Golden opportunity

  • Brooke Fisher<br>Enterprise editor
  • Friday, February 29, 2008 7:31am

SHORELINE — Lonnie Sellers is not an Olympic athlete.

But that didn’t keep him from being a vital part of the 2004 U.S. Olympic fencing team. When it came to treating sprained ankles and wrists, Sellers was solid gold.

Sellers, 48, is an athletic trainer with more than 20 years of experience in orthopedic-based physical therapy and sports medicine who works at Integrated Manual Therapy in Shoreline.

The Snohomish resident attended the Olympics as head athletic trainer for the men’s and women’s U.S. fencing teams, and also worked at the Olympic Village medical center, where he treated American athletes who either suffered injuries or needed preventative treatment.

“This was my first Olympics as medical staff or tourist, either one,” Sellers said. “I don’t know if I will work with the athletes again, but I will be keeping in touch with the medical staff.”

Sellers left Seattle for Athens on Aug. 8, several days before opening ceremonies. The fencing competition ran from Aug. 14-22, but Sellers remained in Athens until the day after the Aug. 30 closing ceremonies.

Sellers first became involved with the U.S. fencing team in 1998, through a friend who asked if he wanted to travel to Venezuela with the squad. Soon after, Sellers became the team’s athletic trainer, traveling to competitions every few months and eventually completing a 16-day internship at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

While there, his skills were evaluated with the objective of being assigned to work one of three events — the Pan American Games, World University Games or the Olympics. Sellers was chosen to be the athletic trainer for the fencing team at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

An obvious highlight of the Games for Sellers was when Mariel Zagunis, of Portland, Ore., won the gold medal in women’s fencing. It was the first gold awarded to the U.S. fencing team in 100 years.

“The overall highlight was just working with different athletes,” Sellers said. “There were times when I was going, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve seen this guy on TV.’”

The sports medicine staff took part in the opening ceremonies, and Sellers said it was amazing to march into a stadium with 75,000 people. As an active participant, Sellers wasn’t able to see all of the proceedings.

“In some ways I saw more of the Olympics than ever before, but I also saw less,” Sellers said.

The medical staff and athletes stayed at the Olympic Village, where a group of eight buildings were designated for use by each country’s athletes and staff. Most countries other than the U.S. dressed up their buildings, hanging flags and other decorations. The U.S. staff, Sellers said, were told to keep it low key, so as not to be targets for terrorism.

The training center was located in the basement of one of the U.S. buildings, with 31 dedicated channels to all the sports competitions. In the floors above, dorm-style rooms were home to the medical staff and athletes.

On a typical morning, Sellers woke up and was down in the training room by 7 a.m., often working until midnight. Some teams would have evening competitions that started at 9:30 p.m., and they often would not return until 2 a.m. If they needed treatment, the medical staff would wake up to treat them, then sleep a couple more hours before getting up again to open the training room.

To aid in communication, Sellers said athletes and medical staff carried cell phones at all times. Every night at a meeting the team leader would plan out the next day’s schedule, including what time breakfast was and when trainers and athletes would catch the buses.

The trainers worked each day, but toward the end of the competitions Sellers said they would coordinate among themselves to squeeze in some “sprint sightseeing.”

Another memorable moment, Sellers said, was after closing ceremonies. All the athletes came back to the dining hall to get something to eat. The room, the size of three football fields long and four football fields wide, was packed with thousands of athletes. They started playing Greek songs with mandolins, and people began dancing.

“All over the place people were dancing, singing, throwing paper plates in the air, saying, ‘Oompah,’” Sellers said.

Sellers has been employed as an athletic trainer since 1986. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from the University of Washington in 1983 and a master’s in exercise and sport science from the University of Oregon in 1986. He recently began working full-time at the Shoreline facility, after returning from the Olympics.

And although he was focused on fencing during the Games, Sellers admits he does not fence himself. It even took him two years before he could understand the sport. If athletes offer him lessons, he politely refuses.

“If I want someone to pound on me with a large weapon, I’ll go somewhere and mouth off,” Sellers joked.

This may well be Sellers’ last Olympics, as the staff told him they typically rotate trainers and bring new people into the next four-year process.

Sellers’ wife, Susan, said she was excited to hear that her husband would be working at the Olympics, especially since he had worked for four years toward that goal. She said family friends have been stopping by their home to hear his stories about what happened on the sidelines at the Olympics.

“He has been working for the last four years to get the notoriety and recognition to go,” she said. “His dream came true.”