Nicole Zarucki has many roles to fill as an athletic trainer, but may be best known as a healer to the young men at De La Salle Collegiate.
Having a vast knowledge of sports has been pretty helpful to her, too, beginning when her dad would take her to Detroit Lions games when she was only 3 months old. “Sports is a big thing in my household,” she said and laughed.
She admitted she didn’t consider herself much of an athlete as a child, instead taking lessons in dance. It wasn’t long before she realized how her world could open up when she found out she could have a career in sports and medicine. Instantly, she knew that being an athletic trainer was the path for her.
“My high school teacher told me you have to love the profession you’re in,” she said. “If I had to go into this hating this job every day then it’s not the job for you. I love the kids and being here.”
March is also National Athletic Training Month; the role of athletic trainers was brought to light as they were the first responders when NFL football player Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field in January.
“Every day is different. Every day, you never know what to expect,” Zarucki said. “I knew I wanted to do something in medicine and then to be able to watch sports at the same time…”
Hockey is her favorite sport, she said, “but when I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher.” That all changed when she took a health occupation class as a sophomore at Utica High School, where she graduated as class valedictorian in 1997.
She went on to Central Michigan University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine in 2001. To this day, she said, the school remains one of the best in the nation to earn an athletic training degree (which now requires a master’s degree).
From there, she became the athletic trainer at East Detroit High School. In 2014, she began at De La Salle. “Here, I was exposed to different sports at a higher level and caliber,” she said.
She noted that long days are part of the job; some may consider working 60-70 hours a week as excessive, Zarucki said, but she doesn’t see it that way. It’s what she loves to do. “This way, I can be a part of everything,” she said. “I see kids when they have an injury, and I can see them grow and develop and get them back on the field. It’s what I want to do.
Typically, she said if an away game begins at 7 p.m., she’d normally return to DLS by 10:30 p.m. If someone is injured, however, she may not clock out until 1 a.m. Every game involves last-minute taping, meeting with the other team, finding out about medical coverage and clearance, speaking to officials, and knowing the game plan.
“I continue to learn and grow,” she said. And it helps to have so much support from so many at DLS. “The parents are awesome here. The level of parental support is beyond, and I’m very thankful.”
For any student interested in becoming an athletic trainer, she suggested focusing on science classes, such as anatomy or physiology. “Get that background of health and knowing the body,” she stressed, including becoming involved in the DLS Medical Club and networking.
Most students will get a feel for the job if they are willing to volunteer for the experience. “I would highly encourage them to just be there to watch and observe,” Zarucki said. “Get the experience of understanding the grind and long hours.”
Jacob Brillati, a senior who has played DLS hockey for the past four years, said he finds Zarucki to be very approachable and inspiring. During his junior year, she was there for him during his two concussions. This past season, he tore his MCL.
“She’s thorough. She was there to reassure me and her diagnosis of my knee was very accurate,” Brillati said. Having spent an adequate amount of time with Zarucki and observing what she does brought an added benefit for Brillati too, he noted.
“It has crossed my mind in a way of starting a career as an athletic trainer,” he said.
Zarucki said trust is a huge aspect of her job. “Kids trust you and come to you. I feel I have the trust of kids and parents. The connection with kids is special. They trust me to tell them stuff and not hide stuff from me. Sometimes it’s a whole mental aspect. DLS instills values in them; they don’t lie to me.”
Her job can be high-stress, she admitted, and sometimes it can mean having to make decisions in a split second. “People see me sitting on the side or watching the game but what they don’t see is what led up to that. Many times I’m catching my breath. Or I could be on the phone during a game updating a parent or scheduling an appointment with a doctor regarding an injury.”
“I enjoy my job and that makes it better for everyone,” she said. “I’m happy where I’m at. I know so many of the kids. I like to stay on top of it.”