Rockville Centre resident LaTonja Lee is the first Black female athletic trainer at Molloy College, but being a trailblazer isn’t enough for her. She said her goal is to help youth in underserved areas by teaching them what it’s like to be an athletic trainer and educating them about healthy living.
To that end, Lee visited a camp organized by USA Lacrosse last month at Lincoln Park in Hempstead, where she taught campers about what it’s like to be an athletic trainer. Campers there ranged from ages 5 to 15, and Lee said it was vital to impart knowledge to them.
“In underprivileged communities, they don’t have access to athletic trainers,” she said. “I’m always looking for projects to do for kids, and this one was great.”
Lee set up two tables at the camp with brochures featuring information about how to become an athletic trainer in New York and what an athletic trainer is. She also brought snacks to encourage participation by the children, whose parents also perused some of the information.
One major focus of those in her line of work, Lee said, is mental health and well-being for athletes of all ages, especially after the coronavirus pandemic. She added that trainers deal with athletes of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, and she likes to train people in diverse groups. Lee said she taught the children the various roles that athletic trainers play and their duties, including evaluating and taking part in rehabilitation, pre-habilitation, concussion and neurological evaluations, as well as an emphasis on emotional and mental health.
Becoming a trainer
Lee said she had aspired to play in the WNBA, but joked that, at 5 feet 8, she was unlikely to live out her dream of being a starting center. Instead, she set her sights on becoming an athletic trainer, and took courses at SUNY Albany. At that time, the New York Giants used the campus when they were in training camp, and Lee had the chance to meet Ronnie Barnes, the team’s head athletic trainer and the first African-American athletic trainer in NFL history. Lee said that Barnes gave her a great deal of advice on what she needed to do to become an athletic trainer, and she noted that he and her professor, Jack Koelmel, were instrumental in guiding her.
Lee received hands-on experience in Albany, and went on to study at Long Island University-Brooklyn, where she continued her education in sports medicine.
“I feel like I always wanted to do sports and medicine,” Lee said. “This was the perfect blend for me.”
After college, Lee began as a trainer at Wantagh High School in 2011 and then at SUNY Purchase in 2013 before joining Molloy in 2018. She became the first and only Black female athletic trainer at each of those stops, and said her goal is to use her platform to spread information about her profession, especially to underprivileged students.
Lee became the assistant athletic trainer at Molloy College, where she works with the women’s tennis, lacrosse and volleyball teams, as well as the men’s basketball squad. The position also affords her the opportunity to host clinics and visit camps to talk to younger people about becoming an athletic trainer in the future.
“I think we both benefit greatly from it,” she said. “Kids get to see representation through visibility by health-care providers, and we get to see kids and educate them on what our profession is about.”
During her visit to the latest camp, Lee was joined by Marsha Grant, a trailblazer in her own right, as she became the first certified African-American athletic trainer in the country on Aug. 3, 1975. Grant serves alongside Lee on the Ethnic Diversity Advisory Committee, which has 11 districts across the country. Lee represents New York, and Grant, New Jersey.
“She’s very passionate about what she does,” Grant said of Lee. “The lacrosse clinic was a great time, and I got to do something that I love to do, so it was a win-win.”
Grant, a Philadelphia native who now lives in New Jersey, said she was happy to assist Lee in educating youth because as a former lacrosse player, she loves the sport and she enjoys spending time with children.
As an athletic trainer, Grant has been involved in many sports, ranging from high school to college to professional, and from basketball to gymnastics to archery. In May, she worked in Switzerland as the athletic trainer for the country’s World Archery team. Additionally, she teaches athletic training courses at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and is an alumna of East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where she studied the ins and outs of becoming an athletic trainer.
Grant said she wasn’t aiming to become the first certified Black female athletic trainer in the country, and didn’t even realize she was until years later. Seeing her friend Lee go on to become the first Black athletic trainer at Molloy College gave her mixed emotions, Grant said.
“Although I’m very proud, it’s kind of sad to me that these types of firsts in my lifetime are still happening,” she said. “I had hoped that we would be past that by now, and it is what it is and we’re not, and I’m just wondering when is that going to happen? I’m sure that I won’t see it, but I was hoping, and I’m sure that my parents had hoped for me, but we’re still plugging away, I guess.”
Grant and Lee each said that under-represented youth deserve the same level of medical care that other students receive, and many of the lacrosse campers and their parents didn’t know what an athletic trainer was or have access to one.
Grant said that inequality also trickles down to underserved youth, which was the onus behind teaching those at the lacrosse clinic about athletic trainers and healthy living. “All kids deserve to have medical care that will keep them in the sport,” she said, “that will keep them healthy and help them develop the lifelong skills that they need.”
Lee said she hoped to continue to have an impact on communities going forward. “I want to continue to promote and increase diversity within the field and continue to mentor people,” she said, “and hopefully serve as a safe haven where people who want to become athletic trainers can talk to me anytime.”