It’s that time of year when engines rev and NASCAR season kicks into gear again.
Drivers, pit crews, officials and admins will travel down to Daytona this weekend to compete in the first of many races in the Sprint Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series.
Ken Breath will fly to Daytona, too. But not to race.
Breath is a 1998 athletic training graduate of High Point University. He’s now a physical therapist and the manager of outreach for OrthoCarolina Motorsports. It’s his job to help ensure all the drivers, crewmen and everyone else are physically ready year-round.
Based in Huntersville, North Carolina, Breath oversees partnerships between OrthoCarolina and many racing teams in the area, including Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and more. He supervises other physical therapists and athletic trainers who work with the drivers and crewmen, mentors them and helps them develop treatment plans when they have tough cases.
His time at HPU prepared him to excel in the hustle and bustle of it all. His success is also a testament to the university’s established athletic training program, as well as the proposed physical therapy doctorate in the works at HPU.
On race days, Breath and one of the certified physician assistants fly to the track early in the morning.
“We’re texting them from the moment our plane touches down,” Breath says. “Once we get to the track, we check in with the teams and head to the drivers’ motor coach lot. We knock on doors, check on drivers, ask them how things are going, see if they have any medical or orthopedic needs… They’ll say ‘my neck is jammed’ or ‘my back is sore.’ We also have to work around their schedule, because they might have TV interviews or appearances.”
Treating such a competitive group of athletes can be challenging at times, though; they want to get better immediately and push themselves as hard as possible. Breath uses their Type A personalities to his advantage as a therapist.
“We constantly have to come up with new challenges; whether it’s Kyle [Busch], Denny [Hamlin], Kasey [Kahne], or Smoke [Tony Stewart]… we’ll meet with them one day and tell them to work on a certain stretch or exercise. Then a couple days later, they’ve worked on it so it’s not a challenge anymore. And they’re like, ‘I’m ready, give me the next challenge.’ So then I have to think of another exercise. You have to be creative in your treatment and find new ways to challenge them.”
When driver Kyle Busch slammed into a concrete wall breaking his left foot and right leg last February at Daytona, many thought his racing career was over.
But OrthoCarolina was there by Busch’s side in the coming months. Breath and a team of physician assistants and surgeons worked with Busch to regain his strength. Busch missed 11 races while he was recovering, and his chances at winning the Cup became slimmer and slimmer with each passing week.
“I’ve worked with a lot of drivers from different teams. With Kyle, we worked to regain his balance, range of motion and strength,” Breath says. “Drivers are just like the rest of us; they just have a skill set that I don’t have. When it gets down to it, we treat them no differently than other patients and they respect us more for doing that.
“But the communication we have with Kyle and with other drivers is a different level than the average patient would do it. They give such detailed feedback. That’s what they’re accustomed to doing with their crew chiefs, so it makes treating them easier.”
Thanks to a rigorous recovery plan by Breath and his team, Busch reclaimed his seat behind the wheel a few months later. He went on to win the 2015 Sprint Cup Championship in one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history.
It’s a hectic lifestyle, but Breath says his HPU education taught him how to provide the best health care possible, whether they’re a NASCAR driver or an everyday patient.
The Congdon School of Health Sciences at HPU prepares graduates like Breath to excel in exercise science, athletic training and physician assistant studies, while a doctoral program in physical therapy is slated to begin in 2017. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these fields are expected to grow up to 34 percent by 2024 – far faster than average.
“The athletic training department at HPU was a phenomenal program,” says Breath. “It prepared us for the national boards, we got great experiences working with athletic teams and the facilities were top notch. Dan Tarara was one of my favorite professors; he brought a unique personality and humor to teaching. He challenged us and pushed us to be better.”
Breath also minored in K-12 health/physical education while at HPU. Although he was preparing for a career as a high school athletic trainer at the time, the lessons he learned through HPU’s School of Education have proven to be invaluable in his job as a PT.
“I learned so much in the education department from Dr. Dennis Carroll – lessons for everyday life, learning how to teach people with compassion, being a good listener, and learning how to individualize plans by understanding an individual’s learning style.
“Every day, I do that as a physical therapist. I have to convince patients to stay active, to eat well, that this certain process is going to better their health. I have to understand their learning style, have empathy, communicate effectively and practice listening skills. For me, that unique blend of physical therapy and education has been the difference that has helped me the most.”
Back at Breath’s clinic in Huntersville, an HPU flag proudly hangs on the waiting room wall. The flag opens up conversations, he says, and many of his patients ask about the university.
“While other schools are slowing down and cutting budgets, HPU is looking forward to the future. I’ve talked to a lot of students who attend HPU – they’re all so focused on the future. They’re asking ‘Where is it going, what are we doing next?’ versus other schools saying, ‘Here are the programs we’ve had for 20 years, you have to make it work.’ HPU is moving forward, being leaders. That’s the best thing about it.”