‘Do you want me to call Mike or anything?’ And I say, ‘No, no, there’s nothing we can do. We’re in the race now. I’ll just go until I can’t.’”
“So, I get up to the top again and Mike comes running up to me and asks: ‘Are you OK, do you want me to look at your back?’ And panicking, I say, ‘No Mike, we don’t have time. I’ve got to get in the gate.’ He says, ‘It will take literally a minute.’”
“And so, he works with me — side flexion, forward flexion stuff. And after that, it was manageable again,” says Serwa, motioning from side-to-side like she’s reliving the moment. “And I was able to go through the rest of the race.”
Serwa stops. We know the rest of the story.
Phelan sits down beside Serwa and presents a large round silver Olympic medal. Then Serwa shows her gold.
While they pose for a photographer with their medals, Conway looks on with a quiet smile.
“I think in the case with Kelsey’s back, we just got hands-on and did a bit of movement. I don’t talk much. I just do. Less is more, I typically find.”
Serwa is mentoring with Conway because she wants to give back to her sport and she understands first-hand how critical physio’s role can be.
“I’ve spent lots of time on the table but to have the perspective change has been really interesting,” says Serwa of her practicum.
And while there is no one better to attest to the power of physio than Serwa, she says the years of study working towards this hands-on practicum in human kinetics was key.
Serwa has a few years to go before becoming a physiotherapist herself. Once she completes her bachelor’s degree, she’ll apply to a physio program for another two years of study before receiving her certification.
In the meantime, the practicum is helping her put schoolwork into action.
“At the end of the day,” says Conway, “we are always dealing with pain, and the more you know about the physiology and the emotional and the biopsychosocial model of pain, the better you can deal with fear management.”
While the Olympic ski cross team also has its own sports psychologist, a good team physiotherapist is critical to instilling the individual with the confidence to win.
“If I’m at a race and Mike says, ‘You’re okay, you can race,’ I trust him 100 per cent,” says Serwa. “If he says I can do it — then it’s go time.”
For Serwa, retired ski cross champion at age 30, it’s go time in a new direction. And you can bet she will bring the same tenacity to her next career that she brought to the sport of ski cross. Serwa has never been one to doubt her life choices.
“In middle school, we go through those career planning exercises: what’s your plan A and your plan B? And I remember, I would put professional athlete as my plan A,” recalls Serwa with a grin. “And my teachers would say, ‘That’s not realistic, you should probably come up with something else.’”
Despite the advice from teachers, Serwa has brilliantly executed her first plan A. Now, it’s time for her next plan A.
“I like to work with my hands and I like helping people — physio kind of brings both those things in.”
Serwa exudes natural confidence but also a generosity of spirit. Helping others has always brought her joy, she says. Given her incredible comebacks from injuries and her affinity for giving back, physiotherapy seems like an ideal path.
duManoir says Serwa is not just an exemplary student, she’s a role model for other students and young athletes, always giving it her all. This was clear when duManoir’s daughter got to ask Serwa “the big question” while attending one of the many days Serwa dedicates to teaching young athletes on the ski hill.
“Riding up the chair lift with Kelsey, my youngest asks, ‘What was it like to win the gold medal?’” recalls duManoir. “Kelsey responds ‘It was pretty cool. The best part about it was I got to do it with my best friend.’”
Serwa’s modesty is illustrated even when she speaks about her future.
“My gold medal has opened doors for me but I have to have some substance behind who I am or those doors will close pretty quickly,” says Serwa, who will complete her Bachelor of Human Kinetics degree in fall 2020. “That’s why I’m going to school.”
—Written by Craig Carpenter