TCOM alumni share osteopathic medicine’s impact on Olympic Games
The bus in Manchester, England was full of Team USA basketball superstars and waiting for one more to climb aboard. Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine alumnus Dr. Paul Saenz was sitting next to the last empty seat on the bus and, when the late superstar sat down next to him, he introduced himself: “I’m the team doctor for San Antonio Spurs, nice to meet you.”
The superstar with an outstretched hand ready to shake drew it back quickly and groaned with a laugh “Ohhh, the Spurs.” Dr. Saenz and Kobe Bryant then shook hands and shared a laugh and stories on the bus ride.
As the 2021 Summer Olympics in Japan begin on Friday, July 23, it is just one of many international stories that Dr. Saenz and fellow TCOM alum Dr. Daniel Clearfield can share about their journeys alongside Olympic athletes. Along the way, osteopathic medicine has proven to be a valuable asset for them and many athletes.
96’ Summer Games
Referred to as the Centennial Olympic Games, the 100th anniversary of the Summer Olympics was held in Atlanta. Dr. Saenz had a prominent role as the Director for Athletic Medical Services at the boxing venue, which meant his team was in charge of every boxer from every country.
“We provided all of the medical care, pre-bout, post-bout and ringside physicians in attendance,” Dr. Saenz said. “We had to serve the needs of all the Olympians while they were at the boxing venue and on the premises. There were roughly 34 teams participating so we had around 500 athletes in our care and our team was comprised of 32 physicians and nurses.”
Being part of the boxing team carried with it some extra responsibility. After all who can forget the iconic image of Mohammed Ali lighting the torch to start the games? Dr. Saenz and his team worked hard to make sure the athletes had everything they needed.
“It was 18-to-20-hour days,” he said. “We were putting together schedules and making sure the venues were appropriately staffed for the athletes, but I sat through all 243 boxing matches.”
Team USA’s roster in 1996 included some of the sport’s biggest names who were just breaking onto the national stage. Floyd Mayweather, Antonio Tarver and Fernando Vargas, all titans in the boxing world today, were part of the 1996 team. But they all came up short in the quest for a gold medal. It was an upstart, David Reid, who captured the imagination of a nation as he defeated the top-ranked amateur champion from Cuba to win the only gold medal in boxing for Team USA.
“Sitting ringside with the US not having won a gold medal in boxing yet, and then to be able to watch David Reid knock out the Number One amateur boxer in the world is something I’ll never forget,” Dr. Saenz said. “The pride of being an American and watching an American in that sport, which takes so much physical effort, was tremendous.”
Wrestling and competition run in his blood, so when Dr. Clearfield got the opportunity of a lifetime, he was determined to take it. He participated in an “audition” rotation in 2012 at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Call it the “Olympic Trials” for doctors.
If the providers were successful in taking care of world-class athletes during this time, they would join a very elite group.
Dr. Clearfield showed his stuff, connected with the athletes and, by the time it was over, was named an official team physician for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
As an all-state wrestler in high school, Dr. Clearfield experienced the hard knocks of the sport, but he took his wrestling knowledge from the mat to the training room. He was drawn to osteopathic medicine and TCOM because he had seen what Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) did for athletes.
“I wanted to go to DO school because I had seen the value of OMT in sports medicine,” said Dr. Clearfield. “I was well versed in the athletic realm and sports medicine was always interesting to me.”
He combined his wrestling knowledge with his osteopathic training to form a bond with the wrestlers and athletes that other physicians often fail to achieve. Since 2012, Dr. Clearfield has traveled both domestically and internationally with USA Wrestling and Team USA. Notably he served as the Chief Medical Officer for the USA Wrestling Olympic Trials in Fort Worth this past April. In 2019, he was USA Wrestling Team Physician during the Pan American Olympic Games in Lima.
“I learned to observationally look at people when I was wrestling — how their fingers were taped, how someone might be limping, how their left ear had cauliflower deformity — and this allowed me to study my opponent and learn how I was going to gain the upper hand on them before we even stepped on the mat,” Dr. Clearfield said. “When I went to TCOM I found that we did the same biomechanical observations but turned it 180 degrees to look at how to help the person, not exploit their injury or dysfunction as I did with wrestling,” Dr. Clearfield said.
Another advantage of the holistic osteopathic approach is that OMT provides Dr. Clearfield a safe and effective alternative to conventional medicines, like drugs or steroids that, that can be risky during a period of rigorous drug testing of Olympic athletes.
“When you work with Olympic athletes, they are so afraid of any type of medication as the risk of failing a doping test is too great for them,” Dr. Clearfield said. “I’m able to do OMT, hands-on therapy which can allow their bodies to heal from injury and potentially optimize their performance, and they embrace that.”
04’ in Athens, USA Basketball and Track
In 2004, Dr. Saenz was the Team USA National Physician for the Pentathlon athletes. It was a group of four athletes, coaches, mangers and Dr. Saenz working together the entire time.
“We lived together 24/7 with the athletes in a penthouse,” Dr. Saenz said. “I literally woke up with them, went to breakfast, competitions and dinner together. I was their on-site guy for everything.”
The Pentathlon and osteopathic medicine are a perfect fit. The athletes are competing in a variety of five different events that are physically demanding on the whole body.
“There was a lot of hands-on treatment during those games, and I worked my fingers to the bone,” said Dr. Saenz. “The athletes were running a lot, swimming, riding horses, fencing and shooting. So when I worked on them after the competition, I put my osteopathic skills to great use.”
Following his Olympic duties in Athens, Dr. Saenz continued his main duties as the team doctor for the San Antonio Spurs. In 2012, he was named the National Team Physician for USA Track and Field. He worked the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul.
“Track athletes are some of the most highly trained athletes I’ve ever been around,” said Dr. Saenz. “They are so in tune with their bodies and know when they are right or just off by the smallest bit. I rendered a lot of osteopathic manipulative treatment during that time.”
2012 was even busier over the summer with the London Olympic Games on the horizon. He wasn’t scheduled to go to the games, but USA Basketball needed him as they prepared for their Olympic competition. For two months, he traveled with USA basketball from Washington D.C. to Manchester, England and finally Barcelona, Spain. Dr. Saenz’ assignment was over once the game started, but Team USA didn’t forget him on their way to winning another Gold Medal.
“When Team USA won the gold, all of this stuff starting showing up at my doorstep,” Dr. Saenz said. “It was an autographed basketball and the group photo of the team that was autographed by everyone. That was really special.”
For Dr. Clearfield, the opportunity for his first Olympic experience would be the pinnacle of his career. But he knows there is a pecking order to earn such a coveted spot.
He has paid his dues volunteering, which for Dr. Saenz and Dr. Clearfield, come at a cost. They both run their own clinics, and for Dr. Clearfield, who recently started up his own sports medicine practice, Motion is Medicine, being away from clinic means not being able to see patients.
“I would be elated and excited if I got the call,” said Dr. Clearfield. “How often are you asked to be the team doctor for the Olympics? I’m putting all of my eggs into the 2024 basket, but until then I’ll stay just as active with the sport because I love supporting it.”
The 2024 Summer Games will take place in Paris.
“While I certainly hope my name is called for the Olympic Games, I have already had one amazing career and am truly living my lifelong professional dream — all while giving back to the sport that has given so much to me as a former athlete.”
Dr. Saenz and Dr. Clearfield love their country. Because of their unique osteopathic skillset and natural abilities, they have risen to top echelons of sports medicine. And that is worth its weight in gold.