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An Inspiring Journey - Karen VanEtten

February 24, 2022
Categories: Staff

Karen VanEtten

Director of Rehab, Oak Hammock at the University of Florida

Did you know that Oak Hammock has an Olympic medalist in its midst? From the Winter Games. That’s right! She is getting acclimated to her new role as Oak Hammock’s Director of Rehab is Karen VanEtten. And the path she took to arrive in Gainesville has been anything but direct.

Karen was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Connecticut, went to high school in Massachusetts, began college in Boston, and graduated in Rhode Island. She lived in Vancouver before going to physical therapy school in Ohio, and her family now lives outside Seattle. Karen earned an Olympic silver medal with the U.S. ice hockey team in the middle of all that suitcase packing.

As Floridians, ice hockey is a bit foreign. Although the two-time defending NHL champions residing two hours down the road in Tampa, the Sunshine State might be more of a natural fit for those hat-trick heroes.

Karen’s journey began in the Northeast, where the sport is more common. She spent countless hours watching her brother James Thatcher skate around the ice.

“I was the annoying little sister who wanted to do everything he did,” Karen shared. “I was used to going to the rink and running around while he played. One day, I asked my mom to play. She put me in “Learn to Skate” in figure skates.”

The Beginning of a Dream

Karen quickly adapted, and when she passed the first level of skating, she wanted to know where her stick was. Sally-Anne Thatcher signed her daughter up for ice hockey the following year, and Karen learned and played the game with boys until midway through high school, when she played only on girl’s teams.

“I was fortunate enough when we lived in Massachusetts that we were 45 minutes from one of the best all-girls hockey programs in the country,” Karen said. “So, I played for the boy’s team locally, and my parents were amazing and drove me to Assabet Valley to play with an all-girls team as well. I was lucky to live so close to that and have parents who thought it was important for me to be around other females and have female role models in the program. That was great.”

Karen’s College Experience

Karen attended Brown University as a pre-med major her freshman year and earned a 4.0 GPA. She also was a standout member of the ice hockey team, earning a spot on the 2002-03 All-ECAC Rookie Team. However, as an Ivy League school, Brown didn’t offer athletic scholarships. Because Thatcher’s financial situation changed, she was forced to transfer to Providence College. She received a full athletic scholarship and played hockey there for three years while graduating summa cum laude.

She also honed her athletic skills with the Friars. She was voted a Second Team All-American, a Hockey East All-Star, a New England Hockey Writers All-Star, and was the Providence College Athlete of the Year her senior season. Karen earned the Hockey East Sportsmanship Award all three years at Providence and produced all-academic honors.

Upon earning her degree, Karen had big plans and decisions.

“I thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon but decided it was too impersonal for me after doing a lot of shadowing,” Karen said. “I was also an athlete, so I had a lot of experience with injuries and found that for myself, it was always the physical therapist who I connected with and that helped me find myself again, both personally, professionally in hockey and all areas of my life.

“I also had my athletic dreams,” she continued. “I knew I could go back to school at any point but could only be an athlete for so long, so I pursued my athletic dreams first.”

Playing and Traveling the Globe

Karen spent the next eight years traveling with the U.S. National Team and semi-professional organizations.

After graduating, Karen moved to Vancouver to play with a semi-professional team. She also made the U.S. national team that fall of 2006. She continued to play with her pro team while traveling for team camps and playing in tournaments with the national team.

There are two major tournaments for women’s hockey a year: the Four Nations Cup held in the fall and either the World Championships or the Olympics in the spring. Karen’s first tournament with Team USA was in 2006 at the Four Nations Cup. She made the World Championships team that spring but unfortunately was injured and didn’t play.

Karen suited up for a world championship game in 2008 in China, and she helped Team USA win the gold medal. They successfully defended the title the following year in Finland.

Next up: the 2010 Olympic Games

Karen made the 2010 U.S. Olympic team and played in the Vancouver Games. She appeared in all five games and scored three goals with three assists. In the semifinal game, team USA blitzed Sweden, 9-1, to secure no worse than the silver medal.

The medal ceremony for ice hockey is a little different from other sports because it takes place on the ice immediately after the gold-medal game. Karen and Team USA stood on the podium and accepted their silver medals following a 2-0 loss to host Canada.

“We won silver when we won the semifinal game a few days earlier,” Karen explained. “But for us, all we had done was lost gold. Within minutes, we went from losing the gold medal to shaking hands with the other team and then lining up for our silver medal. That was a challenging moment, and it’s hard because you’ve dreamed about earning a gold medal in the Olympics your whole life, but you’re getting a silver. It’s like a surreal feeling.

Karen continued, “I promised myself that I wasn’t going to cry, and my brother caught a picture of me leaving the ice, and I’m holding it in. I held it in until I got to the locker room, but not everyone did.

“Some of those team sports where they have the medal ceremonies that way, the athletes take a lot of flak for that, but you have to remember that they had already won silver, so at that moment, it was just about losing the gold. If you had seen us an hour later, we were over the sting of that loss and celebrating our journey and that experience.

“I’m incredibly proud of the silver medal. It’s an interesting feeling.”

Post-Hockey Life

Karen’s ice hockey career eventually succumbed to injuries, and she hung up her skates and went to physical therapy school. She earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in sports medicine and rehabilitation and completed her Ph.D. when something happened.

“I discovered that I just loved the clinic. I loved being with patients and the whole clinical operation-side of things,” Karen explained.

She switched courses toward a master’s degree emphasizing research and started focusing more clinically and on leadership development. Karen received her board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and did a couple of different year-long courses and training sessions in management and leadership training.

In 2017, she received the “Mary McMillan Scholarship” Award from the American Physical Therapy Association, an honor given to individuals with “superior scholastic ability and measurable potential for future contributions to both the

physical therapy profession and the American Physical Therapy Association.” She also received the 2017 “Outstanding Student Award” from the Sports Section of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Hello, Sunshine State

In Ohio, Karen met her husband, a U.F. graduate who considered Gainesville his home. He was offered an excellent opportunity to return and work at the V.A. They couldn’t turn it down and moved in 2021. Karen found a slightly different option for herself.

“With my background in athletics, I naturally gravitated toward sports medicine,” Karen explained. “I started treating high school athletics and the middle-age active adult. However, I had a lot of older individuals on my caseload in Ohio because we covered both sports medicine and general orthopedics.

“I discovered after a few years that I liked that older adult. I learned as much from them because of what they could teach me. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with them, talking with them, hearing their perspectives on life. So, when we moved down here, I had an opportunity at Oak Hammock to take a different path. I took it, and I love it.”

Karen was initially hired as a physical therapist in September 2021. She talked about leadership opportunities and ways to grow professionally during the process. After a few months of getting acclimated and ensuring she was a good fit, Oak Hammock started to advance Karen into her current role as director in January 2022.

Oak Hammock and the 2022 Olympic Games

On Thursday, February 3, Karen was working in the rehab room at Oak Hammock, hoping she might catch a glimpse of Team USA’s opening preliminary game that started at 8:10 a.m. E.T. She was super busy and didn’t get the chance but had recorded it and couldn’t wait to watch it when she got home.

On February 4, she watched the Opening Ceremony, and memories started flowing.

“I worked with a player at Ohio State, Jincy Dunne, who is on the 2022 Olympic Team,” Karen said. “I’m following her on Facebook and seeing her pictures – it’s bringing all of those moments back to me. She posted a photo from the Opening Ceremonies, and I remember doing the same thing and having the same emotions. It gives you goosebumps.”

Karen’s “Olympic Moment”

Every Olympian has a special moment when they realize and understand that they have accomplished their athletic goal of becoming Olympians.

“Walking into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies was amazing,” Karen shared. “It was something I’ll never forget.

“The more poignant moment for me was stepping onto the ice for the first game,” Karen continued. “The Opening Ceremonies are super cool, but it’s so surreal. It isn’t until you hit the ice that you realize you’re playing in the Olympic Games. When you step onto the ice, you immediately step down, and I look up, and my family is in the stands. I caught their eye right as I took the frost coming out of the locker room for the first time. That moment was my Olympic moment.

“Everyone always asks me what the best part of playing in the Olympic games is,” Karen shared. “It was being able to share it with my friends and family.

“Even though I grew up outside of Boston, my family moved out near Seattle, pretty close to Vancouver. Because of that, I could have a lot of friends and family come to a game because it was more affordable. They flew out and stayed with my parents, and everyone drove up together. My mom said it felt like they were running a hostel – there were air mattresses everywhere. That was awesome for me.

“There were so many people who were involved with my journey from the time I was 5 when I got my first stick to the Olympics. It was cool to be able to share it with all of them.”

Another question everyone asks Karen is about her medal and where she keeps it.

“It’s in its little case in a lululemon bag in my closet,” Karen laughed. “The reason is that I like to take it out and share it with people. The coolest part is sharing it, so if there’s a kid’s team that wants me to come to talk about my experience, all bring all my medals and jerseys so they can try them on and pass them around. The ribbon is breaking a little bit at the seam on my medal, and there’s a little dent on it from sharing it, but that’s what makes it special.”

Karen’s life has seemingly taken different turns and twists at every stage – from transferring colleges to changing career visions, from going for gold to taking the silver, and from an elite athlete clientele to an aging adult population.

Every path has led her to something more unique than she initially planned.

Oak Hammock celebrates Karen’s journey and the experiences that have brought her to our doorstep.

Karen shared that she is “incredibly proud of the silver medal.”

And Oak Hammock couldn’t be prouder to have her as a member of its family.

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