Treating Athletes for 20 Years at Research Park
"It was a shopping mall," says Randy Clark of the old structure.
From Humble Beginnings
Clark is UW Health Sports Medicine's exercise science manager. He joined the organization in 1984 and started his career in the modest University Avenue facility.
Entering the building that housed that original Sports Medicine incarnation, Clark says, presented patients with an immediate choice. "You take a left, you go to the deli. You take a right, and that's our sports medicine clinic."
Assuming they resisted the siren song of cured meats and soft cheeses, patients encountered a space that those accustomed to Research Park's expansiveness would struggle to identify as the home of the same Sports Medicine program.
"In the old building, we had two separate rooms," says Lisa Milbrandt, a Sports Medicine athletic trainer and fitness class instructor. "We had a small area with one or two treadmills and a few rowers and bikes. There was a tiny desk as you walked in, with a stack of towels and a small room with hand weights and bench press racks, and a tile hallway between the two. It was a lot different."
But many in the Sports Medicine crew speak of those early days with fondness, not derision. What 3313 University Avenue lacked in aesthetic appeal it made up for with common purpose and personal affection.
"The biggest thing for me was how close the staff was," Clark says. "We were so tight, and I think that's one reason we were successful. (Sports Medicine director at the time) Brad Sherman was all about team, and we would have done anything for him and for each other. We were all in. it didn't matter how long the work week was. We were in this to make it work."
Milbrandt agrees, adding that the close relationships formed on University Avenue laid the groundwork for the successful collaboration still in evidence today, at Research Park.
"There are a lot of lasting friendships, with people who still work for UW and people who have moved on," she says. "It built a foundation for the different departments working well and easily together."
But the Sports Medicine program grew, and the University Avenue building soon proved inadequate.
"We had outgrown our space," Clark says. "We worked around retail shops. We slowly took over the computer store, the trophy store, the deli. There was no place else to go."
Built on a Strong Foundation
Actually, there was – 2.5 miles southwest, to a grassy plot in Madison's University Research Park. The brand-new, ultra-modern facility was designed to make seamless the Sports Medicine department's unique philosophy of caring for the whole athlete, no matter her age or ability.
"Exercise is medicine," Milbrandt says in succinctly espousing the Sports Medicine ideal. "It's a positive component toward maintaining orthopedic soundness and health, and our facility is a mix of people who are healthy and coming to exercise, and people coming for injury rehabilitation."
Thus the decision to position the Fitness Center, with its weight machines and stationary bikes and exercise equipment surrounded by a running track, as the building's most prominent feature.
"The Fitness Center is the hub," Clark says. "It's a unique blend of high-level athletes, those rehabbing following injury, and baby boomers trying to stay active. For example, you may see someone training for the Ironman, doing rehabilitation following knee surgery, recovering from bypass surgery or an overweight child enjoying movement for the first time. You don't see that in a lot of places. It all blends together - promoting activity, promoting fitness."
Like many of their Sports Medicine colleagues, Milbrandt's and Clark's careers have expanded in proportion to the dimensions of Research Park Clinic.
Milbrandt's early career focused on conditioning high-level athletes for peak performance. At Research Park, though, she spent more time in sports rehabilitation, which opened up a new line of professional inquiry.
"I developed a stronger interest in helping people with injuries that are going to change their lifestyles, and how people come back to activity after injury," she says.
A Model of Care
The Sports Medicine model of care was developed with just such patients in mind, making the transition from injury diagnosis to rehabilitation simple. Patients can move along the spectrum of care, from doctors to physical therapists to athletic trainers, without ever leaving the building.
"Our facility is unique because it's so easy for a trainer to communicate with a physical therapist or doctor," Milbrandt says. "All of the clinicians are right there."
The exercise science profession is highly dependent on technology, and Clark's work blossomed with the capacity Research Park afforded.
"We had more technology and better capabilities," he says. "Our equipment to measure cardiovascular fitness and body composition improved dramatically. The technology was really ramping up."
And just in time, because as Clark's work with the University of Wisconsin sports teams proved, athletes were getting strong enough to test even the most technologically-advanced equipment. Clark recalls bringing in former University of Wisconsin hockey star Gary Suter for a session to test his leg strength and power.
"We had what we thought was the best testing bike you could have. It went up to 500 watts, which is a huge load," Clark says.
Not for a young man who would go on to a 18-year career as a premiere defenseman in the National Hockey League and play on two U.S. Olympic teams. Suter began pedaling. And pedaling. And pedaling, each revolution more powerful than the previous.
"The test wasn't ending," Clark says with a laugh. "He just kept riding. I immediately started checking all the wires and connections on the bike. Everything was right. He was so strong he rode the bike to its maximum and just kept riding."
Years later Clark was in Minoqua, Wisconsin, at a go-cart track with his son, when he saw a young man who bore a striking resemblance to the hockey player Clark tested many years before. It was Gary Suter's son. Clark introduced himself and recounted the day when his state-of-the-art testing bike proved no match for the young man's father.
"His eyes lit up," Randy says. "He said, 'My dad never talks about that stuff. Thanks for telling me.'"
It's just one example of the personal connections that highlight Clark's and Milbrandt's time with UW Health Sports Medicine at Research Park.
"I still run into athletes who remember me," Clark says. "I coach youth hockey and baseball, and I'll run into people at matches and games who say, 'Hey, you're Randy Clark. You did my max V02 test 20 years ago.'"
As a Fitness Center class instructor, Milbrandt has helped long-time members establish exercise as a lifelong habit, and witnessed firsthand its long-term benefits.
"It's been cool seeing how they have aged because of their commitment to exercise," she says. "We always knew it was important for their health, but it's been really nice to see how well they've done, because of their commitment."
Date Published: 09/25/2015