Purdue HHS alumna aces athletic training, leadership for Women’s Tennis Association

Kathleen Stroia

Kathleen Stroia

Written by Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

When it comes to keeping athletes healthy on the tennis court, Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS) alumna Kathleen Stroia and her team serve up expert athletic training for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

As senior vice president of WTA’s Performance Health Department (inclusive of Sport Sciences & Medicine and WTA Labs), Stroia, a 1983 Department of Health and Kinesiology alumna, oversees the healthcare of the players at tournaments and other events.

She was in charge of assigning three athletic trainers in the last eight Summer Olympics, ensuring optimal physical playing health for the women’s tennis Olympic competition, including such Team USA tennis players as Jennifer Capriati, Gigi Fernández and Venus Williams. She got in the mix for the 2012 London Olympic Games herself, which saw the Williams sisters achieve gold in doubles and Serena Williams winning the singles’ top prize.

Stroia credited her career success to the foundational tutelage she received at Purdue from instructors who are considered pioneers of the field — William “Pinky” Newell and Dennis Miller.

“These individuals greatly impacted our field of work and advanced the profession of athletic training,” said Stroia, who lives in the St. Petersburg, Florida, area. “They invested their time teaching the student athletic trainers about our profession’s origin and direction.”

Stroia’s athletic training work goes beyond the tennis court, beyond Arthur Ashe Stadium, and even beyond the All England Lawn Tennis Club where the Wimbledon Championships are held every summer. In 2011, she was one of the founding members who established the Professional Association of Athlete Development Specialists (PAADS). The organization assists “athletes in maximizing their potential and overall well-being, on and off the playing surface,” according to the PAADS website.

While her career has been dedicated to tennis professionals hoisting trophies, Stroia will get to lift one of her own when she accepts a Purdue HHS Distinguished Alumni Award this spring.

In what sports did you work as an athletic trainer when you were a student here?

As a student athletic trainer at Purdue University, I was given the opportunity to work with all sports. The athletic training program at that time selected two to three students a year to enter the program. We all covered football and rotated each week with each of the other sports. This exposure allowed us to gain firsthand knowledge and sports medicine experience of each sport. Having this well-rounded background was excellent for our professional preparation as healthcare providers/athletic trainers.  

What tasks does a trainer for tennis players have?

As an athletic trainer/physical therapist in tennis, our responsibilities are vast. Prior to each tournament, we meet with the tournament director and tournament physician to review the tournament standards, which include the setup of treatment centers, review of medical services, fitness area requirements, food service review and emergency action plans.

Throughout the tournament, the training room is open an hour before play begins and remains open until an hour after play each day. Our duties include:  

  • Providing player care — match prep, treatment and recovery.  
  • Staying on call for any emergency court call needs.
  • Ensuring the venue and weather conditions are safe for play.
  • Being available to triage any medical need the athlete may have, working closely with the local tournament physician who is the link with local medical services.
  • Staying on call for medical needs off-site.
  • Conducting physical screenings.
  • Working together as a team with the player and coach, including strength and conditioning, biomechanics assessment, and equipment recommendations and fit.

What makes tennis healthcare unique?

The sport of tennis itself is unique, as it takes place on a worldwide stage — the WTA players and staff travel each week to tournaments around the world. The Hologic WTA Tour is comprised of 1,600 ranked players representing over 80 nations. We provide healthcare coverage at 70 events and four Grand Slams (Wimbledon, French Open, U.S. Open and Australian Open). These events take place in 30 countries across six continents. The international nature of tennis allows us to be exposed and introduced to the latest evidence-based sports medicine, healthcare practices and interventions.

How did you develop the leadership aspects to your career?

Going to Purdue, the No. 1 athletic training (program) in the nation, I was just surrounded by the best: Pinky Newell, being the father of athletic training, and Denny Miller — who both served as presidents of associations and were just outstanding leaders in every way. They were my mentors and taught me everything about my field. (They) really gave us experiences while we were learning athletic training and what we needed to know from true sports medicine but also responsibilities from that leadership side. As we came out of that program, we were taught these are our next steps. We were educated but taught we still had a lot to learn, that every day, what you learn today could be obsolete tomorrow. It was just, without realizing it at the time, a lot of incredible lessons that positioned and really provided us with the opportunity to become leaders.

Do you and your team treat a lot of tennis elbows?

It’s interesting because tennis elbow is actually on the outside (lateral aspect) of the elbow. Golfer’s elbow is on the inside (medical aspect) of the elbow. We actually, on the pro tour, see more injuries on the inside of the elbow. It’s a form of tendinopathy called medial epicondylitis, which is a pathology of the tendon where micro tears occur and cause pain and inflammation in the tendons connecting the forearm and elbow. At the pro level, it’s how they’re hitting the ball and following through, which is repetitive movement of the wrist and arm with overhead and forearm strokes that require grasp and rotation with great forces. At the recreational level, you may see tennis elbow more on the outside, and that has to do with the equipment fit and the technique. At the pro level, it has more to do with the power of the hit.

Has pickleball entered your world?

I was at a WTA player alumnae event in New York during the U.S. Open and, all they could talk about was their rankings in pickleball. It was hilarious. They’re still competitive, and they’re still thinking about rankings. It’s all about pickleball for them. What do retired pros do? They play pickleball and apparently, they’re pretty good (laughs).