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For most triathletes, when they experience some pain in their right calf on a run, they don’t typically rush to the physical therapist immediately. After all, they can adjust in a variety of ways—by altering their gait a bit, for example, or shifting the brunt of the impact to their left leg. But if that runner is a paratriathlete who wears a prosthetic leg on the left side, such adjustments aren’t always an option. This is especially true for those competing at the Paralympic Games, where athletes need their bodies to function at the highest level.
Enter Dr. Shefali Christopher, a physical therapist who travels with the U.S. Paratriathlon team to make sure every athlete is primed to perform. In Tokyo, Christopher is the medical point person for all 17 triathletes representing the United States— each with unique needs in their quest for a gold medal.
“In paratriathlon, there are different categories, or classifications based on ability,” Christopher said. “We have visually impaired athletes, athletes in the wheelchair-user categories, athletes using upper or lower body prosthetics to race, so there is a lot of variety with what I see.”
This requires Christopher to understand the unique biomechanics of each athlete. Running with a prosthetic leg is much different than running on two biological legs, which is altogether different from wheelchair racing or running while attached to another athlete, as those with visual impairments do. Every day—and even every hour—brings new challenges that require her to flex a different set of mental muscles.
“I need to understand their unique mechanics and work with them, but I also have to understand a variety of medical diagnoses,” Christopher said. “For example, when working with an athlete with a neurologic disability, it’s important to know how to treat that versus make it worse. If an athlete has spasticity, you have to place your hands differently on their body, or you may make the spasticity worse.”
Every day in Tokyo, Christopher meets with athletes from early morning through late evening to address any issues they’re encountering that day, whether it’s treating a lingering injury or dealing tight muscles from the 16-hour flight to Japan. Unlike most physical therapists, who provide their services in a formal office, Christopher is on deck 24/7 wherever the athletes are. During course familiarizations, she can be found on the sidelines, ready to assist with anything the team needs. On race day, she’s helping to make sure crutches and prosthetics are relocated from the swim start to the exit and getting race wheels to the transition area. After the race, her work continues as she leads mobility sessions to aid in recovery. Though physical therapy is her job, it’s also her passion, which makes her work with the U.S. Paratriathlon team all the more rewarding.
“We want to make sure all our athletes feel 100%,” Christopher said. “I’m inspired every day. They are the strongest athletes I’ve ever worked with.”