Ethan Saliba Jim Daves

We’ve all seen it and winced. The sacked quarterback who can’t get up. The basketball forward whose knee buckles trying to keep the ball inbounds.

If the player is lucky enough to be a UVA athlete, the first person on the scene is often Ethan Saliba (Grad ’86, ’92). As head athletic trainer, Saliba is responsible for overseeing the physical well-being of Virginia’s 700 student athletes.

Saliba’s interest in sports medicine developed while playing high school football in Parsons, Kan., as he watched teammates try to bounce back from injuries. “You work so hard to get there,” he says, “and then something pulls the rug out from underneath you.”

With an undergraduate degree in physical therapy from the University of Kansas, Saliba joined UVA’s athletics staff in 1982. He went on to earn a doctoral degree in sports medicine at Virginia and now holds joint appointments in the Curry School of Education, the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “I forgot to leave,” he jokes.

During the past 25 years, Saliba says, rehabilitation techniques have become more specific and appropriate for the individual athlete. “We understand the healing process better,” he says, noting with admiration, “Surgeries have made such amazing gains that they’ve become relatively fundamental.”

Even with the expertise of his 20-person training staff and the “artistry of surgeries,” Saliba points out that the key to injury recovery remains the “heart” of the athlete. He recalls the time that future NBA player Bryant Stith sprained his ankle during the first half of Virginia’s 1990 Big East Challenge game against Pittsburgh. In the second half, Stith scored 20 points to lead Virginia to victory.

“Most people would have been done,” Saliba says. “He goes back out and does one of the most amazing jobs you’ve ever seen from an athlete, let alone an injured athlete.”

Named the Division I Athletic Trainer of the Year in 2007, Saliba never tires of watching the high-caliber performances by Virginia’s student athletes. But time management is a challenge. “There are just constant distractions and demands. The days go by so quickly it’s startling,” he says.

When he does take time off, Saliba enjoys boating and exploring the Virginia countryside. He says his days of hardcore physical activity are past. “Pain is overrated.”

Body Language

Saliba says the key to exercising well is listening to your body and responding to what it’s telling you—especially when it says, “Ouch!”

  • Back off, cross-train or change. “If you’re starting to notice joint pain, tenderness, weakness, restricted motion or swelling in the joints,” Saliba says, “this is something that’s not normal.” He suggests first easing off the activity. If the problem persists, try cross-training or changing your exercise. If the pain remains after two weeks, see a physician.
  • Ice, ice, baby. Saliba says old-fashioned ice is still the most recommended treatment for sports-related aches and pains.
  • Identify the source. According to Saliba, the most common mistake is diving back into the activity that caused the injury. He suggests analyzing the source. “What created it? The volume of the activity? The intensity?” Try to pinpoint whatever led to the problem, paying attention to flexibility, equipment and other potential factors.
  • Change is good. Saliba advises doing something to adapt to whatever caused the injury. “Make your short-term goal to adapt,” he says. “Think positively.”