In 1984 Marianna Varpalotai was trying out for the varsity soccer team at Queen’s University. A committed athlete throughout high school, the Phys-Ed major had developed a bum ankle: every year she sprained it, and every year it got worse and took longer to heal. The ankle gave out during those soccer tryouts and Varpolotai cried. It wasn’t from pain though – “I really wanted to make the team,” she says. The pain made her think that wasn’t possible.
The coach told her to go to athletic therapy. “Where’s that, what’s that?” Varpalotai asked. Turns out the school had an AT clinic in the basement of a non-descript campus building. Varpalotai followed coach’s orders and “Within a week, I was up and running.”
Within a few years, she was a Certified Athletic Therapist.
Varpalotai wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she finished her undergrad. “I was considering med school, but that took too long and life is too short,” she says. With a minor in health sciences, not to mention years as a soccer and hockey player, a job in the government promoting women in sports seemed likely. That bum ankle opened up another possibility though. “I thought, this is super cool, what they do in the basement of Queen’s University…”
A group of profs at Queen’s was researching AT programs in the US, and Varpalotai jumped at the chance to be a research assistant on the project. That’s how she discovered the AT master’s program at Indiana State University. When she graduated from that program, she didn’t need to decide what to do next. Opportunity found her.
Title 9, a now-45-year-old federal mandate, says that for American schools to qualify for federal funding, the school’s female and male student sports teams must be proportionate. The rule didn’t apply to Canadian schools, but the mindset was taking hold here too: women needed equal representation in sports. “Title 9 meant I had a job waiting for me after graduation,” says Varpalotai. “Brock University had been looking for a female AT for years.”
After two years working with the school’s varsity teams, Varpalotai moved to Trenton. She had a proposal for Loyalist College: “you need an AT clinic, let me start it.” The clinic served varsity students as well as people from the local community, and at first was open a few days a week. When Varpalotai left five years later, it was running full-time.
When her family moved to Niagara Falls in 1998, Varpalotai took a job at a private school in St. Catharine’s treating the young players. “These are tier-one athletes,” she says. “They’re trying to get scholarships, get recruited, play hockey professionally.”
Thirteen years later, with her own children grown, entrepreneurship called. Varpalotai opened a practice in Niagara Falls in 2011. “From 1991 to 2011, I was with competitive athletes, now it’s a more mixed clientele,” she says. “And you can learn a lot from seniors and sedentary people.” You can also teach them a lot.
“Seniors want to get back to golf and not have to take any meds,” she says. “I look at them like they’re athletes, I tell them ‘I’m preparing you for the Olympics!’”
Suggest that Varpalotai is a trailblazer in her industry and she’ll protest. “No,” she says, “people were cracking the field before me. I was just in the right place at the right time.”